By George Friedman
The Israeli-Hamas conflict has entered into a negotiation phase. Both sides want talks. Hamas wants them because any outcome that prevents an Israeli ground assault gives it the opportunity to retain some of its arsenal of Fajr-5 rockets; the Israelis want them because the cost of an invasion could be high, and they recall the political fallout of Operation Cast Lead in 2008, which alienated many European and other governments.
No matter how much either side might want to avoid ground warfare, negotiations are unlikely to forestall an Israeli assault because Hamas' and Israel's goals leave little middle ground.
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One of Hamas' main goals in this current round of fighting is to retain enough Fajr-5 rockets to allow it to threaten the Israeli heartland, the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem corridor. If they succeed, Hamas will have gained a significant lever in its relations with the Israelis. The Israeli goal is to deny Hamas these rockets. The problem for the Israelis is that this requires a ground assault in order to have any chance of success. The Israelis may think they know where the rockets are, but they cannot be certain. Airstrikes can target known facilities, at least those where rockets are not stored in hardened underground bunkers. But only by going in on the ground with substantial force will the Israelis have the opportunity to search for and destroy the rockets.
Finding middle ground will be difficult. The retention of the Fajr-5 both dramatically improves Hamas' strategic position and gives Hamas the chance to further weaken the Palestinian National Authority. Hamas cannot agree to any deal that takes the rockets away — or that does not at least leave open the possibility that it could have them. Meanwhile, Israel simply cannot live with the Fajr-5 in the hands of Hamas.
Lack of International Involvement
It is interesting to note the remarkable indifference of most countries that normally rush to mediate such disputes, the United States chief among them. Washington has essentially endorsed the Israeli position so strongly that it has no option to mediate. The Turks, who had been involved with the Gaza issue during the flotilla incident of May 2010, have taken no steps beyond rhetoric in spite of relations with both Hamas and Israel. The Saudis have also avoided getting involved.
The Egyptians have been the most active in trying to secure a cease-fire: Beyond sending their prime minister into Gaza on Nov. 16, as well as their intelligence chief and a group of security officials, Cairo then hosted a delegation of senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad members to further this goal. But while the Egyptians have a great interest in preventing an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza and are crucial to the Israeli imperative to prevent weapons smuggling via Gaza, there is little more they can do at present to mediate between the two sides.
If no one seems to want to serve as mediator, it is because there is such little room for negotiation. It is not ideology but strategy that locks each side into place. Hamas has come this far and does not want to give up what it has maneuvered for. Israel cannot allow Hamas a weapon that threatens the Israeli heartland. This situation is too serious for the parties to reach an agreement that ends the hostilities for now but in reality simply pushes back the issues to be addressed later. No one is eager to mediate a failure. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has said he will go to Gaza in the coming week, but he will not be in a position to find middle ground.
Israel will not budge on this. Hamas could be compelled to relent under threat from its core financial supporters in the Arabian Peninsula, but these states, such as Qatar, are all far more concerned with the threat posed by Iran. The fact that these rockets likely originated with Iran ought to give them incentive to lean on Hamas.
Dubious Prospects for Negotiations
It is important to bear in mind that the war is already under way. Israeli airstrikes are intense and continuous. Hamas is firing rockets at Israel. What has not yet happened is a direct ground attack on Gaza by the Israelis, although they have been mobilizing forces and should now be in a position to attack if they so choose. But the Israelis would much rather not attack. They fear the consequences — measured both in human casualties and in political fallout — that would certainly follow.
Thus, both sides want a negotiated end on terms that would leave the other side in an impossible position. While Hamas might be able to live with the status quo, Israel cannot. A negotiated end is therefore unlikely. Still, both sides are signaling their willingness to talk, and however forlorn the possibilities, there is a chance that something could be arranged.
We remain of the opinion that this current pause will be followed by a ground assault. Only by expanding the discussion beyond the Fajr-5 to a broader settlement of Hamas-Israeli issues could these negotiations succeed, but that would require Hamas recognizing Israel's right to exist and Israel accepting the equivalent of a Palestinian state run by Hamas in Gaza — one that might spread its power to the West Bank. The more expansive the terms of these negotiations get, the more dubious their prospects for success — and these negotiations start off fairly dubious as it is.