In ceasefire talks, Netanyahu is letting Hamas win Gaza war

The great mystery is: Why?

In the Cairo ceasefire talks, Netanyahu is snatching diplomatic defeat from the jaws of military victory. I have no explanation for why he’s doing this and I have yet to hear a convincing one. There must be something Netanyahu knows that no one else does. Otherwise his concessions at the Cairo talks, after blitzing the Gaza Strip for five weeks, leaving Hamas able to do no more than fire short-range rockets over the Israeli border, and being hailed in Israel as a warrior king, make no sense at all.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz at the Defense Ministry. (photo: Haim Zach / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz at the Defense Ministry. (photo: Haim Zach / GPO)

Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On gave an accurate reading of the situation:

This is what Netanyahu promised during Operation Protective Edge: Demilitarization of Gaza, bringing Hamas to its knees, and achieving long-term deterrence. And this is what we now have: Israel is holding direct talks with Hamas in Cairo, has agreed not to demand Gaza’s demilitarization, and is discussing a series of steps such as opening the crossings, bringing in goods and expanding fishing zones, which will be credited to Hamas and to those who side with violence.

Also, the emerging truce calls for talks on construction of an airport and seaport for Gaza to begin within a month of the document’s signing.

Personally, I’m in favor of Gaza getting all those things. But Netanyahu could have offered them to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the Kerry talks, or to the Fatah-Hamas unity government that Abbas forged, and the Palestinian benefactor would have been the non-violent, moderate PA instead of the violent, immoderate Hamas. Oh, one other thing: There wouldn’t have been a war that killed 2,000 people, made much of Gaza look like the Warsaw Ghetto, and traumatized hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the south. Gal-On again:

Netanyahu dragged us to a war of choice and a war of folly, gave Hamas a lifeline to climb out of the biggest hole it was ever in, strongly reinforced the organization’s understanding that it pays to keep digging deeper tunnels and stockpiling deadlier rockets, and it has proved to the Palestinians once again that Israel only understands the language of force.

It’s not just leftists like Gal-On and me who see the Cairo talks in this light. “In the hands of Hamas” was the title of the highly-influential Friday column in Yedioth Ahronoth by Nahum Barnea, the country’s leading print journalist:

If it wants, Hamas will fire on us, if it wants, it will stop. Hamas got out of Gaza with a tie, and triumphed in Cairo.

In the cabinet, meanwhile, the only sure ally Netanyahu has left is Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, his partner in devising the Cairo negotiating strategy. The other ministers, certainly to the right of Netanyahu but even those to his left, are turning away from this deal. Netanyahu, for his part, is barely talking to them. Political correspondent Yossi Verter in Friday’s Haaretz:

By yesterday, [Netanyahu] remained alone in the political arena. All that was left of the collective hug and the broad support from right, center and left, in whose light he basked for 30 days, was a dull fog. Even Finance Minister Yair Lapid announced that he’s not in Netanyahu’s pocket, and that he will not necessarily vote for the agreement when the time comes.

A week ago, Netanyahu seemed to have clear sailing; he didn’t need anything or anybody. With Hamas’ tunnels destroyed, most of its rocket arsenal wiped out and the Iron Dome behind him, he could pull the army completely out of Gaza and all he would have to deal with is the “drizzle” of Hamas’ short-range rockets over the border, which cause much more fear than injury or damage, and for which Israel could make Gaza pay a heavy price. This is how Israel had lived for years. As for the mess it left in Gaza, let the world clean it up. What did Netanyahu need with a ceasefire? Why would he want to negotiate with Hamas as an equal? Above all, why would he want to let Hamas say to the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, “We fought Israel, and in the end it lifted the blockade”?

File photo of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: PPO/Thaer Ghanaim - Handout)
File photo of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: PPO/Thaer Ghanaim – Handout)

This seems to go against everything Netanyahu is about, and utterly against the spirit of Operation Protective Edge. So what got into him? Did Obama finally, truly lay down the law to Bibi in their reportedly angry phone conversation a few days ago? That would seem to go against everything Obama is about, so that’s not a likely explanation. Even more unlikely was that Netanyahu had an epiphany, changing from hawk to dove in the space of last weekend. But maybe he thinks he can scam the Palestinians on the terms of the truce, and make promises he doesn’t intend to keep. But then the rockets would resume, defeating the purpose of such a scam, and anyway Hamas has won a moral victory already, so that explanation doesn’t make sense, either. It’s all a great mystery, one that presumably will be solved when more information comes to light.

As things stand, it doesn’t look like the truce coming out of Cairo will be approved by the Israeli cabinet. And it may not get that far – Netanyahu could try to cut his losses and exit the talks in a way that allows him to blame the Palestinians for the failure (not that anybody outside of Israel and the Republican Party would believe him).

Myself, I hope the truce is made. Better an agreement with Abbas than with Hamas, but better an agreement with Hamas – one that ends the war and revives Gaza – than no agreement, which keeps the war going and leaves Gaza for dead.

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