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An Unmentionable Truce?

Sadie Goldman with Jason Proetorius and I.P.F. Staff, Israel Policy Forum, May 22, 2008

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (right) shakes hands with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan during a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East in Sharm el-Sheikh on May 19. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

A Hamas-Israel cease-fire could be on its way, but you wouldn't know it. No press conference will be held to announce it. Instead, quiet on Gaza's borders—no rockets going out, no Israeli fire going in—will serve as the declaration that the cease-fire has begun. But this quiet will come with a tension that at any moment the cease-fire could end. And once that happens, major confrontation can be expected.

The Cease-Fire That Shall Not Be Mentioned

This cease-fire, which Egypt asserts is pending final Palestinian approval, is a phased deal, which begins with what Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak reportedly described as "quiet in exchange for quiet." Hamas will stop rocket fire and terrorist activity from Gaza and ensure that all Palestinian militias do the same, and Israel, in turn, will stop air strikes and ground operations.

Once quiet is achieved, the more tenuous phases will follow, requiring further Egyptian brokered negotiations. According to Israeli analyst Ron Ben Yishai, in the first phase following a cessation of violence, Israel will begin to ease its closure of Gaza's borders while negotiations for the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit get underway. As Yishai outlined in Monday's Yediot Achronoth, first "the number of trucks carrying goods and food … as well as the number of fuel barrels transferred by Israel to Gaza every day, will grow considerably and gradually." At the same time negotiations will begin "to free Gilad Shalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners." In the next phase, negotiations will accelerate to forge an agreement to open Gaza's "Rafah" crossing with Egypt in a way that is acceptable to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Finally, "the Gilad Shalit deal will be carried out, the crossings will be opened, and the Gaza siege will be lifted."

This "non-deal"—replete with phases and brokers—will have neither commencement speeches nor advancement ceremonies. But, should events go according to plan, negotiations with Hamas will advance.

Israeli defense ministry officials have already been communicating with Hamas, through Egypt, for months. This in spite of the boycott of talking to Hamas that has been adopted by many Israelis and non-Hamas Palestinians as well as the Middle East Quartet (European Union, United Nations, United States, and Russia).

Negotiations were even being advanced while President Bush spoke out against those who "negotiate with the terrorists and radicals" before the Israeli Knesset. But as Israeli political commentator Udi Segal said on Israel's Channel-Two news last week, besides "clichés and nice phrases" Bush's speech would have no effect on Israel's dealings with Hamas.

The Cat Is Out of the Bag

The Bush administration may be the last firm proponent of the Hamas boycott. The European members of the Quartet have been reformulating their "no-talking" position on Hamas. On Monday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner confirmed that France has also had contact with Hamas leaders for months, contending that "these are not relations; they are contacts.… We are not the only ones to have them. We must be able to talk if we want to play a role."

Israel's Vice Prime Minister Haim Ramon officially declared, for the first time, that Israel was in fact conducting negotiations with Hamas and that those negotiations are "in direct defiance of the government's resolution, according to which Israel would agree to talk to the Islamist group after it accepts the Quartet conditions."

Letting the Cat Out but Keeping Pandora In

While finally admitting to negotiations, Israel has made it clear that this is likely to be their last attempt. In Egypt, Barak declared that should rocket fire restart, "this may accelerate the downward spiral toward a military confrontation between Israel and Hamas."

Israel is not only preparing for a military escalation, they are expecting it. Some analysts believe that Israel is giving this cease-fire a chance, if briefly, to demonstrate that it tried the diplomatic avenue before using force. Gill Hoffman and Yaakov Katz reported in the Jerusalem Post that Prime Minister Olmert told fellow Kadima member Shai Hermesh that he is "very skeptical" that a cease-fire will be reached, but is "letting the process play out to show respect to Suleiman [the Egyptian intelligence minister and cease-fire broker]." "Decision time is approaching," Olmert told his faction members, "the perpetual threat has reached a climax."

And while Israelis once again brace for confrontation, they are reminded of why serious military escalation has been avoided in the first place. "There isn't really a military solution that can stop two terrorists and a launcher," Hanoch Daum wrote in Yediot Achronoth. "However, an operation in Gaza would feature a 'bonus' in addition to the growing rocket barrages: We will have dead soldiers, and many dead Palestinians, some of them innocent, which would lead to a new and murky cycle of death."

So, while the postures of Israeli and Hamas leaders may change, the expected results of a military confrontation remain very serious.

Still, this cease-fire, which may or may not be in place according to defense officials, hangs by a thread. It could be broken by misunderstanding, intention, or a failure in negotiations. Inflamed regional tensions could end the truce, as could the corruption allegations that are keeping Ehud Olmert under surveillance and are threatening his job.

But the silence about whether there is a cease-fire in Gaza may be just the indication that it is in place. After Monday's reports that a cease-fire was imminent, on Tuesday the subject had changed. Syria and Israel made almost simultaneous announcements that indirect negotiations, brokered through Turkey, were currently underway.

Whether this could have any effect on the Gaza cease-fire is unknown, but while Olmert switched the subject of negotiations today—Syria for Hamas—the content of his words can be applied to all of Israel's borders. "It is always better to talk than to shoot," he said today reflecting the hope of Israelis and Palestinians alike that the violence end.

This article from the Israel Policy Forum (www.ipforum.org) is distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

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