08.07.2015 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Israel’s New Political Manoeuvering in the Middle East

342344111In one of the previous articles, I had argued that any probable nuclear deal between Iran and the USA would “send political jolts across the entire Middle Eastern political landscape, with Saudi Arabia and Israel standing as the most sensitive areas to bear its shocks.” While Saudi Arabia seems to have started thinking in terms of developing its own nuclear arsenal, Israel—already a nuclear power—is looking forward to do the undoable: peace deal with Hammas.

From the Israeli perspective, peace deal with Hammas can yield two significant results under the given circumstances. First of all, Israel would be better-off vis-à-vis Iran if she can succeed in pacifying Hammas; for, it would then not have to worry about fighting the two enemies simultaneously as it has been doing so far. Secondly, by making a peace deal with Hammas, with Saudi Arabia playing an instrumental role in it, Israel may be able to build a new anti-Iran covert coalition and thus may be able to secure its vulnerable position in the Middle East. As it stands, secret talks are already under way and seem to have made significant progress.

Israel and Hammas are holding secret talks over a number of issues, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was quoted as saying in May, 2015. Abbas, who was visiting Jordan, was quoted by a number of media outlets there as saying during a dinner with Jordanian and Palestinian officials that he has a “full protocol” of the purported talks between Hamas and Israel. On the other hand, as far as the Israeli authorities are concerned, the Israeli incharge of contacts with Hammas, Major General Yoav Mordechai, coordinator of government activities in the territories, has not hidden the fact that he is quite open to a truce. Neither has the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot, whose views reflect the consensus of Israel’s military and intelligence community. Israel’s political leadership rejects the idea of a long-term accord with Hammas, but apparently it has turned a blind eye to the talks as long as they stand to serve Israel’s above stated politico-strategic objectives.

The goal of these secret negotiations is, as reported by some Arab sources, to extract a commitment to establish a ‘humanitarian cease-fire’ from Hammas, perhaps accompanied by third-party guarantees. The “third party” appears to be Qatar, Saudi Arabia and, as some reported, United Nations. According to the deal being discussed, Hamas would promise to refrain from any hostilities against Israel for a given period, possibly three to five years. In exchange, Israel would significantly ease its partial blockade on Gaza and take other steps to help Gaza’s economy. Later – though this seems unlikely – Israel might even reconsider ideas it has rejected in the past, like letting a seaport be built in Gaza under external supervision. Such a deal could appeal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, because it would enable him to portray last summer’s war in Gaza as a long-term achievement instead of a highly controversial, unfinished “job.”

An indirect deal of this kind would not require Netanyahu to make any major concessions to Hammas like granting it an official recognition or even ceding territory. On the other hand, it would certainly put him in such a position as to be able to outflank President Mahmoud Abbas and rebut some of the international criticism of his lack of movement on the Palestinian front. In addition to it, if Netanyahu and Israeli authorities think that tensions with Hezbollah might lead to war in the coming years, a long-term cease-fire in Gaza would temporarily relieve the army of a headache and let it focus on the far more dangerous enemy to the north.

It is therefore not an exaggeration to state that the nature of these talks is not merely strategic; it is equally political. As a matter of fact, Israel and Hammas have held talks many times in the past, but most of the time these talks were of tactical nature, focused around the question of reducing and controlling “tactical incidents” along the border fence. The extent, nature and scope of currently on-going negotiations and “good will” being expressed by the two parties can be assessed from the fact that Hammas was at the helm of arresting the Islamic Jihad rocket crew, which had previously fired a Grad missile into Israel on May 26 from northern Gaza. It was the first such attack since last summer’s war. It is important to acknowledge that it was this very missile fire that indirectly helped initiate these talks. Significantly, Israel had initially held Hammas responsible for this attack. However, this stance was reverted late on as Hammas agreed to take on Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees—organizations directly challenging Hammas itself—and arrested four members of Islamic Jihad a day after Israel replied with aerial attacks on four unmanned Gaza targets. This is a very significant departure from previous practices. Following traditional pattern, Hammas would retaliated Israeli response but it never happened.

However, notwithstanding potential benefits of this truce, it is yet far from taking any concrete shape. Most of all, there are many serious challenges that Hamas is facing from within. A number of recent intelligence reports clearly indicate that the military and political wings of Hammas are feuding over relations with Iran and continuation of the cease-fire with Israel. Contrary to going forward with the proposal of establishing peace with Israel, the military wing in Gaza has reportedly begun receiving massive financial aid from Iran to restock its missiles and dig new attack tunnels, despite opposition from the political wing. This is clearly Iran’s response to Israel’s efforts to win over Hammas to its side and channelize its resources towards Iran.

The political wing, meanwhile, has been conducting indirect talks with Israel over reconstruction of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure and a possible multi-year truce. Some other reports have revealed that Hammas’ political leadership in Gaza apparently favors a deal. After three military conflicts against Israel in less than six years, each of which wreaked devastation in Gaza, it seems unlikely that Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and his colleagues would want another round anytime soon. Khaled Meshal, the Qatar-based head of Hammas’ political wing, also seems to have moderated the hardline positions he took during the war a bit. It appears that this change of stance is possibly an outcome the rapprochement between Hammas’ political wing and Saudi Arabia.

Notwithstanding the nature of negotiations going-on, this dichotomy within Hammas is beneficial for Israel not only in terms of offering it an opportunity to break the power of an erstwhile enemy, but also in terms of using it as a political leverage over the USA. In other words, by winning over one faction of Hammas to its side, Israel hopes to use it as a tactic to bring the US under pressure which highly values Mahmoud Abbas’s control in Gaza at some point in order to become a credible partner in a two-state peace agreement. By making a deal with Hammas, Israel seems to be planning to defeat this very objective of the US; for, this new Gaza channel is reinforcing US suspicions that Israel is backing away from the goal of a two-state solution. The US undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, addressing the biennial conference of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism on April 27, pointedly warned that if Netanyahu’s new right-wing coalition “is seen as stepping back” from the two-state goal, America’s “job” of defending Israel “in the international community” will be “a lot tougher.”

However, as state above, Israel is certainly going ahead with re-establishing balance of power in the region which, as Israeli authorities believe, has certainly gone in favour of Iran after the US-Iran deal. The US, compelled by its own strategic needs, may have succeeded in normalizing its relations with Iran, it is certainly far from capable of arresting the growth of subsequent developments such as Israel-Saudi secret alliance and now Israel-Hammas covert dialogue. These state and non-state actors in these developments are certainly in the process of re-defining their relations with the US on the one hand, and on the other hand, with each other as well. These developments are by far not insignificant in terms of shaping, if not actually determining, the future of the Middle East in which the US may not have so significant a role as it has been playing since the end of the World War.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook