Looking for fig leaves: Israel and Hamas negotiate terms of a ceasefire.

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If one listens to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Hamas leaders, there is only one conclusion: an end to the Gaza carnage is nowhere in sight.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP

by James M Dorsey   24 January 2024

If anything, judging by their increasingly maximalist statements, Mr. Netanyahu and Hamas are determined to fight to the bitter end irrespective of the carnage in Gaza and the fate of more than 100 people held hostage by the group.

Mr. Netanyahu’s categorical rejection this weekend of an independent Palestinian state and insistence that Israel would retain control of Gaza and the occupied West Bank appeared designed to counter US pressure, pacify his ultra-nationalist coalition partners, and deprive Hamas of an incentive to compromise.

Control of Gaza and the West Bank “is a necessary condition, and it conflicts with the idea of (Palestinian) sovereignty. What to do? I tell this truth to our American friends,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

In “every area that we evacuate, we encounter terrible terror… It happened in South Lebanon, in Gaza, and also in Judea and Samaria (Israel’s Biblical reference to the West Bank) … Therefore, I clarify that in any other arrangement, in the future, the state of Israel has to control the entire territory west of the Jordan River,” Mr. Netanyahu added.

Speaking barely 24 hours later, exiled Hamas official Khaled Mishaal retorted that “the position of Hamas, as well as the majority of the Palestinian people…(is) Palestine from the river to the sea, from north to the south… We must not give up our right to Palestine…from Rosh Hanikra to Eilat or the Aqaba Bay.”

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal gestures as he announces a new policy document in Doha, Qatar. Photo: REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon

There may be more to the maneuvering on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, notwithstanding both sides’ seemingly uncompromising position.

Increasingly facing internal divisions and a post-war reckoning, Mr. Netanyahu and Hamas leaders see the public adoption of extreme positions as a way to camouflage their tentative search for a face-saving way to end the Gaza war.

Ironically, it may be Hamas’ refusal to discuss a second round of prisoner swaps without an end to the more than three-month-long Gaza war that could create a pathway to a silencing of the guns.

In November, Hamas and Israel exchanged more than 100 hostages for 240 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons during a one-week truce as part of a Qatar-mediated deal.

This week, US Middle East envoy Brett McGurk was visiting Egypt and Qatar to discuss a Qatari-Egyptian plan that neither Hamas or Israel are likely to endorse at face value.

US National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk speaks during the IISS Manama Dialogue security conference, in Manama. Photo: Mazen Mahdi / AFP

Even so, both parties have expressed interest in negotiating the terms of proposals that contain elements that Hamas or Israel would find difficult to swallow.

The US-backed Qatari-Egyptian plan, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, involves a 90-day phased prisoner swap that would free all remaining hostages in exchange for Palestinians in Israeli prisons, end the war, facilitate the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and create a pathway for the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Responding to the plan without explicitly mentioning it, Mr. Netanyahu insisted that “if we agree to this, then our warriors fell in vain. If we agree to this, we won’t be able to ensure the security of our citizens.”

News website Axios and Israeli media reported that Israel put forward a counter-proposal ten days ago to which Hamas has yet to respond.

The proposal involves a ceasefire for up to two months but no end to the war during which all hostages would be released in phases in exchange for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons at rates that would be lower for Hamas-held civilians and the bodies of captives who died or were killed in captivity and higher for Israeli military personnel. Hamas is believed to still hold 136 hostages and bodies.

In a surprising move, Israel reportedly offered to allow Hamas leaders to leave Gaza as part of the agreement.

The offer is likely designed to sweeten a possible deal for hardline Gaza-based leader Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif, the head of the group’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, who are believed to have masterminded the October 7 attack on Israel that sparked the Gaza war.

Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, greets his supporters during a meeting with leaders of Palestinian factions at his office in Gaza City. Photo: AP Photo/Adel Hana, File

Israel has repeatedly warned it will hunt down Hamas leaders wherever they are. Israel killed Saleh al-Arouri, a senior Hamas operative, in Beirut earlier this month.

Messrs. Sinwar and Deif, Israel’s most wanted men, unlike some of Hamas’ exile leaders, including Doha-based Ismail Haniyeh, are believed to refuse Israeli demands for Gaza demilitarsation.

It is unlikely that Messrs. Sinwar and Deif would take Israel up on its offer. Moreover, few countries, excluding Iran would be willing to offer them refuge.

Add to that, the two men’s departure would compromise Hamas’ consistent rejection of Palestinian President Abbas’ willingness to engage in endless negotiations with Israel. Instead, Hamas insists that a culture of resistance should be the raison d’etre of Palestinian governance.

Hamas appeared to stake out its position with the publication of a 17-page booklet that justified the October 7 attack in the context of what it described as a century-long struggle for Palestinian rights and a response to more than half a century of Israeli occupation and settlement of lands conquered during the 1967 Middle East war.

HAMAS AL-AQSA FLOOD OPERATION, 17 page booklet release by Hamas on what really happened on October 7. Photo: Twitter/ @ShaykhSulaiman

More than 1,100 people, mostly civilians, were brutally killed in the attack. Some 250 were abducted and taken to Gaza.

“Israel has destroyed our ability to create a Palestinian state by accelerating the settlement enterprise. Were we supposed to continue waiting and relying on the helpless UN institutions?” the document asked.

The question seemed as much directed at the international community, particularly the United States that supports Israel, as toward Palestinians in war-ravaged Gaza and the battered West Bank and President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority that the US would like to see take control of Gaza.

The document appeared intended to deflect widespread international condemnation of Hamas’ October 7 brutality and to preempt Palestinians ultimately blaming the group for provoking Israel’s equally brutal sledgehammer response.

If the experience of past Israel-Hamas conflagrations is anything to judge by, Palestinians blamed Israel for the devastation caused during wars but within months of the guns falling silent also pointed a finger at the Islamist group that has ruled Gaza since 2007.

Hamas hopes that a massive prisoner release and a pathway to a Palestinian state alongside Israel will give it something to show for the human and physical carnage suffered by Gazans in almost four months of war.

In Beirut, Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan, standing against a background of Al-Qassem Brigades logos, insisted that Palestinians would “not settle for less than an independent and sovereign state.” Mr. Hamdan left open whether his emphasis on independence and sovereignty included Palestine’s right to have its own military force.

Like Hamas, US President Joe Biden and Mark Regev, a senior Netanyahu advisor, have outlined a US-Israeli position that would allow for a Palestinian state, albeit demilitarised.

Senior Advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister Mark Regev. (Tolga AKMEN / POOL / AFP)

“The idea is to find a formula where the Palestinians can rule themselves but not be in a position to threaten Israel. I think that’s the formula that can help us move forward and find solutions that will be good for Israelis and good for Palestinians too,” Mr. Regev said.

Demilitarisation and the release of all hostages would give Mr. Netanyahu, who is fighting corruption charges in court, a victory he needs in an all but certain post-war reckoning.

A majority of Israelis hold the prime minister responsible for the intelligence and operational failures that allowed Hamas to launch the most devastating attack on Israel in half a century.

An opinion poll suggested this week that Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party would lose half its parliament seats in elections. The prime minister’s coalition would gain only 46 of the Knesset’s 120 seats compared to 64 seats it currently controls.

Even so, Israel scholar Yossi Mekelberg warned that “there are hardly any signs that a (new) government would represent a sea change when it comes to relations with the Palestinians, or be more inclined to work towards peace based on a two-state solution.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.