The Israeli-Hamas Cease-Fire Negotiations: Real-Time Middle Eastern Politicking that American can Learn From



The political and diplomatic negotiations leading up to the announcement of each Israeli-Hamas cease-fire were among the most fascinating and revealing political exercises in recent memory.


However, to paraphrase a man much wiser than me, never in the course of human endeavour has so much nonsense, with so few insights, been said and published by so many.


Amazingly, but not surprisingly, virtually all the journalists who reported about the event and all the politicians and diplomats who talked openly or leaked their opinions, were totally incapable of recognizing the reality staring them in the face. Instead, they resolutely stuck to whatever opinions they had had about the Middle East that they had been using as filters and blinders long before the fighting even began.


Possibly the most instructive article written by a journalist that highlighted this phenomenon was by Mark Landler of the New York Times. It began:


WASHINGTON — When the State Department condemned Israel’s strike on a United Nations school in Gaza on Sunday, saying it was “appalled” by this “disgraceful” act, it gave full vent to what has been weeks of mounting American anger toward the Israeli government.

The blunt, unsparing language — among the toughest diplomats recall ever being aimed at Israel — lays bare a frustrating reality for the Obama administration: the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has largely dismissed diplomatic efforts by the United States to end the violence in Gaza, leaving American officials to seethe on the sidelines about what they regard as disrespectful treatment.

I have never been a great fan of Binyamin Netanyahu. But this time, he was absolutely correct to treat these same American officials “disrespectfully” because they were being even more oblivious both to the old realities of the Middle East, and to the new ones being revealed by the negotiations themselves, than is their usual wont. And after all their failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and virtually everywhere else in the Middle East, that is saying a lot.


For example, Secretary Kerry, days before the final cease-fire, insisted on declaring a cease-fire on his own, even though Israel had said that it would not leave Gaza without first destroying the tunnels it had found, and Hamas had declared that it would not cease fire until all the Israeli soldiers had left Gaza. Kerry had made his declaration because he chose not to listen to the two main protagonists. Instead, for reasons I have yet to fathom, he accepted the unfounded promises of the Turks and the Qataris that Hamas would accept a halt to the fighting, despite the promises of the Israelis.


With behavior like that, all the sides were right to push the US to the sidelines. Too much was at stake. The parties directly involved in the crisis simply could no longer afford to allow the US to engage in another round of useless limelight-grabbing and grandstanding.


Throughout that effort, the Americans had continuously and destructively blundered through the multiple, enormously-sophisticated sets of double, triple and quadruple games that all the serious parties to the negotiations had constructed in order to make the cease-fire talks work.


The Americans’ anger at Israel may very well have been the product of the fact that Washington had difficulty in admitting and then accepting that it was totally out of its depth—and so it lashed out at the easiest target available. More to the point, American officials may have resented that long before Kerry arrived to try his hand at crisis management, the Israelis had accepted the idea that that Egypt should be the prime mediator and thus the star of the show; and Israel had refused to budge from that position.


One must always keep in mind that, while Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu may be horrible at best, that is still nothing compared to the huge grudge match in which Obama and Egyptian President el-Sisi are engaged. el-Sisi has never forgiven Obama for having ordered Hosni Mubarak to leave office, for having supported the Moslem Brotherhood in the belief that it was a moderate Islamic political organization, and for having postponed the delivery of helicopters and night vision equipment when the Egyptian military retook power. Egypt badly needs both the Apache helicopters and the night vision equipment in order to fight the al Qaeda affiliates that are doing battle with the Egyptian army in the Sinai.


One reason for the US blundering may be that, in order to sell its intervention in the Middle East to its domestic audience, any American administration must first define who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Then it must show why it is in America’s national interest to side with the good guys. And, finally, it needs to formulate a simple slogan that it can use to promote its policies in the media. Catch phrases such as “pro or anti-Israeli,” “the Axis of Evil,” “leading from behind,” and “the Shiite Crescent” are classic examples of that kind of simplistic crowd manipulation.


The thing is that the Middle East, as the US should have learned after its experiences with countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, has never leant itself to such simplification. Among other things, there are constant marriages and divorces of convenience between tribes, ethnic groups and states; and hedging bets by nestling up to both sides in a conflict is a well-refined art.


Both these phenomena are visible at present at the Cairo. Put in the most simplistic terms, there are two basic camps represented at those negotiations…well…errr… sort of: those who support Hamas and those who oppose it.


Anything and everything I have to say that goes beyond that minimalist statement gets messy. For example, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was actually playing the role of a hedger. I’ll come to that in a moment.


So, if you, the reader, nonetheless, want to “keep things simple stupid,” you should stop reading now, because what I am about to do at this point is to try to lay out, in as easy and as intelligible and as schematic a form as I can, the extraordinary matrix of policies and interests each side is bringing to the cease-fire talks in Cairo.


If you do choose to read on, please excuse me in advance if you get lost along the way.


Here goes.


For all of the last half of the 20th century and for most of the still-young 21st century, there were two hegemons in the Arab Middle East—Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The two lived happily together in a condominium relationship of convenience. Egypt was the political hegemon, and Saudi Arabia the financial hegemon. However, in the latter years of Hosni Mubarak’s reign in Egypt, that country’s elite could no longer cope with Egypt’s growing domestic economic disorder. For that reason, even before the popular rioting that came to be called “The Arab Spring,” began, wannabe successors to Egypt as Middle Eastern hegemons, especially non-Arab Turkey and Iran, began to try to encroach on the Egyptian government’s increasingly vulnerable turf.


Iran did so by steadily strengthening its ties with Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Alawite regime in Syria. Extensive contacts were also established with Hamas’s primary expatriate headquarters in Damascus, which was responsible for the group’s international relations, donor funding and arms purchases. To top things off, Iran established its own terrorist group in Gaza called “Islamic Jihad.” These jihadis were financed directly by Teheran, and were trained in Iran by the Revolutionary Guards and by Iranian proxies at Iranian-sponsored installations in Lebanon, Syria and Malaysia.


Three events that took place in the latter half of the first decade of the 21st century enabled Iran to make quick inroads into Egypt’s turf. In 2007, Hamas staged a bloody coup in Gaza and, at about the same time, al Qaeda and radical Egyptian and Saudi Islamists began converting young Sinai Bedouin to their bloody creed. The Bedouin radicals, who wanted to launch a rebellion against the Nile Valley-focussed Egyptian leadership, had become newly wealthy by shepherding through the desert a growing wave of African migrants seeking work in Israel. This income enabled the newly-converted radicals to buy arms that had previously been beyond their financial reach.


Iran, always on the lookout to make money from arms sales and to weaken Egypt, and wanting to assure the flow of arms and cash to Islamic Jihad, soon made contact with the Bedouin. Never mind that Iranian Shiites and Sunni radicals were mortal enemies, a marriage of convenience was formed.


Until its coup, Hamas had been able to fund its activities largely through donations from Islamic charities based in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, especially Kuwait. However, the costs of ruling Gaza raised Hamas’s expenses dramatically. Although 57 percent of the Palestinian Authority’s budget continued to flow into Gaza, that was simply not enough for Hamas to fulfill its ambitions of making war against Israel.


By taxing goods brought through the tunnels            dug into the Sinai, it was able to increase its budget by an estimated 25 percent; and the import of subsidized or cheaper goods from Egypt, such as fuel, lowered costs. However, as the war preparations progressed, even that was not enough to balance its budget.


There are an estimated 57 terrorist groups in Gaza, some made up of no more than a few members of the same family. Essentially, by forming a “resistance” group, any clan can acquire a license to purchase and hold arms…which are essential tools needed when inter-clan rivalries get out of hand.


However, of all the non-Hamas “resistance” groups, one, Islamic Jihad, stood out because of the largesse it was receiving from its Iranian sponsors. It was only natural therefore that Hamas would want access to these same resources. And so it struck a deal with the mullahs in Teheran that, in return for money, arms and training, it would allow Islamic Jihad almost total freedom of action. Yet another Sunni-Shiite marriage of convenience had been consummated.


Hamas reached the zenith of its power in the wake of the “Arab Spring” riots. Among other things, it helped organize and mount the biggest prison break in Egyptian history. Hundreds of the most dangerous prisoners, including dozens of Moslem Brotherhood and Hamas leaders were released.


After the Moslem Brotherhood was elected and Muammar Kaddafi was overthrown, the new Egyptian government turned a blind eye to the caravans of arms shipments making their way across the Sinai from Iran and from looted warehouses in Libya.


When the steady flow of arms deliveries became a flood, the marriage of convenience between the urban Hamasniks and the radical Sinai Bedouin was reaffirmed and strengthened. Each was able to provide the other with needed services. In return for training by Hamas in Gaza, the Bedouins allowed Hamas to establish weapons-making workshops and warehouses to store the largest rockets being imported in the caves in the central Sinai mountains. Those caves enabled Hamas to keep its biggest and heaviest weaponry out of sight of Israeli intelligence, and safe from Israeli bombers.


At that point, and especially after it became clear that Egypt’s stature under Brotherhood rule was weakening, two other wannabe power brokers and political hedgers, Turkey and Qatar, began to raise their profiles in Gaza.


Both countries had long been strong supporters of the Moslem Brotherhood and both had also been active in helping Iran break the corset of US-negotiated sanctions that had been imposed on Teheran because of its nuclear research and production efforts. However, to hedge their bets, both were also acting as hosts for huge American military bases, and maintained permanent, active, open lines of communication with Washington.


So, at the very moment that Washington and the Western media were awash with reports about Sunni-Shiite competition and warfare, in actual fact, a powerful, anti-Western Sunni-Shiite alliance had already been constructed, and was thriving.


It was only natural, therefore, that an opposing alliance, made up of those countries that would be most affected by the new partnership, would be formed as a response. Jordan, Israel, the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia had long nurtured secret contacts with each other. For years, Israelis had joked that Meir Dagan’s appointment as head of the Mossad had actually been just a cover for his real, secret, role as ambassador to Riyadh.


The outbreak of civil war in Syria, between yet another Iranian-assisted, condominium of Alawite Shiite supporters and Sunni Moslem merchants who had benefitted from Alawite rule, and Sunni radicals sponsored by Turkey and Iraq, enabled the new, anti-Brotherhood coalition to finally construct an ongoing forum for regular meetings.


Before I go on, it is important to emphasize, again, at this point, a widespread Middle Eastern political, diplomatic and military phenomenon that is given insufficient attention in the West. Hedging bets is a common Middle Eastern practice. That explains why Turkey and Qatar while being active members of formal and informal alliances with the West, could also maintain intense economic and political relationships with Iran, and support Iran’s proxies in Gaza.


But now back to the opposition alliance-in-the-making.


Once the Syrian civil war began in earnest, the West decided to support a third group of moderate Syrians opposed to both the al Qaeda-linked forces and the Iranian-allied Syrian government. The need to support such a third force took on additional urgency when the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra forces and its allies captured about 80 percent of the Syrian Golan Heights abutting Israel and Jordan. A joint command centre, made up of intelligence officials from Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the US, Britain and France, was set up to coordinate the defence of the area. It was only natural that anti-al Qaeda countries in the Gulf, and Egypt after the overthrow of the Moslem Brotherhood, would also want to share in the intelligence information being produced. The other members of the new alliance were more than happy to welcome both, first as adjuncts, and later as active members of the unwritten partnership. Those ties were made all the stronger because all the Middle Eastern members of the coalition were also united in their hatred of the Moslem Brotherhood.


Another binder was the fact that, after the new military government in Egypt began cracking down on the radical Bedouins in the Sinai, its military relationship with Israel strengthened to previously unheard of levels. Among other things, Israel gave its assent to Egypt bringing more troops into the Sinai than was permitted under the two countries’ peace agreement. As well, because Israel had just finished building an ultra-sophisticated fence along its border with Egypt, replete with all sorts of the most modern electronic gadgetry, it was now in a position to provide Egypt with intelligence material that would otherwise have been unavailable to the Egyptian military.


In return, Egypt not only sealed off the land crossing from the Sinai into Gaza, which Hamas and Islamic Jihad had used to bring in cash and weaponry, and not only did it seal off the tunnels dug between Gaza and the Sinai, it set about destroying the workshop and rocket storage warehouses that Hamas and Islamic Jihad had built in the Sinai mountains in conjunction with the radical Bedouin. The destruction of these facilities would soon play a major role in Israel’s ability to defend itself when Hamas and Islamic Jihad began rocketing Israel.


The growing Israeli-Egyptian entente, combined with the newly-developed formal/informal arrangement among the anti-Brotherhood Middle Eastern countries, left the US in a pickle. The Obama administration had convinced itself that the Brotherhood could be a moderating, democratic Islamic force for good. Guided by that belief, it had called for Mubarak’s resignation, had supported the election of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, and had opposed the return to power of the military there.


America’s open disapproval of Egyptian President el-Sisi, and the process that had brought him to office, actually worked to el-Sisi’s benefit. He no longer felt encumbered by the need to satisfy any American demands.


Immediately upon taking office, he had set himself two big goals—repairing the Egyptian economy and restoring Egypt’s position as the rightful political hegemon in the Arab world. To that end, he took coherent, principled stands to promote both objectives—and stuck to them. For example, despite public anger, he reduced wasteful subsidies on fuel. And after declaring that a cease-fire must precede any talks on the future of Gaza, like any other monarch who believes he is indispensable, he then sat back and waited for others to come to him. They all ended up doing so.


The US and the Europeans, as has always been their wont, were impatient with this sort of behavior. They made it plain to both the Egyptians and the Israelis that they just wanted to see an end to the nightly news pictures of dead children in Gaza because their constituents found those images intolerable.


The Israelis, by contrast, had come to both appreciate and respect el-Sisi’s political skills, and were content to allow el-Sisi to lead. This willingness then led to the tensions and what the Americans believed was the Israelis “disrespect” for Washington’s position and mediating efforts.


What the Americans failed to take into consideration was not only that Israel was content to let Egypt lead the negotiating effort, the techniques el-Sisi was using melded almost perfectly with Binyamin Netanyahu’s political world view. Since he became prime minister for the second time, in 2009, Netanyahu has tried to initiate as little as possible in order not to alienate his radical neo-nationalist allies both within the Likud and among his coalition partners.


He had been thoroughly traumatized when, during his first term in office in the late1990s, after signing the Wye agreements because he felt he had no choice, his neo-nationalist allies turned on him and drove him from office.


The Hamas offensive had also caught him off guard. He had been warned about the build-up of rocket supplies in Gaza and the Hamas effort to build tunnels. However, he had become fixated by the Iranian nuclear threat and had accepted the IDF’s assessment that the threat from Gaza should take fourth place in Israel’s list of strategic concerns, after Iran, the rise of Islamic radicalism in Syria and Iraq, and Hizbollah¸ in that order.


Having never thought all that much about the threat from Gaza, Netanyahu had never decided upon a policy or a set of objectives that could be used if a crisis developed.


For that reason, he allowed Hamas to determine the pace and extent of the fighting. Even after the fighting began, he refused to set a concrete political objective that could help the IDF in its planning. Initially, his only military objective was to answer “fire with fire” and promise “quiet for quiet.” As a result, the initial rocketing of Israel was answered only with orders to the air force to bomb easily-accessible targets that would cause as little corollary damage (i.e. civilian deaths) as possible. Netanyahu also accepted every cease-fire proposal that was offered.


The ground war was ordered only after Hamas began using the tunnels it had dug for hit and run raids.


Even when the army had virtually completed destroying the Hamas tunnels that it had discovered, Netanyahu could enunciate only one feeble objective—that Gaza eventually be demilitarized.


By contrast, as I have noted, el-Sisi was clear in enunciating his political goals; and resolute in the tactics he chose to adopt to reach those objectives.


One of el-Sisi’s initial tactical aims in support of those objectives was the elimination of any and all competitors to his control over how the cease-fire negotiations would eventually be conducted. Fortunately for him, the US, Turkey and Qatar did much of the work for him when they launched their abortive, independent attempt to get Hamas to agree to a cease-fire. Once Hamas had rejected what these three countries were convinced was a done deal, they were discredited, and there was no longer a place for them at the negotiating table.


el-Sisi was particularly happy to see the policies of these three countries self-destruct. He appears to love nurturing a grudge against all three for having supported the Moslem Brotherhood. On a very practical level, he could not afford not to drive Qatar and Turkey away from the negotiating table because they were and remain congenital hedgers who could not and cannot be trusted.


el-Sisi’s next move was to craft the makeup of the Palestinian delegation to his liking. He refused to talk directly to any Hamas representative, and, in all his public remarks, never even used the word “Hamas.”


However, he eventually had no choice but to accept a delegation with only a fig-leaf, loyal PLO trooper, Azam el-Ahmed, as the head of the Palestinian team. The delegation is otherwise made up almost entirely of Hamas stalwarts or Hamas supporters. el-Ahmed now acts as the formal go-between between Hamas and Egypt and Hamas and Israel, but he has no influence on the delegation’s decisions. That is because, in part, el-Ahmed’s boss, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had become extremely sensitive to the fact that Hamas’s “resistance” to Israel had been winning over the hearts, if not the minds of Palestinians in the West Bank.


When the fighting first broke out, Abbas had done what Israel had always demanded of Palestinian leaders. He had condemned Hamas’s terrorist violence in Arabic, and before a meeting of the Arab league. However, to many West Bank youngsters, he had then appeared to be an Israeli lackey. As the violence progressed, and as street violence by youngsters in the West Bank and Jerusalem grew, Abbas felt obliged to adopt two defensive tactics. He ordered his police to use a heavy hand on demonstrators in the areas under his control. However, he also decided to adopt all of Hamas’s political demands as his own. Not only that, he led the request to the UN’s Human Rights Council to set up a committee to investigate Israeli war crimes. To top things off, his aides began leaking stories to the press that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would soon sign the Rome Treaty, which would enable the PA to bring charges that Israel had committed war crimes before the International Criminal Court in the Hague.


All these latter acts alienated the Israelis—something el-Sisi could not afford.


When the negotiations are over, he needs Abbas to be into a position where the Palestinian leader, with Israeli approval and active support, will be capable of playing a significant role in the post-fighting order. To that end, he has been trying to rehabilitate Mahmoud Abbas’s public image and especially his political clout. Among other things, el-Sisi is now in the process of trying to replace Hamas officials with PA supporters in those government positions in Gaza whose mandate will be determined by the negotiations.


In order to rehabilitate Abbas, el-Sisi also had to ensure that the Israelis would remain passive observers while the process effort was underway. That task was less easy than it initially appears.


In effect, by agreeing to hold talks with the joint Palestinian delegation, Egypt had already come out in open support of the PLO/Hamas government of reconciliation that Abbas had cobbled together following the breakdown in the peace talks with Israel.


Netanyahu had strongly condemned the Palestinian reconciliation government when it was first formed, and had made his refusal to have anything new to do with the new Palestinians government a central policy.


Parenthetically, it is important to note that Hamas is not a member of the PLO. And as the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Zvi Mazel, has pointed out, while ending the Israeli occupation and “freeing Palestine” has always been a fundamental Hamas creed, like all the other fundamentalist Islamic groups, it has never called for the establishment of a Palestinian nation-state.


As part of el-Sisi’s rehabilitation efforts, he has now insisted that, henceforth, the Gaza side of the crossings from Egypt and Israel be manned by Abbas’s own Presidential Guard. That demand is essentially meaningless because Israel and Egypt totally control the entry of any goods arriving in Gaza from their territory. However, it has tremendous symbolic value because, if the demand is finally accepted by all the parties to the talks, it will give Abbas’s security forces their first foothold in Gaza since they were summarily and brutally kicked out of Gaza in the wake of the coup there.


Ironically, all of el-Sisi’s activities may explain why the PA has been relatively silent throughout the cease-fire negotiations. Abbas appears to be letting everyone else do the most difficult work or him. Among other things that seeming-passivity enables him to avoid answering difficult questions such as whether the PA personnel are capable of performing this or that task.


Once he had consolidated Egypt’s’s position as the primary mediator, allowed himself to veto other wannabe participants, and begun the process of rehabilitating Abbas, el-Sisi set about determining what the negotiating procedures would be and what the agenda for the talks would be.


Hamas had gone to war because it was in desperate straits. It was bankrupt, but could find no way to bring money into the strip. Palestinian banks, fearful of being sanctioned for engaging in business with a declared terrorist organization, were no longer willing to transfer money to the Strip. And after Egypt closed the Rafah crossing into Gaza, Hamas’s couriers could no longer deliver arms or suitcases of cash either.


In addition, except for its friends in Turkey and Qatar, Hamas had become diplomatically isolated. Even its relationship with Iran had been terminated because, at the insistence of the Moslem Brotherhood while it was still in power, Hamas had closed its office in Damascus, and had halted contacts with the Alawite government in Syria. The Brothehood had demanded that Hamas support the Sunni rebels, many of whom were Moslem Brotherhood members.


Once the Brotherhood was overthrown in Egypt, Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, who is based in Qatar, made a major effort to re-establish the Iranian connection. And once Hamas had agreed to negotiate a cease-fire in Cairo, Meshal ensured that a strong Iranian supporter, Hamas’s former ambassador to Teheran, Imad el-Alami, was included in the Palestinian delegation to the talks. However, the impact Iran may be having on the delegation is still unclear.


el-Sisi hates the Iranians as much as the Israelis do, but, after Abbas had agreed to the make-up of the Palestinian delegation, el-Sisi had little choice but to accept the presence of an Iranian proxy at the negotiating table.


To date, el-Sisi has been managing the negotiations using a style and technique that is the polar opposite of the one usually employed by US envoys. The Americans usually try to be as inclusive as possible. That is, they try to involve as many parties as possible in the hope that if one of the main negotiating parties demands some quid pro quo for a concession, and the other party refuses to provide one, a third party may be able to step into the breach and offer something of value to the first party as compensation instead.


el-Sisi’s technique so far, though, has been to divide up Hamas’s list of demands into discrete issues. The resolution of each of these issues has then been apportioned out in such a way that they are discussed in separate, strictly bilateral talks.


For example, el-Sisi declared that, while the decision on whether to reopen the gates on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing was exclusively an Egyptian one, he would permit Hamas to raise the issue in separate, bilateral talks with Egypt.


The same approach applies to the issue of money flows into Gaza. el-Sisi insists that this is an internal Palestinian problem that should be resolved in negotiations between the PA and Hamas.


The Israelis could have kissed el-Sisi for all he has done for them. Unlike the Americans, el-Sisi has managed to create an environment in which Hamas, for the first time ever, has had to face off indirectly with Israel, without any big-time patrons or backers who have the power to influence Israel sitting in its corner.


El-Sisi’s demand that each issue be placed into a discrete negotiating box and that the box only be opened during head-on bilateral negotiations has made both Hamas and Israel distinctly uncomfortable. A measure of their discomfiture has been the dramatic increase in the attempts by both sides to use gamesmanship as a means of boosting their ability to rut.


For example, even though it is the PA that has always been and will continue to be the sole party capable of controlling the legal flow of money into Gaza, Israel announced with a great flourish that, as a gesture of compromise on its part, it has now agreed to allow donor money to enter Gaza.


In its statements to the press, Israel has now also demanded that Gaza be completely demilitarized over time, as called for in the Oslo accords. However, the hollowness of the demand is evidenced by the fact that Jerusalem has yet to explain who would be willing to take on the job of entering the tunnels and confronting the guards posted at the doors of the underground command centres.


In another sterile grand gesture, Israeli officials are demanding that, even if total disarmament is unfeasible at this time, as a minimum, Hamas has to be prevented from re-arming and restocking its arms depots.


This, however, is a moot point. Israel certainly has no intention of allowing the entry of arms into Gaza through its border crossing points, and it is now fairly assured that Egypt will, in the foreseeable future, continue to prevent the smuggling of arms from its territory into Gaza. (By the day the cease-fire talks began, Egypt, by its count, had found and destroyed 1,649 tunnels leading from Gaza into the Sinai).


These examples of Israeli posturing are relatively harmless because they are geared primarily at reassuring domestic Israeli audiences that the government is looking out for their interests.


A much more difficult problem that el-Sisi faces is that Hamas actually believes that it has won the war with Israel. Therefore, it has concluded, it is deserving of the spoils of victory.


The Israelis may view Hamas’s statements to this effect as gamesmanship, but Hamas’s beliefs are having a direct impact on its negotiating posture and the demands it is making.


So, while the Israelis point to the massive destruction of buildings in Gaza as proof that Hamas has lost, Hamas perceives that this destruction is merely an insignificant side effect of what it is convinced is a truly great victory. As proof, it notes that the Hamas leadership, its political and military command centres, and its hard core of fighters have remained intact and untouched despite the Israeli air and ground assault.


Ironically for Netanyahu, Hamas supports its claims by pointing to the raft of statements that have come out of Israel’s extreme neo-nationalist camp that basically agrees with them.


Hamas also believes that it has many other factors working for it. For example, even before the Israeli ground attack began, Israeli officials declared that Israel had no interest in overthrowing Hamas because the result might have been the “Somaliazation” of the Gaza Strip and the possible arrival there of al Qaeda or ISIS. Another perceived strength is the outcome of Hamas’s carefully-managed PR campaign. While the heaviest fighting was going on, the foreign camera crews in Gaza were prevented from photographing either Hamas fighters or rockets taking off from civilian areas. All the cameramen were then left to record were the scenes of wailing women, dead bodies, funerals and destroyed buildings. This had then led to a huge popular backlash against Israel that had, in turn, led foreign governments to begin putting pressure on Israel to compromise. And finally Hamas also says that it believes that the Israeli public is less willing to tolerate a war of attrition than Gazans who have nothing more to lose.


el-Sisi appears to be totally unfazed by the Israeli’s demands and theatrical gestures, just as he is unconcerned about Hamas’s even more ludicrous belief that it can dictate preconditions for beginning talks. That is because, unlike the Americans, he is completely comfortable using Middle Easterners’ sense of time to his advantage. Because he has no costs to take into consideration such as Egyptian soldiers’ deaths or the economic consequences of a failure to come to a quick cease-fire agreement, he has been content to wait and let the Israelis and Hamas exhaust themselves. That may explain why, despite the current crisis, he chose to make state visits to Saudi Arabia and Russia.


A sign that the exhaustion he is seeking is setting in will come when the two sides begin discussing issues that have a real likelihood of being resolved. For example, one such issue is Israeli permission for so-called “dual-use” materials such as cement and reinforcing steel to enter the Strip. These sorts of materials are essential for rebuilding homes and business. However, they can also be used for military purposes such as bunker and tunnel construction.


At this moment of writing, both the Israelis and Hamas are still playing hard to get.


Crucial to el Sisi’s success will be his ability to marshal the aid of other members of his alliance to prevent a possible stalemate from deteriorating into another round of heavy, purposeless fighting.


From all he has done and said to date, it would appear that one of el-Sisi’s strategic objectives is to entice Israel into believing that, if it can come to a deal with Hamas that is acceptable to both Egypt and Abbas, and as a result of the enormous changes taking place throughout the Middle east, it will then be in a position to negotiate formal and informal agreements based on mutual interests with the other members of the anti-Iran/anti-Hamas alliance.


One example of the benefits that can accrue has already been demonstrated by Jordan.


Jordan is the Arab’s representative on the UN Security Council. The radical Arab states had been calling for yet another Security Council resolution condemning Israel. Normally, the drafting of such a condemnation would have been a matter of course—as would have been the equally inevitable US veto. This time, though, the Jordanians informed the Egyptians and the Saudis that, surprise, surprise, despite all their efforts, they had found it difficult to get a sufficient number of countries to support such a measure. Of course, it would not say publicly that most of its efforts we actually directed at preventing such an action.


But herein lies the rub.


All of el-Sisi’s efforts are presenting Netanyahu with a challenge that goes far beyond the details of a deal with Hamas on a cease-fire on the Israeli-Gaza border. The implementation of almost every detail in the final deal will depend on how strong and intimate Israel’s future relationship with the PA becomes. In other words, the fulfillment of all of Netanyahu’s wet dreams will depend on whether Israel’s political talks with Mahmoud Abbas are renewed. Netanyahu does have the support of more than half the Israeli public for such a move. A Haaretz newspaper poll indicated that 53 percent of Israelis supported the idea that Israel should help strengthen Mahmoud Abbas.


Netanyahu’s problem is that the 37 percent who strongly oppose such a move come from the political camp made up of the extreme neo-nationalists in the Likud and those coalition partners who are currently keeping his government intact.


Netanyahu, though, may very soon be forced to decide whether Israel simply cannot afford to give up the comprehensive political feast el-Sisi is offering. That is because Netanyahu’s greatest fear at this point is that, after a final cease-fire agreement is signed, a weak PA may end up acting as merely a protective political envelope that will enable Hamas, and especially its military wing, to continue doing as its pleases.


Despite his recent record of dithering, Netanyahu may very well have to make such a decision by the time the Knesset reconvenes from its summer recess after Succot is over, towards the end of October.


If recent past history is any guide, el-Sisi will be content to wait until then.

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