Intense round of diplomacy in ceasefire talks
A ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas was still in the balance last night, but the negotiations taking place in Cairo were the result of an intense round of diplomatic activity that drew in major world powers and revealed how the regional power balance has been shaken up by the Arab Spring.
Both sides had made clear from early on their preference was for a negotiated cessation, but the deal could only come together if the leaders of Israel and Hamas believed they had enough to emerge with their standing enhanced.
And so, if a ceasefire is confirmed soon, then the battle to shape the public view of the events of the past week will begin in earnest.
For the Israelis, the relatively short military operation will have shown the Jewish state will not tolerate its population living under threat of rocket attacks.
Israeli authorities claim Hamas’s military infrastructure has been severely disrupted – and thus its threat to Israel reduced – through some 1,500 missile strikes that took out launch pads, arms stores and other vital sites.
If it avoids the need for a ground incursion into the Gaza Strip, Israel will not have to face a drawn-out and brutal street-by-street battle that would lead to far more casualties on both sides and a loss of support from influential capitals.
Add to that the success of Israel’s new missile defence system, Iron Dome, which intercepted most rockets headed for population centres and played a big role in easing public concerns.
With an election in January, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu may feel he has strengthened his position.
Similarly, Hamas will present a negotiated cessation as a victory. It points out that, for the first time, it has sent rockets as far as Tel Aviv, striking a psychological blow and demonstrating its own military prowess.
Despite 1,500 Israeli missile attacks on sites in the Gaza Strip, Hamas argues, rockets continued to be fired into Israel in significant numbers yesterday, suggesting the militants still had the resources to fight. And while Israel said its attacks were focused on Hamas personnel and infrastructure, the Palestinians argued that the majority of Palestinian dead were civilians, that they included many children and that Hamas’s own losses were relatively small. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas will take credit for taking the fight to Israel.
Ceasefire or not, the conflict has already revealed important power shifts.
For one, the shuttle diplomacy of the past week has cast Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas as an isolated figure and thrust Hamas into a more pivotal role.
Its leaders received Arab and Turkish foreign ministers in Gaza yesterday, following similar trips by Egypt’s prime minister, Tunisia’s foreign minister and the Emir of Qatar. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was due to meet Mr Abbas in Ramallah during her visit to the region, but even that could not disguise his lack of visibility.
The spotlight on Hamas’s battle with Israel has also upstaged a diplomatic initiative that Mr Abbas plans to take to the United Nations General Assembly this month.
In the Palestinian Authority’s absence, into the mediator’s role has stepped Egypt, which is balancing its sympathy for Hamas with the practical need not to upset Cairo’s peace treaty with Israel or alienate the US, its largest aid donor.