The problem with Gaza is easy to understand and much harder to solve: reasonable people and administrations – and the list includes Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and the international community – do not want to control Gaza. The only people who want to control Gaza are unreasonable people and administrations like the government of Hamas. So the dilemma for all those involved in negotiations over the future of Gaza is clear: pay the price of having to control an area you do not want to control – or pay the price of having to deal with a Gaza controlled by the unacceptable and unreasonable Hamas.
Other options include:
No control over Gaza – but that's clearly a worse option than the above-mentioned two.
Control by a force even less reasonable than Hamas – but that's clearly another worse option.
By pulling away its forces Israel signaled once more its preference for the future of Gaza. It doesn't want to control it. It would be glad to accept an arrangement in which reasonable forces will take over it – but is skeptical about whether such an option truly exists outside the minds of the utterly naïve (and no, the government official with whom I spoke didn't mention Secretary John Kerry by name). It is also ready to accept a de-facto Hamas rule in Gaza, as long as Hamas is deterred by Israel's show of force, or that new understandings with Hamas can put an end – temporary, but long term – to the shelling and fighting.
Can Israel succeed in getting what it wants? What will it do if it does not succeed?
Don't get confused by the involvement of the Palestinian Authority in negotiations. New understandings in Gaza will have to be acceptable to Hamas – they are the ones who will either stop the fighting or reach the calculation that it is better for them to continue. When Hamas decided to escalate the fighting against Israel it was largely because it wanted to maintain its control over the area while getting enough material assistance from outside sources (Abbas refused to pay the salaries of Hamas people). For Hamas, the goal hasn't changed: keep control over Gaza, but get rid of some of the burden of having to take care of the population.
The leverage Israel has over Hamas is quite simple: if worst comes to worst, Israel can destroy Hamas. There will be a heavy price to pay for this, but it is possible. Hamas is going to have to be careful not to miscalculate, because that can mean the end of its Gaza rule. On the other hand, Hamas knows that Israel has no desire to keep fighting in Gaza, and that is the leverage it has over Israel as it asks for the easing of restrictions and other concessions. The support Israel will be getting from other players in the region and elsewhere in resisting Hamas' demands is an important factor in Israel's ability to achieve its objectives, but not necessarily the determinative factor: Israel proved just a couple of days ago that a cease fire proposal that is totally unacceptable to its leaders will be met with stubborn resistance.
In recent days, and as the actual violence in Gaza seems to be gradually winding down, there are voices renewing the call for "strengthening the moderates" in the Palestinian camp. This is not a new idea for Israeli doves and for international players – the same logic was in play during the Bush administration, when Secretary Condoleezza Rice believed that a thriving West Bank and peace negotiations can be the best way to weaken Hamas.
There is always a streak of wishful thinking in such ideas: Abbas isn't going to do the dirty work of ruling the unruly Gaza. He is too smart and too cautious to want to do that.
Of course, he might be willing to take over Gaza if it is handed to him on a silver platter, but Hamas is hardly willing to relinquish power. What Hamas can do – and what Israel is a little worried about – is pretend to give an Abbas government the keys to Gaza while effectively continuing to control the area. The benefit for Hamas from such a move is clear: with Abbas as the front man, it will become easier to demand concessions from Israel and material and financial assistance from other countries. But believing that Hamas will agree to give Abbas effective control over the priorities in Gaza – that it will let Abbas invest in the people of Gaza rather than investing in rebuilding the tunnels – is quite a stretch.
But he can still play a constructive role that would give him some leverage over Hamas and over Israel and improve the chance of getting to a reasonably stable cease-fire. That is, if he takes control over the entry gates to Gaza.
Israel and Egypt might agree to this, as this would be a way to verify that the products making their way into Gaza are not used for military purposes. Hamas might agree to such an arrangement, because that is the only arrangement under which Israel and Egypt would be willing to ease the restrictions on imports to Gaza.
That is an arrangement that all parties to the Cairo talks can aim for, as it provides all sides with a tolerable end result to the round of violence. Hamas will be able to show that the violence resulted in the easing of some of the economic restrictions and hardships on Gaza; The international community will be able to invest in the rebuilding of Gaza and in making the lives of Gazans more tolerable and in helping stabilize the waters; Israel (and Egypt) will achieve its most crucial objective - to make it harder for Hamas to rearm and get militarily stronger.
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