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Could Mahmoud Abbas provide Israel a Gaza exit strategy?

Analysis: Ending Gaza fighting requires an outcome Hamas and Israel can call victory. Enter the Palestinian Authority

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in the West Bank, July 22, 2014. The option of a stronger PA role in any Gaza truce has recently gained traction on the Palestinian side.
Abbas Momani / AFP / Getty Images

Israel and Hamas both want to end the fighting in Gaza, evidenced by another 72-hour truce that began Tuesday, but their bottom-line demands for how to stop the bloodletting remain incompatible. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday signaled his preference to bypass cease-fire negotiations that would force him to engage with popular Hamas demands for the lifting of the economic siege and instead unilaterally dial down Operation Protective Edge. That way, he hopes to declare victory on the basis that Israel has re-established its deterrent power against Hamas rocket fire.

But Hamas also has a say in how the current round ends, and it has insisted all along that it would not countenance the restoration of the status quo of six weeks ago that underlies Netanyahu’s calm-for-calm principle. Hamas has focused its war aims, this time around, on the easing of the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt — a demand overwhelmingly popular even among Palestinians opposed to Hamas.

So while Netanyahu insists that Israel’s operation will continue until calm is restored, many observers think it unlikely that Hamas will stop rocket fire before it can claim that its core demands are being addressed.

“If I were a betting man, Hamas is banking on Netanyahu continuing to paint himself into a corner,” said Samer Badawi, a Middle East analyst based in Washington, D.C.

He described “a sort of closing of the ranks between Hamas and its constituency,” and noted that while all Gazans didn’t necessarily share Hamas’ ideological bent, they increasingly shared “a defiance that’s driven by a lack of alternatives.”

Netanyahu could respond to that continued defiance with a renewed ground operation, although that looks less likely, given the drawdown that began on the weekend, or with further air and artillery strikes. But Hamas may be betting that the inevitable civilian casualties that accompany that option will continue to build international pressure on Israel to cease hostilities.

That leaves Israel facing a tough decision over how to extricate itself and claim victory.

“Behind the scenes, it is well understood that no military option will stop the rocket fire without a huge toll on human life and Israel’s political capital,” says Daniel Nisman, an Israeli security analyst writing for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

So Netanyahu is left searching for a way to de-escalate amid a reduction in rocket fire without appearing to give Hamas a victory.

“His clear preference is to end it now unilaterally, if he can, and then to decide on his own what he’ll do for Gaza [in terms of easing the blockade],” said Nathan Thrall, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

But Thrall warned against expecting Netanyahu to offer substantial changes on the blockade. To the extent that the siege is eased, the demands of both sides thus far suggest that any agreement would involve a substantial role for the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, which were violently ejected from Gaza in a power struggle with Hamas in 2007.

“I think everyone involved in trying to solve this thing now basically assumes that the PA will be there in some capacity,” said Thrall. On the Israeli side, there’s the idea of empowering its preferred interlocutor at the expense of Hamas in what has been its domain. But in fact, Hamas agreed to restoring the role of the PA in Gaza under its April unity agreement with Fatah — an agreement thus far rejected by Israel.

Despite Israel’s hostility to the creation of a government of technocrats under the Fatah-Hamas agreement, some in the Israeli leadership — including Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon — have more recently warmed to the idea of PA involvement in easing the closure of Gaza’s border crossings.

The option of a stronger PA role in any Gaza truce has gained traction on the Palestinian side in recent days, with representatives of Fatah and Hamas agreeing on broad, long-term cease-fire terms in Cairo that will be negotiated with Israel (through the PA) during a 72-hour truce that began Tuesday morning. Palestinian factions reportedly agreed to terms including Israel Defense Forces withdrawal from Gaza, the opening of border crossings and reconstruction of Gaza overseen by the PA.

A PA role in Gaza — in overseeing crossing and in disbursing salaries it was supposed to be paying under the unity agreement (although Israel and Western powers prevented that) — could give Hamas and Israel an off-ramp, allowing both sides to claim victory in the current confrontation. Hamas could claim to have eased the blockade; Israel could claim to have forced Hamas to concede security control on the ground to the rivals it ejected in 2007.

But the parties remain a long way from agreeing on a solution based on restored PA control, and it may take international intervention to bring them to that point.

“I think we’ve all seen that the U.S. has been pressing Israel” for a cease-fire, said Thrall, before adding that it has been “once again chastened” by the failure of efforts that lacked clarity. Still, the mounting civilian toll could change the calculus for outside players.

“The humanitarian crisis is of such a magnitude that the U.S. … will have to say something,” said Badawi.

The danger of the conflict’s spreading — two attacks in Jerusalem on Monday underscored the tinderbox atmosphere there and in the West Bank — will add to pressure on Israel to end its Gaza operation.

But finding the off-ramp depends, as ever, on developing a formula that each side can package as a victory in the eyes of its base. If that can be achieved, current indications suggest, it will involve a substantial role for the PA as an interlocutor for Israel and Hamas.

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