x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Israel's refusal to talk to its foes dooms truce from the start

Israel expects any pact to be shaky and temporary - and to be followed within several years by another massive military operation in Gaza. Analysis by Vita Bekker in Tel Aviv

United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon meets with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Analysts say any truce is little more than a photo opportunity for the Israeli leaders.
United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon meets with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Analysts say any truce is little more than a photo opportunity for the Israeli leaders.

TEL AVIV // As international negotiators worked yesterday to craft a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers, analysts said Israel expects any pact to be shaky and temporary - and to be followed within several years by another massive military operation in Gaza.

Last night, six days after Israel assassinated a leading Hamas military figure in the Gaza Strip and launched a military campaign in the enclave to destroy the group's fighting capabilities, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, indicated he may give ceasefire talks a chance before launching a ground incursion that could prove deadly for both sides.

Nevertheless, experts said that rather than achieve lasting quiet on the Israel-Gaza border, they expect any announcement of a truce would be little more than a photo opportunity for the Israeli leaders - namely, Mr Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the defence minister - to bolster their security credentials at home ahead of elections in January.

That is primarily because of their rejection of direct talks with Hamas, which would, in effect, recognise the Islamist group's legitimacy. This makes it unlikely Israel will reach any long-term ceasefire that would halt any rocket attacks from Gaza for many years.

Furthermore, Iran's ties with Gaza groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad - the latter viewed as Tehran's main proxy in Gaza - and its tensions with Israel also make any accord doubtful, analysts said.

Iran - which has supplied the groups with dozens of Fajr-5 rockets that have a range long enough to reach major Israeli cities including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem - has a say in the decision-making within those groups and is unlikely to back a long-term truce without Israel committing to withhold attacks on its nuclear sites.

It has long been speculated that Mr Netanyahu has been weighing such a strike in a bid to undermine Tehran's nuclear ambitions, which he views as the biggest threat to Israel's existence.

Avi Segal, an expert on Israeli military policy at Israel's Ben-Gurion University, said: "The words may be rephrased but any ceasefire will probably be the same as it was in 2009 after the last Israeli operation.

"Afterwards we'll have a period of peace that, sooner or later, will collapse and someone will renew the fire between the two sides."

Mr Segal said Israel was "doomed to repeat the same operation within two or three years" because its leadership rejects backing up a truce based on a "military balance" with direct peace talks with Hamas.

He added that hardliners who lack the political courage to talk to Hamas and risk losing votes from the right - such as Mr Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's ultranationalist foreign minister - make any such negotiations impossible any time soon.

Further hampering any chances for a lasting ceasefire is Israel's demand - in addition to an end to the firing of rockets on its southern communities and towns - that a pact also includes a commitment by Egypt to prevent the smuggling of weapons through its Sinai desert and into Gaza through underground tunnels. Israeli officials suspect Iran is smuggling arms into Gaza through a circuitous route that includes bringing them to Sudan, transporting them across the Egyptian border and through Sinai into Gaza.

Still, Cairo may be reluctant to act aggressively to halt such smuggling because of its growing closeness to Hamas, which is an offshoot of the same Muslim Brotherhood that swept to power in Egypt after the former president, Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office last year.

Some Israeli analysts said Israel should ignore all attempts at a ceasefire for the time being and advance its operation into a ground incursion to more effectively cripple Hamas's military capability.

Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at the right-leaning Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, said the only way for Israel to achieve quiet on its border with Gaza was to bolster its onslaught against Hamas.

"Israel has had bad experiences with ceasefires with Hamas, which have always been violated." he said. "We should destroy the military capabilities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to create a situation in which it'll take them longer to recuperate."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae