While analysts say Israelis and Palestinians were close to a deal in Cairo this week, the talks were scuppered by increased demands from both sides. Israeli voices cite Hamas leaders insisting on the opening of a sea and airport in Gaza, while Palestinian commentators say Israel simply did not want to pay the required political price to strike a deal.
Renewed military strikes in Gaza have caused more civilian casualties overnight, including the deaths of women and children that have taken the death toll to over 2,030 since the Israeli army launched its offensive on 8 July.
Palestinian officials have been swift to blame Israel for the talks collapsing in Cairo.
“The Israeli government are the only side responsible for the collapse,” Saeb Erekat, head of the Palestinian Negotiations Affairs Department, told the Voice of Palestine. “The Israeli delegation came to Cairo blackmail us, not to reach ceasefire. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is sabotaging every effort as he did always.”
Azzam al-Ahmed, who led the Palestinian delegation in Egypt, said: “Israel thwarted the contacts that could have brought peace…there was an Israeli decision to make the Cairo talks fail.”
Israeli officials deny these allegations and instead accuse the Palestinian factions of being responsible for the negotiations being brought to an abrupt end.
“The Cairo process was built on a total and complete cessation of all hostilities and so when rockets were fired from Gaza, not only was it a clear violation of the ceasefire but it also destroyed the premise upon which the talks were based,” Mark Regev, spokesperson for the office of Israel’s prime minister, said in a statement.
Israeli analysts said increased demands from Hamas leaders led to Israel hardening their position during the negotiations in Cairo.
“Both sides made a decision to ask for too much,” Daniel Nisman, a security analyst and president of the Levantine Group consultancy, told MEE. “There was an understanding that there would be an interim agreement where both sides would get some demands but then Hamas, under the direction of Khaled Meshaal, reverted back to calling for a seaport and airport.”
“Israel obviously responded by saying there can be no seaport or airport without demilitarisation. At that point everyone said the talks were back to square one,” he added.
Meshaal, who is resident in Doha, is said to have been put under pressure by the Qataris in what Nisman described as “a proxy battle” involving the interests of powerful Gulf States. He said Qatar has sought to ensure the Saudi-backed Egyptians do not win a diplomatic success in mediating the talks, amid an ongoing fallout over Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now considered a terrorist group in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Palestinian commentators, however, have said that their team in Cairo had legitimate conditions for a deal and accused Israel of acting belligerently in negotiations.
“The Israelis have refused to make any concessions to the demands, which are not only being made by Hamas, but by Palestinians and the international community that the siege of Gaza should be lifted,” said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist and former professor at Princeton University.
“Israelis want a ceasefire but they don’t want to pay the price of lifting the siege, which is not an unreasonable demand to be made by the people of Gaza,” he added.
Kuttab said that without “freedom” Palestinians will not allow Israel the “quiet” they crave and accused Israeli politicians of misleading their public over their actions in Gaza.
“Israeli politicians aren’t telling their people about the real price of the war, they aren’t telling them that the attacks on Gaza are a violation of international law,” he said. “Once the Israeli public realise their government’s actions will bring political isolation, economic costs and possibly a high level of casualties among soldiers and civilians then people may think differently.”
“But unfortunately the Israeli politicians are not telling their public this and this has led to a demonization of Hamas,” he added.
Public and political support in Israel for strikes on Gaza
Israeli politicians have responded enthusiastically to the resumption of military strikes in Gaza and called for an end to ceasefire efforts.
“No more talking, just shoot,” said Nachman Shai, a Labour member of parliament, while Uri Ariel from the hawkish Jewish Home party demanded the army “pound Hamas until it is defeated.”
There remains broad support for military action in Gaza among the Israeli public, which has put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a difficult position when attempting to sell a ceasefire deal that accedes to any of the demands made by Palestinian negotiators in Cairo.
“To the right and left of Netanyahu both sides don’t understand why Israel is dealing with Hamas,” said Israeli analyst Nisman. “The left, pro-peace camp, say he should be speaking to the Palestinian Authority and on the right people say he shouldn’t be speaking to anyone in Palestine.”
“Everyone in the government is comparing Hamas to IS [the Islamic State] and then they speak to them: they have to decide what it is they believe,” he added.
Political splits within the Israeli government were laid bare this week, when news was leaked that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman angrily confronted Netanyahu at a “stormy” cabinet meeting. He accused the Israeli premier of withholding a draft ceasefire proposal from his colleagues, which prompted Netanyahu to promise any deal agreed with the Palestinians would be immediately brought for approval in the Knesset.
As for the coming days, fighting looks set to continue and as casualties continue to mount Palestinian journalist Kuttab said Israel’s political choices are narrowing.
“Short of annihilating 1.8mn people, what are the Israeli government going to do?” he asked. “They are going to have to kill a lot of people if they want to get rid of Hamas, a movement that retains strong popularity among Palestinians.”
“It’s a very narrow political game the Israelis are playing, they want to look good in front their people and avoid looking like they have given into Hamas. But the demands made in Cairo are not Hamas demands, they are legitimate Palestinian desires for freedom,” he added.
Both sides consider seeking UN support
Israeli commentators have begun to advocate for a change in approach to ending the conflict and said politicians should turn to the UN.
“It’s not too late for Israel to initiative a resolution in the UN Security Council that resembles Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War [in 2006],” Barak Ravid wrote in Haaretz. “Such a resolution would establish international mechanisms and launch a long-term process to change the reality in Gaza in a way that would serve Israel and its allies and isolate Hamas and its patrons.”
UN Resolution 1701 swiftly led to a ceasefire between Israeli and Lebanese forces in 2006, and included provisions to disarm militias in Lebanon, which would appeal to Israel now as they seek to demilitarise the Gaza Strip.
Kuttab poured scorn on Israel going to the UN, however, saying the international body will not be supportive to Israel after numerous attacks on their facilities in Gaza.
Palestinian officials themselves have said the UN could be a potential route for achieving their needs, with chief negotiator Saeb Erekat saying the issue “should be dealt with through the Security Council immediately.”
“We are trying now to have an international effort through the UN to end the occupation, and establish a Palestinian sovereign state,” he told the Voice of Palestine. “This is the only way out of this conflict,” he said.
Turning to the UN is an indication that the Cairo peace talks are dead in the water. While Egyptian authorities have urged both sides to return to their negotiating table, there appears little to suggest that will happen in the near future.
Perhaps the clearest indication that fighting will continue in Gaza came on Wednesday with news that Israel attempted to assassinate Hamas military leader Mohammed Deif. His wife and daughter were killed in the attack but it is unclear whether Deif himself is dead.
Nisman said while the assassination attempt “no doubt means the Palestinians will want to carry on fighting for at least a few more days” he concluded that the scale of Israeli military strikes will ultimately decide on the longevity of this fight.
“If Israel has a muted response, 30 or 40 military strikes a day, the Palestinians could probably keep fighting for a really long time,” he said, adding that “after 45 days of fighting Hamas is still firing the same amount of rockets they did at the beginning of the conflict, which demonstrates the limitations of Israel’s current military operations.”
The seemingly ineffective nature of Israel’s military strikes in Gaza has not, however, dampened support for attacks among its people.
“The Israeli public do not view the military operation as having failed, they just think it is hasn’t finished yet,” Nisman added.
With ceasefire talks failing to produce an agreement and strong support in Israel for further military strikes on Gaza it would seem that rather than winding down, this conflict will continue until the political or material cost becomes too high for one side or the other.