Whew! Taking a Chance on a Truce: Israel and Hamas Claim Victories in the Ceasefire Deal — Secretary of State Clinton Helped Announce it In Cairo — Israeli Intelligence Role Highlighted

About 24 hours later than expected, Israel and the Palestinian Hamas faction did agree on a ceasefire.  It took effect at 9:00 p.m. in the Middle East (Wednesday evening).

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood with Egypt’s foreign minister in Cairo, as he announced the deal.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to position himself as reluctant about the ceasefire.

An official announcement from Netanyahu’s office said that in his latest telephone conversation with President Barack Obama, the prime minister “acceded to his recommendation to give the Egyptian ceasefire proposal a chance.”

Netanyahu’s choice of words is largely due to his genuine skepticism that the terms of the truce will hold.  But also, he is trying to be as friendly as possible with the re-elected President Obama.  Israel will likely need Mr. Obama’s support in 2013, when the simmering crisis over Iran’s nuclear program is likely to come to a head – either through diplomacy or military action.

—Winners and losers: In Tel Aviv on this ceasefire night, Yossi Melman adds that this is a good deal for Israel, if the ceasefire holds.  Egypt is a clear winner, as its role as guarantor of the agreement boosts Egypt’s reputation and brings it closer to the United States.  That was a major question mark after an Islamist, Mohammed Morsi, replaced America’s longtime ally Hosni Mubarak.  

Yossi Melman

Yossi Melman

—Egyptian intelligence officials returned to the role that they had under Mubarak, handling contacts with Israel and with Hamas.  The Israeli government never confirmed having any officials or diplomats in Cairo for truce talks, but the fact is that Tamir Pardo, the head of the Mossad, and other Mossad “alternative diplomats” were in Cairo carrying out their traditional, covert function.

—There are also clear gains for Hamas, as it is practically recognized (even by Israel) as the government of a state.  If they can point to genuine ways in which the Israeli and Egyptian blockades on Gaza are eased, then Hamas leaders will boast that they are serving the interests of the Palestinian people.  The more moderate Palestinian faction, Fatah (led by Yasser Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas), is a loser because its near-irrelevance is exposed.

—Iran is also a loser, because Egypt is a regional rival and it is showing that it retains its special role as a go-between for all sides.  Hamas appears to have chosen to line-up with Egypt’s new Islamist leaders, rather than throwing in their lot with Tehran – at least for now.  In addition, all sides (very importantly including Egypt) pledge to stop the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, and that largely means Iranians arms that were shipped to Sudan and then trucked through Egypt, through Sinai, to the tunnels run by Hamas.

—Still to be seen is how this crisis has affected the electoral chances of Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (whose Yisrael Beitenu party has merged itself with Netanyahu’s Likud for this one election campaign), and Defense Minister Ehud Barak (head of his own tiny political party).

Netanyahu himself hopes to be re-elected in the Israeli election on January 22.  The military clash with Hamas, during the past week, gave him an opportunity to portray himself as a tough leader whose first priority is the security of Israelis who were concerned about the threat of rockets from Gaza.

At an official announcement in Jerusalem, Netanyahu and other senior officials pointed to accomplishments scored by Israel in the past week: killing many Hamas “terrorist leaders” in Gaza and destroying hundreds of missiles before they could be launched at Israel.

Netanyahu thanked Israeli soldiers, notably tens of thousands of reservists who left their jobs and families to get ready near the Gaza border, as well as Israeli intelligence services that were able to provide targeting information.

Speaking just after the prime minister, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who heads his own small political party, made a point of thanking Yoram Cohen, the head of Shin Bet — Israeli domestic security service — for providing intelligence that enabled the targeted assassinations by Israel in the one-week mini-war.  Israel claims to have killed at least half a dozen top terrorists in precision strikes.

Barak also thanked Tamir Pardo, director of the Mossad.  He did not fully explain why, but it may well have been recognition of Mossad’s unique role as an alternative foreign ministry: in charge of secret contacts with Egypt’s intelligence services, in this case, as they took the lead in Cairo when it came to hammering out a truce plan with Hamas.

The prime minister also said he thanks Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her personal involvement.  She left President Obama’s Southeast Asia tour to rush to Jerusalem and had three meetings with Netanyahu.  She also went to nearby Ramallah, in the West Bank, to confer with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority.

Netanyahu also said he “values” what Egypt’s new government — led by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, President Mohammed Morsi — did to arrange this ceasefire.

Netanyahu said many Israeli people were expecting even more military action – referring to the possibility of a ground invasion of Gaza, something that Israel did do in late 2008.  More than a thousand Palestinian deaths and 13 Israeli deaths occurred in that brief war.  In this past week, according to health officials, more than 130 Palestinians – up to one-third of them children – and 5 Israelis were killed.

Netanyahu said it still is possible, with many missiles provided by Iran still in the hands of Hamas, that Israel will find a need for further military strikes.  But one reason for accepting the truce, however reluctantly, is that Israeli citizens living in the south of their country deserve some peace and quiet.

He is deeply skeptical that the Islamic radicals of Hamas will adhere to a ceasefire, and there is also the problem that other factions inside the Gaza Strip have frequently fired rockets and mortar shells into Israel in order to stir up trouble or act as heroes.

Israel will face a dilemma – whether to respond to such attacks – if they do occur and don’t seem definitely linked with Hamas, the faction that has ruled Gaza for most of the years since Israel pulled out its troops and Jewish settlers in 2005.

At the Jerusalem announcement, Netanyahu said that, above all, he was thanking the Israeli people – concluding: “I am proud to be your prime minister.”

At about the same time, Hamas was celebrating what its leaders see as major strides ahead in the past week: challenging Israeli military power, suffering significant casualties in Gaza while holding together support for Hamas, making the rival Fatah faction in the West Bank look irrelevant, and achieving recognition when Egyptian and other foreign officials came to Gaza to show solidarity.

There is fear, in the Middle East, that eventually the Israelis and the Palestinians of Gaza will fight each other again.  Some diplomats are wondering what the United States might do to turn this statement in Cairo by Secretary of State Clinton into reality: that the ceasefire deal can be a step to “move us toward a comprehensive peace for all the people of the region.”

[  For similar coverage and more from CBSnews.com, click here.   ]

November 21, 2012

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