When a civilian bus was bombed in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, many feared the incident would derail negotiations for a truce in the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas. That proved not to be the case. The other anxiety was that an Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood in power would somehow jinx the prospects for peace. That fear proved to be groundless too. Indeed, the government of President Mohamed Morsy took the lead role in brokering the Gaza truce announced in Cairo Wednesday night and will reportedly act as its guarantor. “It was unknown how Egypt would react,” Likud party legislator Yohanan Plesner told Britain’s Telegraph. “When the moment of truth came, the Egyptian leadership moved responsibly and clearly said they were trying to restore stability.” Not only that, says analyst Michael Wahid Hanna at the Century Foundation, “Egypt’s government has put its own international credibility on the line by effectively undertaking to ensure that Hamas observes the terms of its cease-fire. That’s a subtle but profoundly important change.”
Egypt’s Gaza role reflects the emerging contours of a Middle East profoundly changed by the Arab Spring yet still forced to confront decades-old challenges. The essential partnership in tamping down the Gaza violence, notes former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, is the one “between the United States and Egypt — one using its influence with Israel, the other with Hamas — to put together a cease-fire package as the foundation for a wider resolution of the conflict.” Although U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have played an important part in finessing the deal, Morsy and the Egyptians provide a service Washington cannot in dealing with Gaza. The U.S. is officially sworn to avoid engagement with Hamas, a movement it defines as a terrorist organization. And while Washington has a preferred Palestinian interlocutor — President Mahmoud Abbas, who is based in the West Bank — Abbas has no influence over events in Gaza, where his rivals in Hamas hold sway. And so the Obama Administration turned to Egypt, urging it to use the Muslim Brotherhood’s political ties with Hamas and the Egyptian intelligence service’s long-established relationship with its Israeli counterparts to broker a truce.
Unlike former President Hosni Mubarak, who deemed Hamas an enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood government sees the movement as its own political progeny and is therefore not shackled by a need to prevent Hamas making political gains from a truce. On the contrary, while Egypt seeks a cease-fire that ends Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli air strikes on the territory, Cairo’s mediation also offers Hamas a path out of the blockade that has choked off Gaza’s economy for the past five years. Even Israeli leaders have praised the response from Cairo, notwithstanding Egypt’s unprecedented public acts of solidarity with Hamas.
Morsy had made clear when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly in September that his government would both abide by the 1978 Camp David peace treaty with Israel and challenge the status quo in the Palestinian territories. “I say it loudly to those wondering about our position vis-à-vis the international agreements and conventions that we have previously adhered to: We are committed to what we have signed on,” Morsy said at the time. “We also support the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people and are determined to pursue all efforts side by side with them until they regain their rights.”
Hamas will certainly claim victory after surviving Israel’s latest onslaught and striking fear into Israelis by firing missiles as far north as Tel Aviv as well as advancing its strategic goal of lifting the blockade. But a truce that requires Hamas to enforce peace with Israel also poses challenges to a movement that claims the mantle of resistance. While the smaller Iran-aligned Islamic Jihad in Gaza has also signed on to the truce, Hamas will be forced to restrain Salafist groups, possibly even violently. That will be a test. Many of these militant organizations are composed of former Hamas fighters disillusioned by what they see as the movement’s abandonment of resistance.
There is another irony. Rather than marginalizing and isolating Hamas — a stated U.S. and Israeli goal — Israel’s operation “has only enhanced the centrality of that organization,” notes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Robert Danin. “That by-product is entirely consistent with Israel’s aim — to compel Hamas to take responsibility for developments in Gaza … Israel’s goal now is not to destroy Hamas but to compel it to behave more responsibly and keep order in Gaza. Much of the mortar fire over the past year against southern Israel has been launched by groups more radical than Hamas. By holding Hamas responsible, Israel inadvertently bolsters Hamas’ standing and legitimacy as the ultimate power broker and arbiter in Gaza.”
That opens interesting possibilities. If things are normalized in Gaza with Hamas in charge, Hamas effectively becomes a second Palestinian mini-statelet. Some Israelis believe that would be a very good idea. Retired General Giora Eiland, national security adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, this week urged that Israel agree to lift the blockade of Gaza and begin to engage with Hamas as the government there, precisely in order to stabilize its separate status. Some Israeli analysts even urge their government to encourage Cairo to open its own border crossings with Gaza, which would allow the territory’s economic reintegration to take place primarily through Egypt. “[Such a] move would signal the completion of Israel’s 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, slowly handing over responsibility for the area’s economic needs to the Egyptian government,” writes Israeli analyst Ehud Yaari. “Egypt, which already perceives itself as a patron of Hamas, would see this situation favorably because it would grant Cairo more influence over the group.”
That, however, may be a development too far for Egypt. There are limits to how much responsibility Cairo will accept for Gaza, warns Hanna. “If Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing without Israel doing the same at its own crossings into Gaza, there’d be champagne corks popping in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They won’t do that, because Egypt won’t shoulder the burden of Gaza, which could end the possibility of a unified Palestinian state.” Indeed, specifically because of its support for a two-state solution, Egypt will be leery of being drawn into a Gaza arrangement that might be construed as a three-state solution.