The biggest x-factor in the latest chapter of the Israel/Hamas conflict might be the government of Mursi’s Egypt
By Henry Anreder
Last Saturday, four Israelis were wounded after Palestinian militants hit an Israeli Defense Forces tank with an anti-tank missile. Israel responded with missile strikes that killed 9 Palestinians and wounded 20. The subsequent exchange of rocket fire appeared to be yet another round of the intermittent aerial conflict between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip. It is now clear that the situation resembles late 2008 much more than the summer of 2011. Four days later, after 19 Palestinians and 3 Israelis have died, the situation appears to be rapidly approaching a ground invasion similar to Operation Cast Lead almost four years ago.
At 4 am on Wednesday, November 13, Newsweek Jerusalem bureau chief Dan Ephron published an article indicating the possibility of a major scale airstrike on Hamas targets in Gaza. The article included a quote from Likud politician Ofir Akunis, who seemed to accurately predict the ensuing offensive: “There is a real need for a widespread operation with the aim of removing the threat hanging over the heads of residents of the south.” Just a few hours later, Israel assassinated Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari with a surgical strike on his car and began a large-scale airstrike dubbed “Pillar of Cloud.” The Israel Defense Forces have primarily targeted the Iranian-made Fajr missiles that have the range to reach Tel Aviv and potentially even Jerusalem. The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad responded to the Israeli strike with historically bold rocket attacks that have reached Holon, near the outskirts of Tel Aviv. For the first time since Saddam Hussein’s strikes on the city in 1991, the emergency sirens sounded in Tel Aviv on Thursday and the municipality opened public bomb shelters to prepare for the worst.
Even Hamas, which has tacitly permitted rocket firing from smaller groups since 2009, joined the fray and fired a rocket aimed at Jerusalem that landed 18 miles south, in the West Bank. Although Israel has claimed to have largely destroyed the stockpile of the Fajr missiles in Gaza, given the extent of the casualties on the Palestinian side and the reach of the Gazans’ arsenal, the prospects for a peaceful resolution to the conflict ahead of a ground invasion are bleak.
With thousands of lives at stake in Israel and Gaza, all eyes have turned to the major variable in the region: Egypt. Both The New York Times and the Washington Post published articles during the past two days forecasting the next move of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Shortly after the Wednesday assassination, Morsi strongly condemned the attacks and recalled Egypt’s ambassador from Tel Aviv. He later announced that Prime Minister Hesham Kandil would visit Gaza in solidarity with the Palestinians under attack. Kandil arrived in Gaza early Friday morning with a large envoy of Egyptian intelligence officers that previously negotiated ceasefires with Israel, according to an Egyptian diplomat.
Instead of withdrawing to the sidelines, Morsi is redefining conventional wisdom on Egypt’s role in the region. The Egyptian president, elected as the country’s first civilian head of state, has so far crafted a diplomatic policy that simultaneously factors in both pro-Palestinian Egyptian public sentiment and pressure from the Obama administration to maintain peaceful relations with Israel. The leadership in Gaza has certainly appreciated the new-found explicit support from their neighbor. In a speech yesterday, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh commended Morsi “for the quick and brave decisions he made,” and noted, “Today’s Egypt is unlike that of yesterday.”
The U.S. State Department has keenly recognized Morsi’s popularity in Gaza and views it as a unique opportunity for not only for negotiating a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, but also for codifying his outlook for a greater degree of predictability in the region. Egypt as the willing intermediary presents a host of challenges, particularly in the event of an escalated Israeli ground invasion.
Israel has few diplomatic alternatives to Morsi if Egypt’s tenuous negotiating evaporates. Despite the escalated tension due to attacks on the Israeli embassy in Egypt and cross-border tension in Sinai, all recent negotiations between Israel and Hamas have run through Cairo, whether arranging for a truce between Israel and Gaza militants in August 2011 or negotiating the return of long-held Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The Netanyahu administration has hedged its bets this time. On Friday, Israel halted its rocket attacks during Kandil’s visit to Gaza, but has maintained its claim to self-defense while drafting 16,000 reservists for a potential ground invasion.
In a November 15 PBS interview, Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren acknowledged Israel’s own balancing act as he explained, “We pay a price in terms of some of our relationships in the world, in the media, but you have to weigh that against the lives of a million Israelis.” The admission that Israel’s immediate security concerns have overshadowed its preferred diplomatic agenda should be no surprise to analysts and fuels the cynical analysis that a ground invasion will shortly unfold. A more measured understanding of Oren’s quote leaves room for optimism that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak value the Egyptian negotiating capacity enough to place it as a major consideration when planning the next steps. As the editorial board of the Washington Post noted yesterday, “As Israel might have learned from its 2008-09 invasion of Gaza, war with Hamas imposes heavy diplomatic costs, because of the inevitable civilian casualties, and does not solve the underlying political or security problems.”
The four most likely next stages assuming the conflict continues were well-outlined in a November 14th editorial by Brookings fellow Natan Sachs that detailed four different trajectories for the reignited Gaza conflict:
1) More targeted assassinations;
2) A continued air offensive;
3) A non-regime changing ground invasion similar to Cast Lead; and
4) A more severe ground invasion that topples Hamas.
Predictions in the Middle East are best taken with a grain of salt and a large dash of humility. While the indicators point to a constructive, intermediary role for Egypt in the coming days, a large-scale Israeli ground invasion could submit Morsi to unbearable levels of public criticism that undermine negotiations. A ground invasion could certainly replicate Cast Lead in terms of destruction and press coverage. In terms of the aftermath, however, the potential outcome for all parties involved, including Egypt and the United States, is likely a series of disappointments far greater than that after Cast Lead. The cycle of violence with no discernible end would continue as it has, with decreasing prospects for continued American and Egyptian diplomatic engagement.
Henry Anreder is a recent graduate of Hamilton College. He wrote his senior thesis on Palestinian state-building after studying at the University of Haifa in 2011. He previously interned at J Street, the New Israel Fund, and Btselem.
Photo Credit: Flickr Commons