Ceasefire pressure behind the scenes

Ahmed Mahdi, Tuesday 1 Jun 2021

All the main players in the recent Hamas-Israel conflict needed a ceasefire agreement, though this will not solve the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli crisis, writes Ahmed Mahdi

Fathi Abul-Ezz
illustration: Fathi Abul-Ezz


The Palestinian group Hamas and the Israelis managed to reach a ceasefire agreement on 21 May to end the hostilities between the two sides.

The crisis started with Israeli police and settlers attempting to evict residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in Jerusalem from their houses, which was met with resistance. This later escalated into protests at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which were met with Israeli police brutality. Hamas in Gaza responded by firing missiles at the Israeli cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon. Israel responded with airstrikes on Gaza, but refrained from launching a land invasion like it did in Operation Resolute Cliff in 2014.

Hamas codenamed its rocket attacks “Sword of Jerusalem”, while Israel codenamed its military operation “Guardians of the Walls” in a reference to Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defence system that intercepted most of the Hamas missile attacks. The conflict left 230 Palestinians and 12 Israelis dead.

The purpose of this article is not to describe the human-rights violations and practices of the Israeli occupation. This has already been done by people who are more experienced in the subject than I am. Neither is the purpose to criticise the Palestinians (or the Arabs in general) for being unable to reach a united stand against the Israeli occupation. Instead, it aims to look at the diplomacy and negotiation tactics of the major players who helped reach the 21 May ceasefire.

The most influential global player that had a role in reaching the ceasefire was the United States, the world’s strongest superpower and the historical broker of Arab-Israeli peace since the days of former US president Jimmy Carter and former Egyptian president Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat. There were also other actors who played a major role in the recent ceasefire, most notably Cairo, which played its traditional role as a major Arab power. Lastly, there were political considerations inside Tel Aviv, which facilitated the reaching of a ceasefire with Hamas.

Each of these major players had a need to reach a settlement in the region, and each played its cards to reach this goal in an effort to apply pressure on the others to reach an agreement. So, how did the three leaders, US President Joe Biden, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, play their cards to achieve the ceasefire? This is what this article will tackle.

BIDEN’S CARDS: Despite the importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Middle East was not among Biden’s top foreign-policy priorities when he took office as US president in January 2021.

His main focus when he entered the Oval Office was the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn in the US. His foreign-policy priorities included dealing with China as a rising economic power, dealing with Russia as a menacing geopolitical challenge, global cooperation on global warming, and the Iranian nuclear programme, namely trying to revive the nuclear deal with Iran that his predecessor, former president Donald Trump, had cancelled.

However, Biden had to come face to face with the new Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which became his first foreign-policy crisis. It showed him that the Middle East is too volatile and too unstable to ignore. Biden was forced to reorder his foreign-policy priorities, at least temporarily, and to give a higher status to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process which had not seen any major breakthrough during the Trump presidency. He wanted to solve the crisis quickly in order to return to his priorities of handling Covid-19 and fixing the US economy.

Being a traditional Democratic supporter of Israel, Biden has been heavily criticised (and deservedly so) for his pro-Israeli stance during the conflict. He publicly emphasised Israel’s right to defend itself, without mentioning the roots of the crisis or the Israeli violations of international law and human rights. Nevertheless, it would still be useful to take a deeper look into his behind-the-scenes negotiation style and how it led to the ceasefire and to the outcome we are living through at the moment.

The Reuters news agency has quoted a Biden administration insider who said that during the early days of the conflict Biden was careful not to make public demands on Israel to de-escalate, fearing that it might publicly snub him and ignore his demands. Many of the current administration officials were also officials in the Obama administration during the 2012 and 2014 Gaza-Israel wars. Thus, they have learned from these past experiences that putting the US in the front and centre of de-escalation efforts might actually have an opposite effect.

This is because either side, the Israelis or the Palestinians, might feel that it has to publicly resist US calls for de-escalation, even if only as an internal political façade to please its own domestic public opinion. Dennis Ross, US special Middle East envoy during the Clinton administration in the 1990s, argues that during the 2014 Hamas-Israel war, for example, then secretary of state John Kerry got heavily involved in the crisis, and this actually led to its being prolonged. Biden, who was vice president under Obama, has learned from this mistake, according to administration officials. Therefore, he has been working behind the scenes during the crisis and has left the public heavy lifting for regional actors, namely Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Jordan and Qatar.

This is also similar to the tactic that Biden used during his 2020 presidential election campaign in the US: to stay silent, to keep a relatively low profile, and to minimise his public appearances, and to let Trump speak out all his anti-science, pro-conspiracy theory rhetoric amid rising Covid-19 infections and deaths in the US. Trump made fun of Biden’s tactic and nicknamed him “hidin’ Biden” at the time. However, the tactic worked, and Biden won the 2020 elections with a landslide. 

In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, at the same time that Biden avoided being publicly heavily involved in open diplomacy, and while he avoided publicly criticising Israel, he also blocked UN Security Council resolutions calling for a de-escalation. He did this, claimed members of his administration, allegedly to give US diplomacy a chance to succeed without interruption or interference. China, the current president of the Security Council, condemned the US blockage of a joint statement.

US TACTICS: In this behind-the-scenes action, Biden had to depend on telephone calls with regional actors.

Biden, his national security adviser Jake Sullivan, and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken made more than 80 telephone calls with regional actors during the crisis. Biden had six telephone conversations with Netanyahu and one with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi during the crisis. Before it, Biden’s relations with both men were full of tensions, since both had good relations with his Republican predecessor Trump.

Trump was a fierce supporter of Israel, as was seen in his official recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Israel and his transferring of the US Embassy to East Jerusalem, in addition to his anti-two-state-solution stance. Trump was also a very strong supporter of Al-Sisi, unlike Obama, who had tensions with the Egyptian president. The recent crisis, however, strengthened Washington’s post-Trump relations with Cairo and Tel Aviv.

Biden also dispatched the US deputy assistant secretary of state, Hady Amr, as his special envoy to Netanyahu to convince him to de-escalate. His choice of upgrading Amr to the status of a special envoy for the Palestinian-Israeli peace process might have fitted Biden’s negotiation tactics. Washington did not want to send someone of higher status (like Blinken, already overstretched with other responsibilities), in keeping with its own low-profile, behind-the-scenes diplomacy during the crisis. In addition, Biden had not yet appointed an American ambassador to Israel, so Amr’s role was needed in order to compensate for the lack of an ambassador. Amr arrived in Tel Aviv on 14 May and met with several Israeli officials, including Defence Minister Benny Gantz.

Biden’s pro-Israel public stance led to criticisms by his fellow Democrats for displaying complete support for Israel instead of adopting a more balanced approach. Fellow Democrats pressed him to do this, including Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. Both said that Biden’s pro-Israel stance would “dehumanise” the Palestinians and imply that the US was not serious about its own human-rights rhetoric. Similarly, Democratic senators Chris Murphy and Tim Kaine, both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also pressed Israel to reach a ceasefire. This was a shift from the traditional Democratic Party support for Israel.

According to the US network NBC News, a Gallup poll published in March 2021 shows that 30 per cent of Americans have favourable views of the Palestinians, compared to only 18 per cent in 2018. Furthermore, among Democratic Americans, 53 per cent want Washington to apply more pressure on Israel, the first time that a majority has taken this position. According to Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics in the UK, “the US political landscape is gradually changing” as key Democratic figures start to challenge the “pro-Israel hegemony” in the Democratic Party.

However, this might have been in Biden’s favour. According to insiders, Biden has used this decline in the classic Democratic support for Israel as a pressure card against Tel Aviv. In fact, it has been leaked to the press that despite publicly supporting Israel, Biden and members of his administration, including Blinken, Sullivan, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and other top officials, had been privately delivering harsh messages to Israeli officials to press them to reach a ceasefire and end the crisis.   

A few days into the fighting, after Israel had targeted much Hamas infrastructure and became more ready for de-escalation, Biden began to more forcefully call for Israel to de-escalate. On 20 May, Tel Aviv signalled to Washington that it was ready for a ceasefire. Washington informed Cairo, which, in turn, informed Hamas.

A ceasefire was reached on 21 May, and Biden vowed to send reconstruction aid to Gaza. The Israeli police have breached the de-escalation since then, but Biden stressed that he would not deal with Hamas, categorised as a terrorist organisation in Washington. Biden said that he would manage the US effort to reconstruct Gaza “in full partnership with the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, in a manner that does not allow Hamas to restock its arsenal.” He also pledged to replenish the Iron Dome missile-defence system, which had faced about 4,000 Hamas rockets.

Biden said that the conflict was a “genuine opportunity to make progress” on the Arab-Israeli peace process. He also stated that he would reverse the restrictions that Trump has put on aid to the Palestinian Authority. However, he said that he would not reverse other decisions, such as recognising East Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

But there is scepticism that any agreement will be different from those reached after the Hamas-Israel wars in 2009, 2012, or 2014. Sceptics argue that a deal would just guarantee a few years of relative calm, and then another similar crisis would emerge. The root causes of the crisis have not been solved.  

AL-SISI’S GOALS: There is no denying that Egypt has been facing difficult geopolitical challenges over the past few years.

Cairo wants to emphasise its geopolitical strength through its successful negotiation of a Hamas-Israel deal. Furthermore, it has to be involved, given its proximity to Gaza and the importance of Gaza to Egyptian national security, and it is eager to emphasise its traditional regional power through negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians.

President Al-Sisi also wants to have good relations with Biden, and he was the first Arab leader to congratulate Biden on his electoral victory in 2020. However, there is still some tension between Cairo and Washington over the human-rights dossier. Therefore, Al-Sisi’s mediating role between the Israelis and the Palestinians would remind Washington, and emphasise to the Biden administration, that the traditional role that Cairo has historically played in the Middle East is indispensable.

In dealing with Hamas, the official Egyptian stance is that Cairo is able to differentiate, or draw a line, between Hamas as a terrorist organisation (given its strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood) and Hamas as a Palestinian resistance movement against the Israeli occupation. During the crisis, Egyptian intelligence played a role in liaising between Hamas and Washington. Biden agreed with Al-Sisi that Washington would focus on restraining the Israeli attacks, while Cairo would focus on restraining the Hamas rockets. Indeed, Cairo sent delegations to talk to Hamas officials and officials in Tel Aviv.

Relying on Cairo as a major player indeed made sense. According to Ross, “the only ones who have real leverage on Hamas right now are the Egyptians.” The recent Egyptian efforts have been hailed globally, and they have led to an improvement in Biden-Sisi relations, as was seen in the recent telephone call between the two men. Cairo now has an opportunity to capitalise on this improvement of relations with Washington to advance several items on the Egyptian foreign-policy agenda. 

NETANYAHU’S TROUBLES: Israel is currently suffering from a power vacuum. It has had four elections over the past two years, all of which failed to produce a single political party with the necessary 61 seats needed to enjoy a clear majority in the Knesset.

This made it necessary to rely on fragile, short-term party coalitions to form Israeli cabinets. Furthermore, Netanyahu was standing on trial for corruption in early May in a corruption trial that made it seem as if he was on the verge of losing power after 12 years as prime minister and that a new government in Tel Aviv was around the corner.

Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud Party depend on far-right parties for political support. In early May, Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition centre-left Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party, received a mandate from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to form a new government and was given a deadline of 2 June to form a coalition to do so. This was due to Netanyahu’s own failure to form a new coalition government, in addition to the corruption charges against him that have weakened his position.

Lapid argues that Netanyahu has mismanaged the crisis and that this is a good enough reason for him to be replaced. So far, his negotiations with other parties in Israel has not reached the necessary majority to form a coalition government. If he fails to meet the 2 June deadline, then the Knesset will have 21 days to nominate one of its members as prime minister. If it fails to do that, then Israel will have to hold its fifth set of elections in four years.

The recent confrontation with Hamas might have been a good opportunity for Netanyahu to prove his ability to protect Israel and his effectiveness as prime minister and to strengthen his political standing. Netanyahu claimed victory for the ability of the Iron Dome system to intercept most of the Hamas rockets and for the Israeli airstrikes to achieve victory in Gaza. But he refrained from sending in ground troops. According to Mark Heller of the Institute of National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, both Israel and Hamas know that they cannot bring about a decisive victory in the conflict without inflicting high costs on themselves. Therefore, both sides have a motivation not to escalate and to eventually reach a ceasefire agreement.

With the ceasefire, both sides have claimed victory. Israel has claimed victory for intercepting most of the missiles fired by Hamas using its Iron Dome system and for forcing Hamas to stop its attacks. Netanyahu might also have claimed victory for being able to protect Israeli civilians. The conflict also played to his side, as it diverted time and attention away from his own political troubles, at least temporarily.

Hamas, on the other hand, has also claimed victory for its missiles being able to reach the depths of Israeli cities and terrorise the Israelis despite the Iron Dome. Usually, experts would say that in wars between a state (like Israel) and a militant guerrilla group (like Hamas), the guerrilla group can claim victory just by surviving the war and avoiding defeat by a state army.

This crisis and the following ceasefire have been just another chapter in the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict. The only hope is for the Arabs to find a united and coherent policy to solve the issue, but this is extremely unlikely to happen.

The writer is a lecturer in political science at the British University in Egypt and a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs and the UK Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).



*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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