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Gaza truce holding, less so Netanyahu’s support at home

Analysis: No clear victor in the outcome of the cease-fire, but Hamas appears to have fared better politically

Even in the best-case scenario, the truce agreed to on Tuesday between Israel and Palestinian factions will end the recent Gaza battle but not the war.

If it holds, the cease-fire agreement caps seven weeks of fighting that killed some 2,142 Palestinians and 69 Israelis, with Israel securing no obvious gains. And while it promises some opening of Gaza, as demanded by Hamas, the truce does not address the organization’s more expansive demand for ending the long-term siege of the territory. Moreover, the deal does not even pretend to address the underlying Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of which Gaza is but one symptom. And the persistence of that underlying conflict with no prospect of resolving it through the now collapsed U.S.-led peace process is just one of the reasons the latest truce is unlikely to be the last.

The combatants have agreed to halt attacks on one another, and Israel consented to opening Gaza’s crossings to humanitarian aid and building materials. The crossings and the reconstruction of Gaza will be under the supervision of the Palestinian Authority (PA) rather than Hamas. The waters where Palestinian trawlers will be allowed to fish will be extended. Palestinian demands for the construction of air and sea ports and Israeli demands for Gaza’s disarmament were deferred to another round of talks to begin in Cairo next month.

While there’s no clear victor in the inconclusive outcome, Hamas appears to have fared better politically.

“[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu looks much more shaky today than he did 50 days ago,” said former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy, now at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Hamas looks stronger today than it did 50 days ago. Hamas may have been hit harder physically, but Israel has been hit harder strategically.”

Ironically, perhaps, even though Hamas suffered the loss of some commanders and combatants and large parts of its Gaza domain have once again been reduced to rubble, Israel’s Operation Protective Edge may have improved Hamas’ political position while weakening Netanyahu’s.

Before the current outbreak of fighting, Hamas had been politically weakened by the overthrow of its Egyptian ally, President Mohamed Morsi, in last summer’s coup, and the resulting financial hardships imposed on Gaza from the Egyptian side forced the movement to accept unfavorable terms for reconciliation with PA President Mahmoud Abbas — most notably the restoration of the PA in Gaza and the return of its security forces, ejected by Hamas fighters in 2007, to operate the crossings into the territory. Even if it was pushed there by unfavorable circumstances, that meant Hamas claimed the Palestinian political center throughout the past seven weeks, articulating mainstream demands on the siege that had the backing of even Hamas’ opponents.

Allowing Abbas a role in negotiating the truce despite having no part in the Gaza conflict also worked to help restore Hamas’ political fortunes. Not only has the Israeli campaign in Gaza forced Netanyahu to negotiate with a group that just days ago he branded as equal to the extremist Islamic State movement in Syria and Iraq; it has effectively put an end to Israeli efforts to demand that Abbas abandon the Palestinian reconciliation agreement between his Fatah party and Hamas. The new truce agreement that Israel struck with an alliance of Palestinian factions cements the place of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the mainstream Palestinian polity and as interlocutors with Israel.

Indeed, the truce makes Abbas a co-owner of the outcome, which could be a perilous situation, since Netanyahu is likely to come under mounting political pressure to back out of the deal.

Consider the assessment of the cease-fire agreement by correspondent Barak Ravid in the liberal Israel daily Haaretz. “Without a formal discussion, without a vote, in laconic telephone updates with members of the security cabinet — that is how the government of Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu in August 2014 approved a cease-fire agreement with a terror organization,” he wrote. “The same Benjamin Netanyahu who ran for election five years ago, after Operation Cast Lead, on the platform that the mission had not been accomplished, that Hamas rule had to be destroyed and that he was the only one who could do it.”

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“Netanyahu’s conduct during the 50 days of fighting in Gaza highlighted the gap between his statements and promises and the reality,” Ravid continued. “The prime minister, who was the most strident in his statement against Hamas, ended the confrontation with the organization in the weakest position.”

Ravid argued that Israel had achieved no strategic gains in the operation but has suffered great damage to its diplomatic position and the population’s sense of calm and security. And that’s the assessment of a liberal critic. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who throughout the war challenged Netanyahu’s approach for lacking conviction, denounced the cease-fire Tuesday night, demanding a Cabinet vote — which, he said, Netanyahu knew he would lose.

A day before the truce, a public opinion poll by Israel’s Channel 2 found Netanyahu’s approval rating at 38 percent, compared with 82 percent earlier in the operation. And that’s before he had to face the withering onslaught of right-wing critics from within his own Cabinet over the war’s outcome.

The extent of Palestinian gains from the cease-fire deal, of course, will depend largely on whether and how it’s implemented. “In 2012 we saw certain terms to an agreement that looked in some ways favorable for Palestinians in Gaza, but then they were never really enforced and followed up on,” said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Palestine Center in Washington, D.C.

And he’s not confident, given the “huge imbalance of power between the parties” and the absence of a credible enforcement mechanism. “The Israelis are a very strong state versus the Palestinians in Gaza, which are stateless people and a group of guerrillas, basically,” he said. “Previous cease-fires have failed so spectacularly in the past because if Hamas or other Palestinians violate the cease-fire, Israel is independently capable of holding them accountable through the use of force, whereas if the Israelis violate the cease-fire, Palestinians do not have that capacity. In fact, the only thing that they have in attempt to do that is, of course, projectile fire, which can then lead to further Israeli responses and then lead to an escalation and so on, and that’s how the cease-fire crumbles again.”

One reason for concern over implementation is the pressure on Netanyahu to back away from what will be seen on both sides as concessions to Hamas.

It’s also worth noting that Israeli-Palestinian talks mediated by Secretary of State John Kerry formally broke down over Israel’s refusal to continue releasing prisoners as stipulated in an agreement brokered by the U.S. — an agreement opposed by some of the same members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet who have attacked his Gaza truce. One of the issues postponed until next month’s talks in Cairo is Hamas’ demand that Israel release prisoners arrested in the West Bank.

No surprise, then, that Levy doesn’t expect much to come of the talks mediated by the Egyptians to address the key issues left unresolved. If the pressure exerted by both sides by force of arms over the past seven weeks was insufficient to force compliance with their demands, he said, “neither side is going to achieve in indirect negotiations what it couldn’t achieve in military confrontation.”

The stalemate was underscored in Abbas’ statement on the Cairo truce. “What next?” he asked. “Should we expect another war after a year or two? Until when will the cause remain unresolved?” He was referring to the long-stalled process to address the underlying conflict via a two-state solution. After two decades of negotiations, however, that solution is no closer.

“Engaging in vague negotiations is something we cannot continue to do,” Abbas declared. Yet there’s no sign that the latest truce will offer anything more than vague negotiations and the recurring Gaza nightmare of which he warned.

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