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How this could be the last Gaza war

Story highlights

  • Khaled Elgindy: Any Gaza truce won't last without a more farsighted approach
  • Elgindy: Reality is Hamas is here to stay, and grievances of both sides must be addressed
  • Conflict makes Hamas politically stronger, while Palestinian Authority is weak, he says
  • Elgindy: The two must be reconciled, cooperate and be included in peace process

Reports of a possible cease-fire in Gaza brokered by Egypt emerged Tuesday, but without a more farsighted approach that addresses the dysfunctional dynamic within Palestinian politics, any truce is unlikely to be any more durable than previous ones.

This latest Israeli offensive marks the sixth major military operation against Gaza since Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers in 2005, and the first since the massive military campaign known as "Cast Lead" four years ago.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was headed to the region Tuesday to join Egypt's negotiations for a truce. Egypt -- as the only other party with a direct stake in Gaza's stability and one of the few capable of talking directly to all key actors -- is best placed to play the role of peacemaker. There will be cease-fire.

But events in Gaza have strained already tense relations between Egypt and Israel, prompting Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy to withdraw his ambassador in Tel Aviv while dispatching his prime minister to Gaza in a show of solidarity with Hamas. With the Obama administration openly siding with Israel, U.S.-Egyptian ties have also been damaged.

Khaled Elgindy

Opinion: Message of Gaza violence -- Hamas can't be ignored

Israel says its offensive is aimed at ending rocket attacks from Gaza once and for all. Hamas wants to see an end to the five-year Gaza blockade and the reopening of its borders. In reality, neither Israel nor Hamas is likely to get what it wants because neither side appears to have a clear endgame. There is no way to eliminate Hamas. And even if its rocket-launching capabilities are destroyed, which seems unlikely, this war will only fuel its drive to rearm, just as it did after Cast Lead. Until the underlying grievances of both sides can be addressed, we should only expect the cycle of violence to continue.

Like Israel, Egypt has an interest in reining in Hamas and preventing weapons smuggling from its territory into Gaza, which further destabilizes the already volatile situation in the Sinai. Despite the strong ties between the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo and Hamas, itself a Brotherhood offshoot, the Egyptians are unhappy with Hamas' moves in both Gaza and the Sinai.

For any truce to hold, it must also include other stakeholders, namely Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas is likely to emerge from this most recent conflict militarily weakened but politically strengthened, earning the respect and sympathy of both Palestinians and Arabs across the region.

For Abbas, however, the opposite is true. The crisis has highlighted his powerlessness and growing irrelevance, even sparking new anti-Abbas protests in the West Bank. Abbas and his Fatah-dominated leadership in the West Bank have little to show for their rule except 20 years of failed negotiations and a feckless and bankrupt authority. But the fact that Egypt is also the primary mediator in internal Palestinian talks aimed at healing the split that has crippled the Palestinian Authority since the brief civil war of 2007 presents an opportunity to rehabilitate Abbas while reining in Hamas.

Despite its record of violence, Hamas has also shown it can govern effectively and play pragmatic politics. The natural tension between governance and resistance is also reflected in the internal struggle between hard-liners and pragmatists within Hamas.

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Opinion: 'Pillar of Cloud' spreads dust of war across Middle East

Egypt, along with pro-Hamas governments such as Turkey and Qatar, would like to wean Hamas from its relationship with Iran, which supplies it with weapons and other support. The Israeli offensive makes this more difficult, however, and will only embolden the most militant elements within Hamas. Linking Palestinian reconciliation to a cease-fire arrangement will also give the Egyptians an additional leverage point over Hamas.

Any cease-fire will of course have to bring an end to rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza or anywhere else as well as tougher action by Egypt on weapons smuggling through the Gaza tunnels. But for this to work, Hamas (not to mention ordinary Gazans) must also get something, particularly with respect to the blockade.

Because neither Israel nor Egypt trust Hamas to police the border, reopening Gaza's border crossings will require a return of Abbas' Palestinian Authority there. But because this requires Hamas' consent, it can only happen in the context of Palestinian reconciliation and the re-emergence of a unified coherent Palestinian polity. In this way, not only does everyone get something, each actor has a stake in the others getting something as well.

Such an arrangement will be extremely difficult but not impossible. One primary obstacle is Israeli and U.S. opposition to Palestinian reconciliation or anything that might be seen as strengthening Hamas. This self-defeating policy has been disastrous for Palestinians and Israelis alike as well as a spectacular failure (which may also help explain Israel's offensive).

Hamas has more international legitimacy than ever, while the blockade of Gaza is crumbling bit by bit. While Abbas' Palestinian Authority teeters on the verge of financial ruin, the emir of Qatar is showering Hamas with hundreds of millions of dollars. The crisis is only intensifying this trend as Gaza plays host to one Arab leader after another.

In the end, Palestinian unity may be the only way to save Hamas from itself and rescue Abbas from political oblivion. Fatah and Hamas do not have to share the same policies or even be in the same government, but they do have to find a way to share the same political space. In other words, they do not have to play on the same team, but they do have to agree on the rules of the game.

Some will argue that bringing Hamas into the game would deal a fatal blow to the peace process with Israel. Yet even without Hamas the peace process is already dead. In any case, we will never know since a weak, ineffective and unrepresentative Palestinian leadership by definition will have neither the mandate to negotiate a conflict-ending peace deal with Israel nor the ability to implement it. The idea that Israel could negotiate with one set of Palestinians while making war on another, always questionable, is now totally untenable.

Opinion: New dangers in familiar Gaza violence

Such a "grand bargain" will not be easy, and is certainly not without risks. But the risks of continuing to ignore realities are far greater. The extent to which Israel and the Palestinians, along with the United States and its allies, understand this will determine whether this will be the last Gaza war or simply a prelude to the next one.

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