In the current Israel-Palestine conflict in Gaza, with a half-brokered ceasefire already rejected, no one ideal mediator exists. It is therefore imperative is to bring together all of the would-be arbitrators in a more structured process.
Nothing better illustrates the unpredictability and dynamics of open-ended military campaigns as the war in Gaza. An episode which begun with four kidnapped teenagers (three Israeli, and one Palestinian in revenge) and a sequence of retaliatory measures has resulted in grave damage to Gaza’s Shujaiyeh neighbourhood, the death of over 500 Palestinians (a disturbing number of them civilians), and more Israeli troop causalities than in the previous two Gaza wars combined.
Israel’s stated aim of ‘restoring deterrence’ (a longstanding concept in Israeli strategy) is nebulous and elastic, and by definition can only be evaluated after any war comes to a conclusion. At first, said restoration required aerially degrading Hamas’ rocket stockpiles air; the target set then expanded to senior Hamas leaders; then the destruction of tunnels on the fringes of Gaza; and, in the past days, it has spread closer to the tightly packed heart of the coastal strip.
As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz probably exaggerated when it wrote that ‘this battle is almost on the scale of the Lebanon War’, referring to the large-scale 2006 war between the IDF and Hezbollah, but that scale of fighting may yet unfold.
Although US President Barack Obama has called for an ‘immediate ceasefire’, and US Secretary of State John Kerry was caught on tape sarcastically criticising Israel (‘It's a hell of a pinpoint operation. We've got to get over there. I think we ought to go tonight. I think it's crazy to be sitting around’), Washington has been unpardonably slow to act. There is no sign that the White House did anything to caution Israel against escalation, and only on 21 Monday July did Kerry travel to Cairo.
The three key regional actors – Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey, in order of importance – are all major US allies and significant beneficiaries of American largesse. But there are complications in each case.
Qatar is a long-time financial backer of Hamas and home to the group’s political chief, Khaled Meshaal. But its financial aid to the group seems to have dwindled recently, under pressure from Qatar’s more conservative Gulf rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, who strongly oppose Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood (which, incidentally, parented Hamas in the late 1980s).
Turkey has similarly Hamas. In October 2012, Meshal received a standing ovation at the ruling Justice and Development Party’s National Congress, and he visited Ankara again in March and October last year. On the latter occasion, he met Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan for three hours, and Turkey’s foreign minister and intelligence chief both sat in on the meeting. Although Turkey has been trying to normalise relations with Israel since they fell apart in 2010 after Israel’s assault on a flotilla bound for Gaza, relations are still strained. Netanyahu has refused to sign a normalisation agreement.
Last week’s attacks on Israel’s consulate in Istanbul made things worse and on Friday Erdogan even accused Israel of ‘systematic genocide’ in Gaza (he added, in characteristically conspiratorial fashion, that the UN was ‘serving whatever their secret agenda is’). Needless to say, Turkish diplomats are not especially welcome in Jerusalem, and this complicates Turkish involvement in mediation.
But for exactly these reasons, Hamas sees Qatar and Turkey as more honest brokers than most – and, in particular, more so than Egypt, which has turned viciously on Hamas since the rise of a military-backed government led by former army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.
Sisi has been overseeing a brutal campaign of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood at home – whose elected President, Mohammed Morsi, he deposed last year – and sees Hamas as similarly dangerous. Saudi Arabia and the UAE tend to agree, and, like Israel, would much rather see Egypt in the driver’s seat than Qatar. Reportedly at the urging of Tony Blair last week, Sisi called Netanyahu to discuss a ceasefire – but he did not speak with Hamas, and the result was a ceasefire proposal that was heavily weighted against Hamas.
Egypt is naturally pivotal to talks and any eventual ceasefire, because it influences or controls the key underground and over-ground land routes into southern Gaza, and its intelligence services are long accustomed to brokering deals (as they did in 2012). But its credibility with Hamas is at an all-time low, and diplomacy is a multiplayer game.
Disjointed and Immature Diplomacy
Taken together, this is a case study in disjointed and immature diplomacy. Diplomacy requires mediators who have the trust of each warring party. The US and the EU have cut themselves off from Hamas entirely, and Egypt has strained ties to breaking point. Turkey has moved too far from Israel to be of much use, and Qatar finds itself buffeted from all sides. No one ideal mediator exists, and therefore the imperative is to bring together all of the would-be arbitrators in a more structured process.
Only the US can fulfil this role. Mr Kerry is correct. It is indeed, in his words, ‘crazy’ to be ‘sitting around’, while he might have been convening a working group of officials from Qatar, Turkey, Egypt and the UN who could talk to their respective interlocutors from Israel and Hamas, find possible ways to break the impasse, and apply real and meaningful pressure to each side. Above all, no ceasefire will be achievable if it does not produce benefits for each combatant. If such an effort had been undertaken right from the outset – and not after hundreds of civilians have been killed – then we might have averted the spiral of war that we observe today.