September 05, 2011 Edition 26 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
Egypt's new role in the conflict
Egypt, Gaza and the approaching UN vote  - Yossi Alpher
The UN must determine that until Hamas accepts the Quartet conditions, Gaza cannot be considered part of a Palestinian state.

Until the dust settles  - Ghassan Khatib
The Israel-Egypt peace treaty signed in 1979 was never popular in Egypt.

Israel's best response is still to renew negotiations  - Itamar Rabinovich
This is an arduous path, but the only promising one. It is highly unlikely that it will be adopted.

Telling Israel 'no'  - an interview with Ghazi Hamad
It's early for Egypt to get into a diplomatic confrontation.

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Egypt, Gaza and the approaching UN vote
 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.-Published 5/9/2011 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Until the dust settles
 Ghassan Khatib
There is no doubt that the dramatic and revolutionary changes that are underway in Egypt will have an impact on the way Egypt handles its relationship with neighboring Gaza and Israel. However, real and far-reaching change will have to wait until things settle down; transformations are still underway and are expected to take time.

The main factor that will lead to these policy changes is the democratization that is expected following the revolution in Egypt. This new factor is highly likely, simply because it is among the leading objectives of the Egyptian revolt and its supporters.

Democratization, in turn, will oblige any future elected parliament and government to pursue policies and positions consistent with Egyptian public opinion. Previously, one of the major "gaps" between the Egyptian public on one hand, and the positions and behavior of the government on the other hand, was Egypt's relationship with Israel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in general. The Israel-Egypt peace treaty signed in 1979 was never popular in Egypt, not because Egyptians are not interested in peace, but because the Egyptian people see the need for a clear link between their relationship with Israel and the way Israel treats Palestinians.

The continuation of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and its behavior and expressions (including the illegal and unjustified blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza and Israel's violations of Palestinian rights in the West Bank) have been viewed by Egyptians as aspects that should be taken under consideration in ongoing Israeli-Egyptian relations. The fact that the previous Egyptian government was not properly elected, and therefore did not reflect the sense of the people, enabled it to avoid these requirements in its official policies.

Consequently, in the post-revolution era (and assuming that this revolution will succeed in achieving democracy), Israel will have to exert serious effort to reach out to the Egyptian public and convince it--not only its leaders--that it is worthy of positive relations. Israel should be good at this, actually, given that it has often preached to the Arabs and Palestinians about "selling" the merits of peace.

Perhaps it is this contradiction that best explains Israel's confused response to the Arab spring uprisings, particularly the revolt in Egypt. On one hand, Israel has typically laid claim to the distinction of being "the only democracy in the Middle East", implying that it encourages democratization in the neighborhood. On the other hand, Israel knows that democratization brings with it challenges for its relationships with Arabs and their governments precisely because of Israel's ongoing occupation and illegal, inhuman treatment of the Palestinian people, who are at the end of the day part and parcel of the Arab people.

One of the earliest indicators of the change that can be expected in the Israel-Egypt relationship is the active and relatively-successful role Egypt adopted concerning Gaza and the internal Palestinian need for reconciliation. The May 2011 agreement signed by Fateh and Hamas was one of the earliest fruits of these transformations. More recently, the strong Egyptian and Arab support for Turkey's appeal to international legal organizations concerning its conflict with Israel over the killing of eight Turkish peace activists in 2010 is another sign of change. In addition, we are now frequently witnessing powerful demonstrations in front of the Israeli embassy in Egypt by the Egyptian public opposing violations of Palestinian rights. These are all examples of what Israel has in store for it in the future. - Published 5/9/2011

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Israel's best response is still to renew negotiations
 Itamar Rabinovich
The terrorist attack launched from Sinai on August 18 against Israeli vehicles travelling to Eilat, and its sequels, have underscored and exacerbated four interlocking challenges facing Israel.

First, Gaza and Hamas. Israel seems to have no effective strategy for the multiple challenges presented by a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's leadership, Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip and dismantled the Jewish settlements there, but it did not quite disengage from Gaza. Israeli policy then (2005) and since has vacillated between a genuine wish to disengage and a genuine concern with security. Smuggling and local production have created a meaningful arsenal of short- and medium-range rockets in Gaza, but Israel's decision-makers are certain that lifting the siege would result in a rapid build-up of a much larger arsenal of longer-range rockets and missiles. Israel is paying a heavy political and diplomatic price for a partially effective siege.

At present, there are no Israeli negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over a final status agreement. But should negotiations be resumed, Hamas, which so far has not accepted the Quartet conditions, can derail the negotiations or foil the implementation of a putative agreement by initiating large-scale hostilities. Even in the absence of a diplomatic process, Hamas and the smaller radical organizations can ignite the tinder box and restart an all too familiar vicious cycle by initiating a terrorist act or by launching rockets at will into such Israeli cities as Beersheba, Ashkelon and Ashdod.

Israel can retaliate by resuming targeted killings. This has proven to be an effective tactic but it also results in massive rocket attacks that disrupt life in a significant part of Israel. As the violence escalates, the pressure on the Israeli government to launch a large-scale military operation mounts. But the lessons of Operation Cast Lead (2008-9) are still fresh: such an operation is bound to exact a high toll without resolving the underlying problems. Israel does not want to reoccupy Gaza, is not anxious to reoccupy the "Philadelphi Strip" that separates Sinai from the Gaza Strip, and realizes that the Palestinian Authority is not anxious to return to Gaza on the Israel Defense Force's bayonets. In the current diplomatic environment, the cost of any large-scale military operation seems prohibitive.

The debate over these issues was renewed within the Israeli political system and the national security establishment and in the Israeli media in the aftermath of August 18. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and Israel (as well as Hamas) agreed to yet another ceasefire. The Israeli leadership understood that even if a significant change in Israel's posture vis-a-vis Hamas could be achieved, this was not the time to seek it.

A second challenge concerns Egypt. Israel's caution regarding Gaza derived to a large extent from the frailty of its current relationship with Cairo. In the aftermath of his fall from power, Husni Mubarak's relations with Israel are depicted almost nostalgically as much better than they actually were. Still, Mubarak was committed to the peace treaty with Israel, conducted a regional policy compatible with Israel's own view of the Middle East, and saw Hamas as an Iranian tool implanted on Egypt's border and allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, his domestic nemesis. In post-revolutionary Egypt the military leadership, which holds ultimate power, subscribes to more or less the same views and policies. But the military exercises influence rather than governing and has to take into account the views of several other actors and forces at work.

One of these forces is the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that oppose the peace with Israel and support the Palestinians and particularly Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Another is the unstructured but influential groups that started the revolution and continue to act as a pressure group. At the height of the campaign to topple Mubarak they focused on domestic issues, but with the passage of time some came to advocate pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli positions. Yet another relevant actor is that part of the foreign policy establishment that had advocated harsher policies toward Israel in the Mubarak years and has now stepped up its criticism of Israel and the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. Two prominent members of this group are Amr Mousa, the leading candidate for the country's presidency, and Nabil al-Arabi, the current secretary general of the Arab League.

The military leadership is genuinely interested in imposing the government's authority in Sinai and preventing deterioration with Israel. But against this backdrop, when Israeli forces in hot pursuit of the August 18 terrorists also killed a number of Egyptian soldiers, the leadership was hard put to protect the relationship with Israel from the wrath of a galvanized Egyptian "street".

A third challenge is Sinai itself. For more than two decades after the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979, the Sinai Peninsula was primarily a large, effective buffer zone--a pillar of the new Egyptian-Israeli security regime. More recently, as Mubarak's regime waned and lost control over the Bedouin population and as Gaza became a major arena of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, other issues came to the fore: weapons smuggling from Sinai into Gaza and vice versa, smuggling of drugs and illegal immigrants through the open Sinai-Israel border, and occasional terrorist acts launched from the Sinai.

Egypt and Israel had common interests and views in these matters but they also disagreed over several issues. Egypt suspected that Israel wanted to drop Gaza into its lap. Israel complained that Egypt did not invest a full effort in preventing arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip. Both governments realized that low- and mid-level Egyptian officers and bureaucrats did not comply with their own government's policies. These problems were exacerbated by the repercussions of the Egyptian revolution. To cite two examples: armed Bedouins stormed government installations; and the gas supply to Israel was interrupted by repeated sabotaging of the pipelines. These trends came to a head in the aftermath of August 18. The immediate tension and crisis were resolved but the prospect of a fresh crisis seems likely.

Finally, there is the challenge of the September vote in the United Nations. Efforts are still being invested in finding a formula for renewing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations ahead of the anticipated vote on Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly, but the prospects for success are dim. A UN vote approved by a large majority is likely to produce political and diplomatic tension and might lead to a wave of violence. In both cases, violence might break out along Israel's border with Gaza. Hamas would not relish an achievement credited to the PLO and Palestinian Authority and violence is likely to be contagious.

Against this backdrop, Israel's best option is to renew negotiations over a final status settlement and to insist vis-a-vis the Palestinian leadership, the US and the Quartet that any political settlement must also include the Gaza Strip. This is an arduous path, but the only promising one. It is highly unlikely that it will be adopted.-Published 5/9/2011 ©

Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's former ambassador in Washington and chief negotiator with Syria, is the author of the forthcoming "The Lingering Conflict: Israel, the Arabs and the Middle East 1948-2011".

Telling Israel 'no'
an interview with Ghazi Hamad
bitterlemons: What is the current situation at the Rafah crossing, after Egypt announced that it would be open to travelers?

Hamad: Generally speaking, the situation at Rafah crossing is sufficient, but there are crises because the number of passengers allowed to cross is limited while the number registered and ready to travel is quite large.

In principle, Egypt never mentioned anything about the number of passengers allowed, which would indicate that they have changed their mind [about opening the crossing], but the slow procedures at the crossing make it difficult to allow a sufficient number of passengers. What Egypt did announce is that the [crossing's] working hours are from nine to five and cover certain categories of people. People over age 40 and under 16 can cross without the need to obtain a visa. On the other hand, there is a category of people who are returned by Egypt for security reasons, [an issue] that we also try to solve with Egyptian authorities.

bitterlemons: Why do you think that Egypt has taken this position on the crossing, despite the change in its leadership? Is Hamas negotiating with Egypt on this issue?

Hamad: We are in touch with the Egyptian authorities to solve some of those problems. One of the issues that needs resolution is that many people between 16 and 40 years old have no reference point to go to and apply for a visa because Egypt has no representative office in Gaza. This makes it difficult for Gazans to cross into Egypt. Generally, I can say we have a good relationship with Egypt and we communicate almost every day for many reasons.

I believe Egypt has its own considerations in following these procedures at the crossing but they promised us that once we Palestinians reconcile and manage to form a unity government then the crossing will be reopened completely, as it used to be in the past.

bitterlemons: What does Hamas know about the operation in Eilat? Is it true that the attackers were Egyptians from the Sinai? Have there been discussions with Egypt over this issue?

Hamad: We have discussed it with the Egyptians. In our contacts with all the Palestinian factions, they all denied any link with the Eilat operation. It appears that Israel used the Eilat attack to avoid its internal domestic crisis. It also wanted to satisfy its public by attacking Gaza without any proof or evidence that Gaza stood behind [the attack].

Israel, so far, has not published any names or photos of the Eilat attackers, which makes us really suspicious about who was behind it.

bitterlemons: Egypt recently claimed that it prevented a major Israeli operation in Gaza, maybe even the assassination of Ismail Haniyeh. Is this true?

Hamad: I haven't heard the Egyptians saying this. We communicated with them every day during the escalation and, frankly speaking, they played an important role in stopping the Israeli aggression against Gaza, along with the United Nations.

bitterlemons: Why didn't Egypt withdraw its ambassador from Tel Aviv after several Egyptian soldiers were killed along the Israel-Egypt border?

Hamad: I think it's still early for Egypt to get into a diplomatic confrontation with any party. Conditions in Egypt are not stable and it needs to rearrange its house internally and heal the post-revolution wounds. Then they might consider confrontation with Israel or others.

On the other hand, there is a sense of patriotism that has arisen, and one feels more dignity in the Egyptian voice than before. Now they are taking more serious steps regarding the Egyptian security presence in Sinai than they were able to do in the past.

bitterlemons: How would you summarize the "new Egypt's" attitude towards Palestinians and Israel?

Hamad: It's difficult to judge, but in general I can say that the first signs of a new Egyptian attitude appear positive. Egypt deals with Palestinians and their cause in a more positive manner, which means the future will be better for us. Moreover, Egypt's new attitude towards Israel seems to be negative for Israel and could in the future put an end to 50 years of Israeli arrogance. In other words, someone will finally tell Israel "no".-Published 5/9/2011

Ghazi Hamad is deputy prime minister in the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip