Analysis: Kerry intent on a Gaza truce

Kerry, will have to find areas where Israel could make some concessions regarding Gaza, without contradicting its aim to demilitarize the area once the fighting ends.

John Kerry (photo credit: REUTERS)
John Kerry
(photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry, in a candid comment inadvertently caught on camera Sunday before being interviewed on a Fox news show, voiced a great deal of urgency in wanting to get over to the Middle East and broker a cease-fire.
Waiting for the interview, Kerry was seen on camera and was heard talking to an aide about the fighting in Gaza.
“It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation. It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” he said, apparently a sarcastic reference to Israel saying its strikes were as surgical as could be under the circumstances.
“Right,” one of his staff members was heard saying over the phone. “It’s escalating really significantly, and just underscores the need for a cease-fire.”
“We’ve got to get over there,” Kerry replied. “We ought to go tonight. I think it’s crazy to be sitting around.”
And, indeed, off Kerry went, arriving in Cairo on Monday.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also went there.
On arrival, Kerry is likely to find that the urgency he feels is not shared by the main protagonists in this military drama called Operation Protective Edge. And this must fill him with a sense of deja vu.
When Kerry’s efforts to forge a comprehensive Israeli- Palestinian peace deal in nine months failed in April, he said that it was impossible to want peace more than the sides do.
The same is true of a ceasefire.
And, as former National Security Council head Giora Eiland pointed out on Monday, the three main sides to a cease-fire – Israel, Hamas and Egypt – don’t at this point have an overwhelming sense of urgency.
Israel, having made the agonizing decision to launch a ground incursion – and now paying a heavy price as a result – is unlikely to want to stop until it has destroyed the bulk of Hamas’s terror tunnels. And, as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said on Sunday, that will take two to three days.
Israel, now that it is fully engaged on the ground inside Gaza, will not want to stop until it has significantly degraded Hamas’s operational capabilities so it will take numerous years, not just two or three as has been recent experience, to rebuild them and again pose a threat.
Hamas, too, is not in any great rush to stop the firing.
At first blush, with hundreds of people dead in Gaza and their capabilities taking a serious pounding, one would think they would chomp at the bit to want to stop the fighting.
But, as former US president Bill Clinton said in an interview with India’s NDTV television network last week, “Hamas was perfectly aware of what would happen if they started raining rockets in Israel. They fired a thousand of them. And they have a strategy designed to force Israel to kill their own civilians so that the rest of the world will condemn them.”
In this twisted Hamas logic, the more dead Palestinian civilians, the better – because then Israel will be blamed.
Hamas is in no hurry to end the fighting because it is desperate for that one “spectacular” terrorist attack – a mass attack that would kill dozens, the kind it has tried to perpetrate from the terror tunnels over the last two days.
In Hamas’s thinking, by continuing the fighting for a bit longer they have little to lose: Israel will come under increasing pressure as the Palestinian civilian casualty rate rises, and one of their “spectacular” attacks may succeed.
Egypt, Eiland pointed out, is also in no great hurry.
President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is definitely not shedding any tears over the beating Hamas is taking – that organization’s ideology and its older brother, the Muslim Brotherhood, pose a major threat to him and Egypt. Nor, as always, is Egypt necessarily sad to see Israel bleed.
So when Kerry holds his meetings in the region, he will – again – likely find that he wants something more than the sides most directly involved.
But a cease-fire is inevitable. The fighting can’t go on forever.
Israel will be amenable when the international calls for it grow to a roar. And Hamas will be amenable when it sees that not only is it getting pounded by Israel, but that it also has no support – outside of Qatar – in the Arab world to keep up the fight hoping to win better cease-fire conditions.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has consistently said throughout the two weeks of the operation that the goals are to restore quiet, and to significantly deplete Hamas’s capabilities.
He has since added two other goals: demilitarization of Gaza, and destroying the tunnels.
To achieve these goals, the IDF has hit Hamas hard and undeniably degraded its capabilities, as well as destroying as many tunnels as possible.
This leaves the restoration of quiet and the demilitarization of Gaza outstanding – with the restoration of long-term quiet being, indeed, wrapped up within demilitarization.
It is unrealistic to believe that Israel will stop the fighting and just allow the situation to remain as it is has been for years – with Hamas free to do as it likes in its terrorist fiefdom.
It is equally delusional to believe that Hamas will raise the white flag and surrender.
In the end, Eiland speculated, Israel will be expected to give Hamas something if it wants to get what it believes is most important – the demilitarization of Gaza.
Once the battle ends, and much of Hamas’s infrastructure is demolished, it will be more difficult for Hamas to rearm, replenish and rebuild their tunnels and rockets than in years past because the smuggling route from Egypt is not what it once was.
At the same time, Israel will push for mechanisms, as yet undefined, to ensure that Hamas cannot rearm via other routes.
But Israel, to get those mechanisms, will be expected to give Hamas some of what it is looking for; specifically relieving the naval blockade, allowing more goods and materials into Gaza, and – most important from Hamas’s perspective – opening the border crossings.
Israel would ideally like Egypt to open the Rafah crossing, but Cairo is in no great hurry to accommodate, seeing this as somehow taking on responsibility for Gaza – something it definitely does not want to do.
This will be the circle that Kerry, in the coming hours and days, will struggle to square – finding those areas where Israel could make some concessions regarding access to Gaza, without contradicting its overarching interest: demilitarizing the Gaza Strip once the fighting ends.