The race against the clock to find the right formula for a cease-fire reached a crossroads Monday night: Decision-makers in Jerusalem and Gaza were weighing the pros and cons of the Egyptian-mediated draft agreement calling for an immediate end to hostilities followed by further talks on a long-term lull.
Israel seemed to warm up to the proposal, saying "quiet will be met with quiet," both now and later. Because of what Israeli leaders call a "severe blow to Hamas and its assets," the organization's reaction was also positive, and it was even ready to commit to having the other armed groups in the Gaza Strip abide by the emerging cease-fire. That said, Hamas has so far refused to back down from the demands it had set for a long-term cease-fire. Among them: a clear Israeli commitment to stop targeting its leadership, an end to the naval blockade and an opening of the Rafah crossing point in a way that allows an unrestricted flow of goods.
The Hamas negotiating team is two-pronged: The political echelon is represented by political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh; the military wing is represented by Mohammed Deif (who is still officially one of its leaders despite being crippled by an assassination attempt) and Marwan Issa (who has become the acting head of the military wing in the wake of Ahmed Jabari's assassination last week).
Israeli negotiators were holed up most of the day in a nearby room in Cairo on Monday, reporting directly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
They communicated with their Palestinian counterparts via Egyptian intelligence officials, in a way that is strikingly similar to the talks over the release of captive soldier Gilad Schalit last year, which culminated with the two sides agreeing on a prisoner swap. But unlike that exchange, international power brokers are actively working the two sides from behind the scenes. Among the players are the U.S. (President Barack Obama talked with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on Monday), the European Union, the Arab League, Turkey (Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will arrive in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday) and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (who arrived in Cairo on Monday and will proceed to Israel on Tuesday).
While this international wheeling and dealing should ostensibly help Hamas by stopping Israel from launching its ground offensive, Israel has just as much to gain from this activity, as it offers the Jewish state a face-saving solution that would spare it from a ground campaign that enjoys little support among the political class. But even more importantly, if the international community manages to broker a cease-fire, its breach, whether by Hamas or some other group that fires rockets on Israel, will have broken a promise made toward the West and the Arab World, creating legitimacy for Israeli action.
In other words, the unofficial truce that appears to be in the works in Cairo will serve as the foundation for the next IDF campaign. The agreement will try to make it very hard for terrorists to act against Israel from the Gaza Strip and will provide Israel with significant international backing. Israel will still have to grapple with dilemmas, such as whether to engage in pre-emptive action and assassinate would-be perpetrators when there is actionable intelligence of an imminent terrorist attack, but even in such scenarios, the deterrence that Israel established in this campaign (which security officials says is much greater than it appears) would help.
This increased deterrence is a result of the severe blow Hamas was dealt in the first six days of fighting: the assassination of military wing commander Ahmed Jabari, the taking out of the Fajr rockets and Hamas' unmanned aerial vehicle units and the targeting of the organization's command and control apparatus; the destruction of hundreds of launchers and dozens of tunnels, and the past two days' strikes on its command posts and government buildings. These actions, along with the killing of dozens of terrorists, came as a strategic surprise. The organization will most likely engage in some extensive soul-searching in light of this bitter experience.
While the organization is likely to claim it successfully outlasted the Israeli assault, behind the scenes it will lick its wounds and try to rehabilitate. It would have little time, or appetite, for another military adventure with Israel.
But make no mistake: There will not be a Hamas surrender. While it clearly wants to end the fighting and avoid an Israeli ground campaign, it is ready for a protracted battle. It still has thousands of rockets. While these are mostly short-range projectiles, they can make the lives of Israelis in the south miserable for days on end.
While the Israel Air Force has managed to severely curtail the rocket-launching activity (Saturday saw 245 launches, Sunday 151 and Monday “only” 121), this comes with a price. The targets are fast encroaching on the civilian population and have made it increasingly likely that noncombatants would be in harm’s way. This could complicate Israel's situation on the world stage.
In light of all this, Israel has yet to launch its ground campaign. If there is no progress on a cease-fire (or if it unravels after a few days), it may reconsider and eventually decide to go ahead with the invasion. The IDF reservists will have to wait a day or two to allow a proper assessment. The two sides are going to fight until the final whistle is blown, and until that happens, we might see some surprises (as the IDF spokesman said on Monday). This could be in the form of a deadly attack on Israelis or the assassination of top Palestinian operatives. Both scenarios might make all hell break loose and have both sides continue fighting.