Tel Aviv — It’s not every day that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancels a trip abroad at the 11th hour. But it’s not every day that Israel seems on the verge of a deal with the terrorist group Hamas.
Netanyahu was set to visit Colombia late last week, but on the eve of the visit he cited “the situation in the South” for canceling. According to local reports, he was referring to diplomatic talks mediated by Egypt and the United Nations to reach a deal for a long-term cease-fire, or hudna in Arabic, with Hamas.
After months of violence and escalation on the Gaza-Israel border, Israel and Hamas seemed to be close to a deal aimed at ensuring calm for several years in return for the lifting of the Gaza blockade and investment in Gaza’s wrecked infrastructure.
The alternative to an agreement, say analysts, is continued escalation along the border. Burning kites are destroying thousands of acres of Israeli agricultural fields and nature reserves. The deterrence yielded by Israel’s pounding of Hamas and the Gaza Strip in 2014 has expired, say analysts. The current round of violence stretches back to the wave of border demonstrations in the spring, and has gradually escalated. Many warn that the two sides are nearing the precipice of another broad outbreak of fighting like four years ago.
Most critically, the deal would mark something Israel has doggedly resisted for more than two decades: informal recognition of Hamas and its control over the Gaza Strip. That recognition would potentially run counter to the diplomatic agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) that the Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza are a single political entity.
“Israel will informally recognize Hamas as the ruling sovereign in the Gaza Strip,” said Koby Michael, a former deputy director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, in a conference call with journalists.
Such a deal would likely undermine the principles of Israel and Western allies against any sort of recognition or dealings with Hamas. It would also be a blow to the PA, which controls Arab cities in the West Bank and is considered the sole legitimate partner for a peace deal with Israel. But that ignores reality, argued Michael, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
“Israel has to acknowledge the reality where there are two different independent Palestinian entities. We would have been pleased if the PA would have returned to Gaza and regained control. This is not the situation, and the probability it will occur in the future is very low. For the time being, we have to deal with the Gaza Strip.”
The agreement would be carried out in several phases, he suggested. At first, Hamas would snuff out all protests and kite activity along the border in return for Israel and Egypt reopening commercial border crossings.
In the second phase, Israel would allow work to begin on a water desalination plant and boost the electricity supply to the Gaza Strip. Hundreds of millions of dollars would be spent in the Gaza Strip to repair infrastructure and avert a humanitarian crisis among Gaza’s impoverished population of two million Palestinians. Israel would allow Gazans to work inside Israel to bring badly needed money back home. In Phase Three, work would go ahead on a seaport and an airport for the Palestinians in Egypt. Under a fourth phase, Israel would help ease the PA’s economic sanctions against Hamas.
According to Israeli speculation, a deal could be reached in a matter of days. The wild card, say analysts, is the return of two Israeli civilians held in Gaza since 2014 and the return of the remains of Hadar Goldin and Shaul Oron, who were killed fighting in Gaza that same year. Israel wants the return of the bodies and abductees as soon as possible, while Hamas refuses to discuss it.
Such a deal would be a far cry from the calls of Netanyahu a decade ago (and by his cabinet ministers from 2014) to destroy Hamas.
In an interview with Israel Radio on Tuesday, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said he supported a long-term “arrangement” with Hamas, if it ensured the return of the Israelis and blocks a Hamas arms buildup.
“It’s good to consider a calm. But we shouldn’t allow any strengthening of Hamas during that calm,” Erdan said. “Hamas was and remains a terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel. It’s not ready to give up its military wing. So let’s not delude ourselves.”
Shlomo Brom, a former director of strategic planning in the IDF, speculated that a broad deal for a long-term cease-fire was unlikely because it would exact too high a political price for Netanyahu. “Netanyahu is capable of doing some limited steps for a short-term quiet, but not much more than that,” he said. Though a deal informally recognizing Hamas runs counter to Israeli policy, Brom noted that right-wingers see it as a blow to the two-state solution.
“I don’t think they have a real problem with recognition of Hamas,” he said. “They want to make the division of Gaza and West Bank permanent. Those that don’t want recognition of Hamas are those who still want the two-state solution.”
A reconciliation between Hamas and the rival Fatah party, and the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza, would best promote a dynamic supportive of a two-state solution, Brom said.
Egypt is currently mediating talks between Hamas and Fatah to break the impasse on their long-stalled reconciliation. Even though Cairo prefers Fatah to Hamas, Egypt also has an interest in a long-term cease-fire because a stable Gaza would boost stability in the Sinai Peninsula, where Egypt has been fighting an insurgency against ISIS militants for years.
A long-term deal would represent “a significant turning point” in Israel-Hamas relations, wrote Zvi Barel in Haaretz. Israel would have to recognize Hamas’ authority running Gaza’s economic affairs, and might eventually have to recognize a new Palestinian government with Hamas participation.
Yossi Kuperwasser, a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the former director general of Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, said he expects a more limited short-term cease-fire deal. A long-term arrangement, which would include the return of Israelis held in Gaza, is less likely. While Israel has come around to the possibility of living in a truce with Hamas, the Islamic militants aren’t ready to give up the armed struggle, he said.
“Israel is realistic enough to realize it’s not going to change Hamas, but it wants Hamas to be restrained, stop arming itself to the teeth, and stop using force,” he said. “This restrained Hamas can continue ruling the Gaza Strip for lack of any other good option. It’s a realistic option.”
Joshua Mitnick is a contributing editor to The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.