Israel-Hamas ceasefire, what next?

May 24, 2021 1:04 PM

Going by the Israeli media, it is clear that the arm-twisting by the Biden Administration forced the reluctant Benjamin Netanyahu to give up his earlier open-ended military response to Hamas rocket attacks.

Israel Hamas ceasefireThe question is not on reviving the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation but its components and contours. (Photo source: Reuters)

By P R Kumaraswamy, 

After eleven days of fighting, Israel and Hamas had accepted a ceasefire which came into effect in the early hours of Friday. Going by the Israeli media, it is clear that the arm-twisting by the Biden Administration forced the reluctant Benjamin Netanyahu to give up his earlier open-ended military response to Hamas rocket attacks. How long will this ceasefire hold before another minor or major flare up? If the past is any indication, we are looking at only weeks and months and not years.

Though important, the ceasefire is only the first major step and is unlikely to be enduring without major shifts on all three sides; Israel, Palestine National Authority and Hamas. Contrary to Netanyahu’s claims, Israel is not a winner in this round, and its destruction of the military capabilities of Hamas has been marginal and will not be sufficient to deter another bout of violence. Some centre-right Israelis have started criticising Netanyahu for ending the conflict sooner, without tangible gains and for buckling under American pressures. The Likud leader’s ability to form a government would be undermined if these criticisms gain currency.

Two, the division between the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the militant Palestinian group dating back to 1988 became acute and unbridgeable after the military takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas in June 2007. The militant group did everything in its power, often through violent attacks on Israel, to undermine the PLO and the PNA and was successful in denting the influence and standing of the mainstream Palestinian movement and leadership. Though costly in human terms, the recent conflict has enhanced the standing of Hamas among the Palestinians, especially in the light of the growing marginalisation of the PNA in the Arab world.

Three, despite initial scepticisms, President Biden managed to compel Netanyahu for an early and unilateral ceasefire, indicating continued American influence over Israel’s policy choices. But they need one another. If Israel’s strategic autonomy flows from the support of the US, President Biden needs Israel’s help if he were to avoid Obama’s legacy of alienating traditional friends of Washington.

Four, in some ways, the Gaza conflict puts the Israeli-Palestinian issue back on the American Middle Eastern agenda. Pressures from the European Union resulted in the Biden Administration prioritising the Iranian nuclear file over other issues. Several western capitals’ preoccupation with Iran came at the cost of the Palestinian issue. The Gaza conflict and the American desire to shore up the ceasefire should slow down the Iran track. Interestingly, Iran, the most hostile country against Israel, was silent during the Gaza crisis, and its proxy Hizballah was also restrained. Tehran did not want to complicate the Vienna talks. The removal and relaxation of sanctions are important for Iran than the Palestinian struggle and hence, it also reigned in the Lebanese militant group.

However, the most important and critical challenge for all the parties and the international community is the next step: Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. They are stalled for over a decade, at least since Netanyahu became prime minister in March 2009. The internal Hamas-Fatah and West Bank-Gaza divisions and periodic rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip enabled Netanyahu to sidestep the Palestinian question. Under President Trump, he managed to normalise relations with several Arab countries even without any progress on the Palestinian track. Like President Anwar Sadat in the 1970s, these countries prioritised their narrow national interests over the larger Palestinian statelessness.

The question is not on reviving the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation but its components and contours. The PNA and President Abbas are severely weakened by the Gaza conflict. Only substantial Israeli concessions in terms of territorial withdrawal, transfer of responsibilities and credible moves towards Palestinian statehood could improve the PNA’s standing among the Palestinians. While the PNA is too weak to impose conditions, its survival rests on the international community shoring up its political credibility; mere financial assistance to Palestinians will not be sufficient.

At the same time, no negotiations and agreements would be credible without Hamas. At one level, the militant Palestinian group is committed to the destruction of the State of Israel. The two-state solution that enjoys international support is anathema to the group that views the Palestinian question only through a narrow prism of Islamic history, claims and justification. In short, no peace is possible without Hamas, and no peace is also possible with Hamas. A true case of the devil and the deep sea.

One possible way out could be to bring Hamas within the fold of PLO and the PNA. This would shore up the PNA while diluting the ideological rigidity of Hamas. Unless there is an imaginative approach towards and by Hamas, the current ceasefire over Gaza will not last long.

(The author teaches contemporary Middle East in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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