WASHINGTON – The diplomatic activities under the current Gaza ceasefire will test whether a quintet of leaders — each with his own domestic critics — can find a peaceful rather than a military solution to the Palestinian situation. The ceasefire language was direct but ambiguous: “Israel should stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip by land, sea and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals.”
Does that mean no Israeli drones over Gaza?
“All Palestinian factions shall stop all hostilities from the Gaza Strip against Israel including rocket attacks and all attacks along the border.”
Is Hamas responsible for all jihadist actions against Israel from Gaza, such as the recent Tel Aviv bus bombing?
“Opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements and targeting residents in border areas and procedures of implementation shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire.”
Does this end threats by Israeli soldiers to Palestinians who approach within the previous 300-meter-wide security zone on the Gaza side of the fence?
Both Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister of Gaza, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have already been criticized at home for settling on those terms.
Haniyeh faced criticism because there was no significant relief from Israel’s sea blockade, and the main land crossings from Gaza through Israel to the West Bank are still under Israel’s control. In addition, Haniyeh has not gotten Egypt to ease the controls it imposed at its southern Rafah crossing into Gaza to prevent the open smuggling of arms to Hamas.
Netanyahu has taken heat at home for initially backing down, not just from his threat to invade but also from his 90-day deadline for the ceasefire to lead to a more permanent agreement.
In a bid to satisfy his critics as he announced acceptance of the ceasefire, Netanyahu said: “I realize that there are citizens who expect a harsher military action, and we may very well need to do that. But at present, the right thing for the State of Israel is to exhaust this possibility of reaching a long-term ceasefire.”
But critics remain.
“One central issue was absent from the assurances given by Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak: stopping the flow of weapons into Gaza,” said Aryeh Eldad, who represents the Power to Israel party in the Knesset.
While Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, chief of staff for the Israel Defense Forces, said that Israel will continue operations to stop weapons-smuggling into Gaza, it’s unclear whether Israeli drones can operate over Gaza under the ceasefire agreement. Since neither Israel nor the United States talks officially to Hamas, all ceasefire negotiations went through the Egyptians, putting Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi in the middle of an international issue while he faces serious problems at home.
The agreement states: “Egypt shall receive assurances from each party that the party commits to what was agreed upon,” and “Each party shall commit itself not to perform any acts that would breach this understanding. In case of any observations, Egypt, as the sponsor of this understanding, shall be informed to follow up.”
Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which opposed the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, has been criticized by Palestinians for not opening up the Rafah crossing. He must deal with Hamas officials who want to rebuild their arms stockpile, including Iranian-made Fajr-5 missiles that showed they could reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Morsi’s claim at home last week that the judiciary could not overrule his proclamations has led to protests against the Egyptian leader. His international activities, critics say, have interfered with his domestic duties. Some also say his ceasefire work is a cover for his assumption of dictatorial powers.
U.S. President Barack Obama faces a different dilemma. He depends on Morsi to carry out dealings with Hamas, which the United States has labeled a terrorist organization, although the White House is under pressure to take a strong stand against Morsi’s claim to extrajudicial powers.
In addition, Obama’s indirect dealings with Hamas have undercut Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Washington has been building up. Yet the U.S. has opposed Abbas’ primary diplomatic initiative, a U.N. General Assembly resolution that had Palestinian land recognized as a U.N. nonmember, observer state.
Abbas is the last leader in this unusual quintet. In the wake of the Gaza ceasefire, he has lost standing within the West Bank and internationally in the internal battle over Palestinian leadership.
The question is whether he will regain some stature as a result of the U.N. vote last week. The approval is a step toward statehood, as well as a gesture toward the 1967 borders and an opportunity for the Palestinians to join U.N. organizations.
In a surprise move, Hamas reversed course and announced support for the Abbas proposal. This change came out of a phone call between Abbas and Khaled Meshal, the Hamas political chief, who is in exile in Damascus. Whether this means the two Palestinian leaders will reconcile may be determined soon. Meshal intends to visit Gaza on Dec. 5, and Abbas told a West Bank audience on Nov. 25 that he wants to work on unity efforts.
Each leader will face domestic opposition if he reaches compromises unacceptable to some of his constituents.
If the leaders fail and fighting resumes, the results could be much worse than the eight days of rockets, missiles and bombs that left hundreds dead or wounded.
After 64 years, people on the ground, Arab and Israeli, deserve a peaceful resolution.
Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post.