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No Winners, Only Brownie Points

Fragile. This is perhaps the best way to depict the Israel-Hamas ceasefire, which came into effect on Wednesday night. Going by past experience, both sides would be hoping that the cessation of hostilities will be sustained at least for the next few weeks, if not longer. The durability of the current ceasefire rests on the willingness of both sides to adhere to their part of the deal and use the window of opportunity prudently. As “sponsor”, Egypt President Mohammad Mursi will be watched closely.

At the broadest level, Israel has agreed to relax the siege of the Gaza Strip and facilitate greater movement of goods and services. For its part, Hamas has agreed to stop firing rockets into Israel. However, the devil is always in the details. In a significant move, Israel had agreed not to “target” individual Palestinian leaders, a move that precipitated the current cycle of violence. Hamas, meanwhile, has agreed to cease “all hostilities”.

Will the agreement prevent Palestinian militants from smuggling weapons, especially rockets, into the Gaza Strip through the underground tunnels on the Gaza-Sinai border? As the principal mediator and “sponsor” of the deal, will Egypt insist on and enforce the commitments? Else, the next round of Israeli-Palestinian violence would not be far away.

Despite the ambiguities and uncertainties, certain things are obvious. The ceasefire improves the chances of Knesset elections going ahead as planned. As the violence was continuing, Speaker Reuven Rivlin indicated that elections scheduled for 22 January could be postponed, if the primary elections of Labour and Likud scheduled for next week were to be delayed because of the Gaza crisis.

Second, will the recent violence improve the electoral chances of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Most probably not. In recent years, violence has worked against incumbent Israeli Prime Ministers. Shimon Peres lost after the 1996 conflict with Lebanon and Ehud Olmert lost after the 2008-09 Gaza war. Going by this trend, Netanyahu is unlikely to reap any benefits, especially when the outcome of his Operation Pillar of Defence is far from certain.

Third, the ceasefire does not address concerns of the vast majority of Israelis who came under rockets attacks from the Gaza Strip. If the international community recognises Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital, all the sovereign Israeli institutions are located in Jerusalem. Both these cities have come within striking range of Hamas rockets. Under such circumstances, the ceasefire is unlikely to improve the confidence of over 60 per cent of Israeli citizens who were forced to run for cover during the past few days.

Fourth, within days after the current wave of violence, the government authorised the mobilisation of 70,000 soldiers. This was faster and larger than some similar moves in the past. This was seen as a sign of Israeli seriousness and its readiness for a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. The size of the mobilisation also led to speculations of an Israeli preparation for a second front against the allies of Hamas, such as Hezbollah or even Iran. The vaguely worded ceasefire is undoubtedly bound to raise questions within Israel over the rationale of the mobilisation.

Fifth, on the positive side, the conflict has enabled Israel to test the preparedness of the home front, especially the Iron Dome system. The US-funded and domestically developed defence system considerably reduced the human cost on the Israeli side. If Israeli casualties remained at five, Palestinian casualties were over 160 deaths. This asymmetry was not because of Hamas’s intentions but due to Israel’s defensive capabilities and preparations. Will the Iron Dome be sufficient against a much more powerful barrage of rocket attacks in the next round of conflict? Israel’s defence establishment would be pondering over this in the coming weeks and months.

Sixth, while Hamas has agreed to the ceasefire, it is not clear if other Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip would abide by it. There are reports that a number of rockets were fired at Israel within hours after the ceasefire came into effect. Despite public pronouncements to the contrary, the popularity of Hamas has taken a beating and hence there are doubts about the willingness of more radical militant groups to accept the Hamas deal vis-à-vis Israel.

Seventh, by agreeing to a ceasefire without tougher conditions, both Hamas and Israel have strengthened the position of Egypt President Mohammad Mursi. Both sides looked to the former member of the Muslim Brotherhood as a potential ally and settled for a politico-diplomatic settlement. Hence, the deal does not include two key issues — Hamas’s demand for Egypt to liberalise access to the Gaza Strip from the Egyptian side of the border and Israel’s demand to stop Hamas’s arms smuggling. But sooner than later, Mursi would have to address these two key demands.

In short, the principle players, especially Mursi, Hamas and Netanyahu only gained brownie points without emerging with decisive gains. Hence, another round of Israeli-Palestinian violence is very much round the corner.

Note: This article was earlier published in The Indian Express on 23 November 2012. Web Link

Professor P R Kumaraswamy is Honorary Director of MEI@ND

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy