A breathing space
Both sides, the Israelis and Hamas, were yesterday declaring victory, self-serving assessments that had everything to do with politics – looming elections in Israel’s case – and nothing to do with sober assessments of strategic realities. They were “victories” like those Pyrrhic victories in the trenches of the Somme in which great armies advanced by inches from one stalemate to another. Nothing fundamental resolved, the status quo ante restored . . . and at what price? In eight days 166 lives, in exchanges that saw 1,000 missiles fired at Israel, and 1,500 airstrikes on Gaza. Or, as the Israeli defence minister boasted, during which Israel dropped 1,000 kilos of explosives on Gaza for every one that landed in Israel. And they call their response “proportionate”.
We have an agreement that will end hostilities until hostilities resume, almost identical to that reached following Operation Cast Lead in 2009. As Haaretz puts it, “the only practical clause in the agreements is the cessation of fighting, according to the principle of ‘quiet will be answered by quiet’.” The detail of opening border posts, and ending targeted assassinations and the flow of arms to Gaza will be worked out in separate talks.
So be it, that’s better than no agreement, and is a deal, however limited, with an important new ingredient, the new engagement of its guarantor, Egypt’s Islamist-led government under President Mohammed Morsi. The latter has walked a fine line between expressing sympathies for fellow Muslim Brotherhood Hamas, and recommitting himself to Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. In doing so Cairo has re-established itself as a key regional player, a pragmatic force to be reckoned with.
US reassurances to Israel, not least more cash for missile defence, also played a part in the latter’s willingness to hold off a ground assault. They will do prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu no harm on the campaign trail.
Yet the return to stalemate is not enough. Israel has got to begin a reappraisal of its longer-term strategy with an understanding that it needs a Palestinian partner, however unpalatable, if it is ever to see peace. As Richard Haass, the former US envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process, argues cogently in today’s World News pages, the conflict has reached a point, as the North did, where it is clear to both sides that a military victory for either is unachievable. Israel now needs to make it possible for Hamas to embrace political Islam, much as the Muslim Brotherhood has done in Egypt, by demonstrating that political dialogue about a path to peace can produce concrete rewards. Israel and Arab governments like Egypt’s can and must, Haass argues, create “the context for diplomacy”. The alternative, maybe tomorrow, maybe in two months or a year’s time, is Gaza under bloody siege again.