As Israel seeks to sideline Hamas in any accord on the Gaza Strip’s future, it’s finding quiet support among Arab nations where antagonism toward the Islamist group eclipses their enmity toward the Jewish state.
Egypt, which mediated a second 72-hour halt to Gaza fighting yesterday, is now ruled by an army chief who presided over a crackdown on Hamas’s Islamist patrons. Saudi Arabia’s king didn’t explicitly criticize Israel in a recent lament over civilian deaths in Gaza. The United Arab Emirates, which pledged aid to help rebuild the coastal strip, is also hostile to political Islam.
There’s an “alignment of interests” between nations that aren’t allies yet have “common adversaries,” said Martin Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former U.S. negotiator in the Middle East. “As they see that the U.S. is less engaged than it was before, it’s natural that they look to each other -- quietly, under the table in most respects -- to find a way to help each other.”
Talks in Cairo first delivered a three-day truce that collapsed Aug. 8 amid a barrage of Hamas rockets. Israel sent a delegation to Cairo today after rocket attacks ended at midnight with the start of the second accord. Israel and Hamas are pressing for an agreement that addresses issues earlier pacts didn’t resolve. Hamas wants to end the blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, while Israel seeks to demilitarize the territory.
With Egypt brokering the negotiations and Gulf states promising money to help reconstruct Gaza, Israeli officials have said they may support a bigger role there for the secular Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas, at Hamas’s expense. Following the breakdown of Abbas’s peace talks with Israel, Hamas and Abbas mended a seven-year rift that produced rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza, forming a unity coalition in June that Israel has shunned.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said changes in the region create an opportunity to “fashion a new reality” that is “more conducive to an end to violence, a sustainable peace that can lead to other things.” We are “prepared to see a role” for the Palestinian Authority in post-conflict Gaza, Netanyahu said in Jerusalem last week.
Israel has had greater contact in recent weeks with Arab governments opposed to radical Islamists, according to an Israeli official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to comment publicly. Israel, like the U.S. and European Union, considers Hamas a terrorist group.
Securing a Cairo agreement to rebuild Gaza will provide an early test of the practical value of the contacts. The United Nations says more than 10,000 homes were destroyed in the fighting that also damaged the strip’s sole power station, schools and medical centers. More than 1,900 Palestinians and 67 on the Israeli side have been killed.
Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. haven’t made peace with Israel, while Egypt and Jordan have. In one area of convergence, Saudi Arabia’s ruling family shares Israel’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.
The U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia will be behind the scenes in Cairo, said Christopher Davidson, a reader in Middle East politics at the U.K.’s University of Durham. As the “bank-rollers of Egypt, it’s implicit in any Egyptian peace-brokering that its actions are monitored and pre-approved by these monarchies,” said Davidson, author of “After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies.”
The two autocracies are staunch opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, the regional group that is Hamas’s parent, and its vision of bringing political Islam to power via the ballot box. Saudi Arabia in March designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
King Abdullah on Aug. 1 condemned those “trying to hijack Islam and present it to the world as a religion of extremism,” while criticizing the international community for “watching silently” as “we see the blood of our brothers in Palestine shed in collective massacres.”
Egypt’s military under now-President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi toppled a Brotherhood-backed government last year, and has tightened the Gaza blockade. Tunnels that were used to smuggle goods have been demolished on concerns militants might use them to attack Egyptian forces in the Sinai peninsula.
Egypt and Gulf states except Qatar “agree on the need to keep Hamas weak,” Khalid al-Dakhil, an independent political analyst based in Riyadh, said by phone. “They want everything to go through the Palestinian Authority.” The problem is that “Israel wants to eliminate Hamas and keep Abbas as weak as possible,” he said.
Abbas’s failure to win a Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel has hurt his standing among his people. Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said he’s skeptical the fallout from the Gaza conflict will prod Netanyahu to make concessions Abbas sought.
“I don’t see a willingness on the part of the Israeli coalition to give” Abbas the freeze on construction of Jewish settlements and release of a further group of Palestinian prisoners that he wants, Thrall said.
One possibility under discussion in Cairo would be to give Abbas authority over the Gaza-Egyptian border crossing at Rafah, Israel’s Channel 2 reported, without saying where it got the information.
A rebuilding of Gaza led by Gulf countries and Egypt, along with new powers for Abbas there, would be “the best situation,” said Joshua Teitelbaum, senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv. “There’s a long road to go.”
In the end, it may be pro-Hamas nations Qatar and Turkey that are needed to arrange a long-term deal in Gaza, according to Moshe Maoz, a professor emeritus of Islamic studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. That will only happen if Mideast peace talks resume and make progress, he said.
Netanyahu’s goal of demilitarizing Gaza is “a great idea, but how do you force Hamas to do it?” Maoz said.
The Saudi and Emirati leaders, who don’t have diplomatic ties with Israel, are unlikely to go public with their common interests, meaning that progress may be slow, said Davidson.
“It’s going to be a great dancing act,” he said. “It has to be cryptic.”