Is there a state that can broker a Gaza cease-fire?

Analysis: The Israeli incursion into Gaza reveals a conflicting web of unrealized and fraught diplomatic activity

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (second from right) and Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi (second from left) with their respective delegations meet for talks in Cairo, Egypt, July 22, 2014.
Khaled Elfiqi / EPA

While diplomacy aimed at halting the violence in Gaza quickened worldwide on Monday, the continued lack of a viable mediation path highlighted an increasingly problematic question: Is there a state capable of mediating a cease-fire?

The only thing virtually all parties seem to agree on in the midst of the current violence is that the status quo is undesirable, but there is almost no agreement on how to move forward.

“It’s a pretty disastrous game of chicken at the moment,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation in New York.

Both Israel and Hamas went into the current conflict with broader goals compared to the last Gaza conflicts and “that makes the opening positions of all these actors more difficult to bridge,” he said.

Egyptian mediations

Given its proximity to the besieged territory, Egypt has received the most attention for its efforts at mediating between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. And Egypt has a track record, having brokered the last cease-fire in 2012.

But Egypt’s moves thus far have floundered, with its only cease-fire initiative, from six days ago, never coming into force.

Hamas said it had not even been consulted about the truce — but still rejected it, saying it did not meet any conditions the movement had set out, including the end of Israel's assaults and siege of the occupied territory and abiding by the conditions of the last truce, in 2012, which Hamas said Israel broke.

There has been little indication since then that Cairo is prepared to alter its proposal of merely pressing for calm.

Much of Egypt’s reluctance to mediate on different terms comes from the steadfast opposition of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and his government to the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Sisi and company view it as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political organization forced underground in Egypt after last July’s military coup, which ended the rule of Brotherhood-backed former President Mohamed Morsi.

In this, Egypt’s short-term interests have continued to align with Israel over a mutual distaste for Hamas, but Cairo also remains reluctant to more forcefully engage in a problem it sees as belonging to Israel.

Egypt doesn’t want “the burden of administering Gaza when “Egypt can’t govern itself,” said Hanna. 

The US presses ahead

While the U.S. has largely backed both Egypt’s mediation efforts and Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, the rapid rise of the Palestinian death toll in Gaza, which on Monday surpassed 550 — the majority of them civilians — prompted Secretary of State John Kerry to head to Cairo where he planned to call again for a cease-fire agreement.

“The U.S. is the most important actor,” said Hanna. “Once they are invested and get involved, then the Israelis will have to start thinking seriously.”

That process may be sped up by increased casualties for the Israelis as well, which, while significantly less than on the Palestinian side, reached 27 on Monday, with 25 soldiers killed since the start of Israel’s land invasion last Thursday.

“The increased Israeli casualties … could change the dynamic” and cause the Israeli public to “start to look at the operation skeptically,” said Matt Duss, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

For any cease-fire to enter in force, he added, it would very likely have to be “something that significantly addresses the Gaza blockade.”

A regional rivalry

Other regional powers, mainly Qatar and Turkey, have also demonstrated a willingness to try to fill some of the diplomatic vacuum left by the failure thus far of Egyptian and U.S. efforts.

This derives from their closeness with a Hamas that is short of funds and increasingly bereft of regional allies.

Analysts say Qatar and Turkey have the ability to give Hamas assurances and guarantees that might influence what cease-fire terms Hamas would be willing to accept.

Part of that role was on display on Monday, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Qatar. There, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the oft-bitter foes agreed on the need for a swift cease-fire, acknowledging that Egyptian mediation would have to play a role.

Yet in asserting their own diplomatic muscle, the roles of Qatar and Turkey have also exposed the fault-lines and animosities that have run rampant across the Middle East in recent years. Both countries have stood opposite Egypt in regard to the political legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood, and, by extension, Hamas.

Part of the difficulty in achieving a cease-fire this time around is due to the mutual antipathy between Arab nations over the role of the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam more generally, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.

“It’s not been helpful in de-escalating the situation for the people of Gaza and Israel,” said Shaikh.

Trying to straddle all the ongoing Byzantine diplomatic maneuvering, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in Cairo on Monday, alongside Egypt's foreign minister. Ahead of planned talks with Kerry, Ban reiterated his plea for an immediate cease-fire, calling on Israel to “exercise maximum restraint” and saying, “too many innocent people are dying.”

Yet the U.N.’s role in helping to achieve a lull in the violence in Gaza is limited.

“The U.N. can, behind the scenes, play some kind of role,” Shaikh said, adding that ultimately the international organization would only be as effective as its constituent parts. “The U.N. Security Council is not going to produce a resolution,” he said, referring to the almost assured lack of willingness of the U.S. to go along with any resolution it sees as overly harsh to Israel.

But, he added, “It can certainly validate whatever is agreed.”

For his part, Hanna said the possibility remained that no formalized agreement would be reached, and that Israel may yet conduct its own unilateral cease-fire, akin to what it did in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead.

However the unclear path to stopping the fighting plays out, few analysts doubted the urgent need for reaching a truce.

“If we don’t get a pause … then I’m afraid the situation will fall off a cliff,” Shaikh said.

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