Opinion
Ateg Safadi / EPA

Gaza negotiations plagued by bad-faith actors

Continued violence is predictable, given the compromised positions of all parties

July 17, 2014 6:00AM ET

After Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ too-hasty embrace of the Egyptian cease-fire proposal and corresponding criticism of Hamas, the popular narrative of the ongoing crisis in Gaza is that Hamas has betrayed the truce agreement despite Israel’s hours-long unilateral compliance. On the contrary, Hamas didn’t violate the cease-fire because it never signed onto it. In fact, it has from the outset rejected any such reprieve prior to negotiating the terms of an armistice with Israel. Yet despite its clear position, Hamas was not consulted in the formation of Egypt’s proposal — in fact, it claims to have found out about it through media reports. The proposal put forward by the Egyptians was not a serious attempt to bring the conflict to a resolution — it will exacerbate the crisis, as it was likely designed to do.

Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, shares Israel’s desire to destroy Hamas — an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Sisi perhaps rightly views as an existential threat to his nascent regime; both groups are banned in Egypt under Sisi’s orders. He jailed his predecessor on trumped-up charges of colluding with Hamas. He indefinitely closed the Rafah crossing into Egypt — Gaza’s only connection to the outside world, given Israel’s illegal land and sea blockade — in an attempt to choke off Hamas and weaken its position among Gazans. He subsequently destroyed the tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle assets into Gaza circumventing the crossing. He is even courting a joint missile-defense system with Israel in order to help contain the group and its patron, Iran, as part of a growing security partnership between the two countries.

All of these measures have fed, and continue to feed, into the baseless race-baiting conspiracies resonating across the Arab world (and beyond) that Sisi is Jewish and a Manchurian candidate for Israel and its Zionist hard-liners. This impression is further exacerbated by Israel’s quiet but persistent support for Sisi’s deposing of Mohamed Morsi, as well as his personal rise to power and subsequent brutal crackdown on Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Accordingly, Sisi was and remains a radically inappropriate choice as a mediator between Hamas and Israel, notwithstanding Egypt’s traditional role in easing tensions between the two parties. As the situation in Gaza deteriorated, Sisi sat on his hands for a week, likely savoring Israel’s attempts at breaking Hamas. And then, despite it being easily within his power to do so, he refused to give Hamas any kind of an out in his proposal, anything it could take back to its constituents as a victory. Rather, he put forward a proposal destined, likely intended, to fail, and only under pressure from the Arab world and the West to put on a show of “doing something.” 

Abbas appears to be working with Egypt and Israel in yet another bid to alienate Hamas and expand his own influence in Gaza.

The United States suffers from a similar conflict of interest preventing it from serving as a mediator between Hamas and Israel: America has refused to recognize Hamas’ government as legitimate from the time it rose to power in 2006 until the formation of its unity government last month. Instead, the George W. Bush administration passed economic sanctions punishing Gazans for the Hamas-led government’s failure to agree to Israel’s terms for forming such a government and plotted to overthrow Hamas (unsuccessfully) in collaboration with Fatah. The Obama administration has blocked U.N. initiatives to recognize Palestine as a state despite overwhelming international support — vigorously (and unsuccessfully) opposing Palestinians gaining even an observer status in the United Nations. And it uses its position on the Security Council to nullify any meaningful sanctions or interventions against Israel, despite repeated and unapologetic defiance of international rules and norms.

Simultaneously, the Obama administration is going out of its way to mend fences with Israel following its revelation that Israel’s continued settlement building was the primary cause of the recent peace talks’ failure, as well as Secretary of State John Kerry’s (quickly retracted) warning that Israel risks becoming an apartheid state if it does not manage to achieve a two-state solution, and the administration’s long-overdue recognition of the Palestinian unity government despite the important role Hamas plays in that body.

As a result of these moves, each of which outraged the Israelis (much like the nuclear negotiations with Iran), the United States is in no position to leverage Israel into good-faith negotiations. In fact, while encouraging restraint, the administration has been falling all over itself to recognize Israel’s right to self-defense — a right that has never been extended to Palestinians under any circumstances. In fact, since the outbreak of the conflict the U.S. Senate has voted to double Israel’s funding for its “Iron Dome” missile defense system.

Also conspicuously absent is the usual hand-wringing and saber-rattling from U.S. regional allies. This is because, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan are in the process of extending Israel’s Iron Dome and Arrow systems across their territories as well, in a U.S.-brokered joint missile defense initiative aimed at containing Iran and its regional allies, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Before long, all of these powers may actually be helping to shoot down rockets on Israel’s behalf — be they from Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Gaza. Even Turkey is likely to play an indirect role in this new system — collecting and sharing information with NATO, to be dispersed among NATO partners, principally the United States. Nonetheless, Israel is unlikely to negotiate with Turkey for an end to the crisis. This leaves Qatar as probably the only regional power with the proper clout and independence to broker a deal.

In the meantime, Egypt’s bad-faith proposal has served as a public relations coup for Israel. It changes the narrative and muddies the guilt: Now it isn’t Israel that is responding with radically inappropriate force to a non-threat (over the last decade, only 24 Israeli civilians have been killed by Palestinian rockets —hardly an existential crisis), an occupying power preposterously claiming self-defense — but instead the story is increasingly that Hamas is being unreasonable. Despite Israel having stopped its attacks for six hours, Hamas continued its offensive, forcing Israel to retaliate — especially as it has suffered its first fatality in this most recent unrest (as compared with nearly 200 dead on the Palestinian side, with more than 1,000 injured, tens of thousands displaced, untold numbers traumatized and critical infrastructure destroyed).

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was up front about his intention to leverage Sisi’s proposal to justify expanding and intensifying Israel’s campaign into Gaza, insisting, "If Hamas does not accept the cease-fire proposal, as would now seem to be the case, Israel would have all international legitimacy to broaden the military operation to achieve the required quiet.”

For his part, unity government notwithstanding, Abbas appears to be working with Egypt and Israel in yet another bid to alienate Hamas and expand his own influence in Gaza by proposing that the Rafah crossing be reopened — albeit manned by his loyalist forces. This is a proposal that Egypt and Israel are likely to welcome but Hamas will be naturally inclined to reject. It is likely that Israel will ramp up operations in the lead-up to this proposal, increasing the desperation of Gazans in order to render the deal more difficult for Hamas to refuse — a maneuver sure to backfire, as it always does, perpetuating ­ad infinitum the omnidirectional war of attrition that has defined the region for decades now, in which the only real losers are the Palestinian people.

Musa al-Gharbi is an instructor in the Department of Government and Public Service at the University of Arizona, and an affiliate of the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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