By Yossi Alpher
Egypt escalated its involvement in the Israel-Gaza conflict following the August 18 attack from Sinai against Israelis near Eilat, which caused Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian casualties. Cairo demanded (and got) an Israel-Hamas ceasefire, clamped down militarily in Sinai and may even have begun taking serious steps to seal the Sinai-Gaza border.
The trigger was a single incident, however complex. But the new Egyptian role was long in coming, and it may yet develop even further. For example, the possible rise to power of Islamist parties in Egypt following elections there could signal a radical upgrading of Egypt’s relations with Hamas in Gaza and a serious deterioration in its relations with Israel.
Meanwhile, in terms of Israel’s regional strategic situation, the threat posed to Israeli-Egyptian relations by the actions of militants from Gaza dovetails with last week’s sharp downgrading of relations with Israel by Turkey’s Islamist government — also, ostensibly, because of Gaza. That the Netanyahu government reacted differently toward the two governments in Cairo and Ankara — acquiescing in the wishes of the one while refusing to yield to the other — merely underlines the perception that relations with Egypt, and their Gazan context, take precedent over relations with Turkey or even, for that matter, over the desire to revenge Israeli losses and reestablish a measure of deterrence by striking at Gaza.
Then, too, Egypt’s overall position regarding the Palestinian issue is still far more reasonable than Turkey’s. Egypt wants to quarantine Gaza and prevent its violence from spilling over into Sinai and endangering its relations with Israel. In contrast, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is apparently contemplating sending ships to Gaza under Turkish naval escort and himself visiting the Strip to trumpet his support for its leaders.
Leaving aside Israel’s problems with Turkey, how can the Netanyahu government deal more effectively with Gaza in the newly-expanded Egyptian context?
The first measure is to recognize that Israel has not had a rational strategy for Gaza since the 2005 unilateral withdrawal failed to leave the Strip in a peaceful state-building mode and Hamas took over. This has already cost Israel dearly in terms of its relations with both Egypt and Turkey. The attempt to seal off the Strip by land and sea failed to bring down the Hamas regime, silence its rockets or bring back Gilad Shalit, while giving Israel a bad name internationally and contributing to the crisis with Turkey. Indeed, Israel’s readiness for several years to mortgage its interests regarding Gaza to the fate of a single soldier reflected a dangerous lacuna in overall strategic thinking.
Israel has not tried a strategy of dialogue with Hamas, and no one is sure how Hamas would respond to such an Israeli outreach anyway. Until recently, Egyptian and PLO objections were clearly a factor in deterring Israel from moving in this direction; now, conceivably, Egypt’s position may change. Nor is reoccupation of the Strip a likely option. Beyond the heavy military and civilian losses Israel would suffer until the Strip was more or less pacified, there is no obvious exit strategy: the PLO would hardly agree to “inherit” the Strip from the IDF and the international community is not likely to volunteer to hunt down terrorists there. Moreover, under current circumstances Egypt would almost certainly see reoccupation as a hostile act.
As matters stand, were the Israel-PLO peace process to be renewed, Hamas would hold something akin to veto power by threatening renewed massive rocket attacks that could paralyze life in southern Israel for weeks or even months, with Israel’s hands tied to an extent by the delicate state of its relations with Egypt.
This brings us to the realities of the present. The peace process is not about to be renewed. Accordingly, a United Nations General Assembly vote to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines, which Egypt will undoubtedly support, will complicate the Israel-Egypt-Gaza triangle even further. The next time Hamas or its more radical Islamist allies attack Israel — which they will do sooner rather than later — Israeli retaliation could be deemed aggression against (part of) a sovereign state. Given Egypt’s current circumstances of revolution and transition, it is doubtful whether serious and comprehensive Egyptian-Israeli discussions of strategic understandings over such matters are feasible.
The best way for Israel to address this looming problem is to engage the language of the General Assembly resolution and turn it into a win-win proposition that serves the strategic needs of both Israel and the PLO and creates a new post-Oslo peace paradigm.
For the PLO, sovereignty, the 1967 lines and a capital in Jerusalem. For Israel, recognition by the UN of Israel as a Jewish state, land swaps, not one but two capitals in Jerusalem, provisions regarding security, a commitment that the Palestinian state will negotiate all outstanding differences and — of particular relevance to our discussion — a determination by the UN that until and unless Hamas accepts the Quartet conditions regarding Israel and negotiations, Gaza cannot be considered part of a UN-recognized Palestinian state.
That would constitute the beginnings of a strategy for Gaza.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons.org