Gaza talks in Cairo: Cease-fire may be all that Israel and Hamas can agree on

Both Israel and Hamas prefer to discontinue the fighting, analysts say, but their long-term aims for Gaza appear irreconcilable, suggesting neither side will get what they want from the Cairo talks.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
A Palestinian helps an elderly man as they walk into a clinic in Gaza City, northern Gaza Strip, Wednesday. A cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that ended a month of fighting is holding for a second day, ahead of negotiations in Cairo on a long-term truce and a broader deal for the war-ravaged Gaza Strip.

As Israel and Hamas sit down at indirect negotiations in Egypt aimed at delivering a lasting cease-fire in the Gaza conflict, both sides are out to get an agreement that is different from past accords.

But both sides wanting a different outcome than in the past is where any similarity between their aims comes to an abrupt halt. That’s one reason why officials and regional experts say devising an arrangement that ends the month-long war in a lasting manner will be extremely difficult.

With both sides reluctant to return to fighting but with neither side ready to accept the other’s chief demands, the outcome is likely to be a minimal agreement that risks leaving in place the conditions that have led to three rounds of fighting in five years, some analysts say.    

“Right now I think these cease-fire talks should lead to a cessation of hostilities, but primarily because Israel and Hamas are not inclined to continue fighting,” says Eric Trager, an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood in regional politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The talks “aren’t going to get to what each really wants,” he adds, which for Israel is verifiable control of what enters Gaza, and for Hamas, an end of the seven-year-old blockade on Gaza.  

With the 72-hour cease-fire that began Tuesday morning about half over, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were in Cairo Wednesday evening as calm held in Gaza and Israel. Israeli officials said the country is prepared to extend the cease-fire, which is set to expire Friday.

Israel is determined to secure an agreement that is different from others reached in the past in that it rules out any possibility of Hamas and the associated organization Palestinian Islamic Jihad rearming themselves. Israel wants guarantees of tight controls on what enters the small strip of land inhabited by 1.8 million Palestinians.

But Hamas says any settlement must end Israel’s blockade – or what Hamas calls a “siege” – of the Gaza Strip. Israel and Egypt have enforced border closures since Hamas won elections and took control in Gaza in 2007, and provisions in past accords for easing the blockade were never fully implemented.

The polar-opposite nature of what each side wants out of the Cairo talks leaves many analysts dubious that something of a lasting nature can be achieved – no matter how damaging the recurring fighting has been to all sides.

“The alternative to a long-lasting cease-fire looks like some uncoordinated unilateralism by both Israel and Hamas – and that in the past has been a recipe for producing a high risk of escalation,” says Nathan Brown, a senior associate in Middle East studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “For that reason, I expect that most actors will try to reach such a cease-fire,” he adds, “but the question is whether the incentives are strong enough in what will inevitably be a very complicated diplomatic context.”

Hamas will resist disarming unless forced to do so – but the Israelis “will not invest the force necessary to accomplish that goal,” Dr. Brown says. On the other side of the coin, he adds, ending the blockade and opening up Gaza “is very unlikely to happen except perhaps in a very limited way.”

Dr. Brown’s downbeat prognosis as a result: “If there is a cease-fire, nobody will get much of what they want.”

What that means, says the Washington Institute’s Mr. Trager, is that Israel will come out of the talks without the substantial border-monitoring mechanism it wants, and Hamas is unlikely to get the opening up of Gaza’s seaport and airport, and extending fishing access of the coast of Gaza, that it seeks.

Some diplomats in the region have speculated that the United Nations might be tapped to play a deeper role in Gaza in a way that would allow for something other than a minimalist cease-fire agreement. The UN, already involved in Gaza in relief work, has suggested it is ready to play a more substantial role – despite the heavy losses it took at its Gaza facilities during the month-long fighting.

But on any potential UN role, the two sides are also divided: Israel would like to see international involvement in the monitoring of goods crossing into Gaza, while Hamas and the other Palestinian factions prefer to see the UN focusing its attention on the strip’s reconstruction, which is estimated to run into the billions of dollars.

Other parties to the Cairo talks, including the US, are pressing for an agreement that reinforces the place of moderate Palestinian forces in Gaza. One proposal in that vein calls for assigning the Palestinian Authority, dominated by the moderate Fatah party governing the West Bank, the task of monitoring any opened crossings into Gaza.

But others see problems in that approach as well. “Sure, the US would like to see the PA restored in Gaza, but the question is one of capability,” says Trager. “Nothing suggests they have the experience and expertise to undertake this kind of [border] monitoring.” 

Another question is how prepared Israel would be to entrust the PA with such a key role in Gaza – especially after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so adamantly opposed a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation plan earlier this year that called for the PA to assume new duties in Gaza.

“There will be voices in Israel who will see an empowered PA in Gaza as a way of minimizing the challenge of Hamas,” Brown says. “But the Israeli leadership seems still dominated by voices that do not trust the PA and look at ‘reconciliation’ as a Trojan horse for Hamas,” he adds.   

Secretary of State John Kerry is working with regional players with influence in Cairo to promote the empowerment of the PA through the provisions of a cease-fire deal, US officials say, and publicly the US is calling for a balanced accord – while also insisting on the disarmament of Hamas.

At the Security Council in New York Wednesday, the deputy permanent representative for the US, Rosemary DiCarlo, said the US wants to see an accord that resolves “the crisis in Gaza in a lasting and meaningful way” by “permanently” dismantling tunnels and ending rocket fire into Israel, while allowing Gaza to “receive the goods necessary to advance its economic development.”

Finally, she said, the International Community “must work in concert to strengthen the recognized Palestinian Authority.”

Unclear, however, is how much weight the US perspective carries for any of the parties.

The US is “hampered” by the reality that “it is not trusted by any of the parties” and “has little to offer [them]” Brown says.

Trager says he sees little indication that Hamas plans to heed the US call for it to disarm. Judging by what some Hamas officials have said since the cease-fire took hold Tuesday, he adds, “This, for Hamas, is not in any way the last war.”

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