May 24, 2021
With the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire taking hold last Friday, the 11-day Gaza conflict is hopefully over.
By and large, this latest episode also conformed to the pattern of Gaza confrontations. There were clashes at Jerusalem’s holy sites; Israel reacted with force to Hamas rockets; Gaza suffered devastation; divided Palestinian leadership called for an end to subjugation and occupation; UN Secretary General and some countries urged de-escalation; Arab governments expressed indignation; and a senior US diplomat traveled to the region to help achieve a cease-fire.
Yet, there were a few differences:
Firstly, several mixed Jewish-Arab towns across Israel witnessed intercommunal violence.
Secondly, despite the loss of life and devastation in Gaza, Hamas gave proof of its increasingly sophisticated rocket manufacturing capability enabling it to claim victory.
And thirdly, after days of quiet diplomacy allowing PM Netanyahu enough time to make his point and blocking a UN Security Council call to end violence, President Biden had to step in to show that this is no longer the Trump White House. After all, such diplomatic interventions have become solely Washington’s responsibility in view of its strategic partnership with Israel.
Other major powers Russia and China remained comfortably on the sidelines making calls for de-escalation. There were no telephone calls between PM Netanyahu and Chinese, Russian leaders. The EU failed to achieve unity even on a cease-fire call.
Another important issue on the Israel-US agenda is future of the JCPOA and relations with Iran. On the one hand, the Gaza conflict coming in the early months of the Biden administration and less than a month before Iran’s critical presidential election must have been more than a headache for the Biden administration. On the other hand, it might prove a silver lining to putting the JCPOA back on track. President Biden can now tell PM Netanyahu that he stood solidly behind him despite criticism from party ranks, but the JCPOA is a broader issue enjoying wide international support.
The question once again is “what now?”
The White House readout of Mr. Biden’s May 15th call with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas said that the President underscored his strong commitment to a negotiated two-state solution as the best path to a just and lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yesterday, in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Secretary Blinken said,
“President Biden’s been very clear that he remains committed to a two-state solution. Look, ultimately, it is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and of course, the only way to give the Palestinians the state to which they’re entitled. That’s where we have to go. But that, I don’t think, is something for – necessarily for today. We have to start putting in place the conditions that would allow both sides to engage in a meaningful and positive way toward two states.” (emphasis added)
So, there are two problems: finding partners and moving forward, if not “necessarily today”, at a reasonable pace in order to avoid further violence.
In the short term, Israel would either find a successor to Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, or head towards another election which may give him the opportunity to declare “Israel is back” and continue with settlement activity.
On the Palestinian side, the picture is more complicated. Last Thursday President Biden said that the US would work in full partnership with the PA, not Hamas.
But while the US has designated Hamas a terrorist organization, the PA leadership is no longer of consequence and lacks support among Palestinians. So, the forging of a renewed Palestinian leadership acceptable to both Israel and the US remains a major task.
The 11-day Gaza conflict is unlikely impact Israel’s normalization of relations with the Arab states whose reaction to the latest fighting was measured. As a matter of fact, as the Middle East got ingulfed in Arab spring turmoil and proxy wars, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict moved way down the regional agenda enabling the signing of the Abraham Accords. The recent conflict was, more than anything else, a reminder by Hamas that the Palestinians cause is still an issue.
Last Thursday, President Biden extended his sincere gratitude to President Al Sisi and the senior Egyptian officials who played a critical role in securing the cease-fire. He also expressed appreciation for the contributions of other parties in the region who engaged in working towards the end of hostilities.
By contrast, on May 18, the US State Department issued a statement which strongly condemned “President Erdogan’s anti-Semitic comments regarding the Jewish people”, adding one more item to the order of business of the Biden-Erdogan meeting to be held on the margins of the NATO summit in mid-June.