By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
On Thursday, May 20, after 11 days of fighting, Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire brokered by Egypt. So now it’s time to see what has changed, if anything. There is every likelihood that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will step down soon after many years in power. But this change will come in spite of this latest cycle of violence, not because of it.
In general, not much has changed since the ceasefire. This is simply another round in a long cycle and it does not look as if it will bring about a major change in the strategic or political backdrop of the region.
From a military perspective Hamas was dealt a heavy blow. While it was able to show an impressive rate of rocket fire, it lost several battalions of fighters, scores of ammunition depots, and its missile building centers. The underground tunnel system that Hamas spent billions to build was destroyed, killing scores of Hamas operatives who went into hiding fearing a ground invasion of Israeli troops.
This Cycle of Violence Was about Politics Not Military Maneuvers
But the issue was not military maneuvers, this cycle was all about politics. The leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, wanted to make a point, which he did. After Mahmud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, again postponed parliamentary elections in April, fearing a Hamas victory. Sinwar wanted to show that he is an active Palestinian leader, the only one who does anything in the region.
Hamas used the Israeli-Palestinian tensions in Jerusalem to position itself as the defender of the Al-Aqsa mosque there and the real leader of the Palestinians. Sinwar also showed his critics within Hamas that he is neither weak nor afraid of a confrontation with Israel. After years of relative calm, Sinwar began to look like someone unwilling to engage in violence and he came close to losing his position in Gaza. Now he has shown he will not shy away from a fight.
In Israel, this latest cycle of violence could have saved Netanyahu’s political career. It looked for a time as if there would be a government composed of the anti-Netanyahu forces. But after this latest cycle of violence, the right-wing parties that are essential to an alternative government hesitated to join a left-center coalition. They feared that their base would not forgive such a move and it would be the end of their political careers. After the clashes ended, it seems their mutual animosity of Netanyahu was even greater. Again, it had nothing to do with the fighting in Gaza; if anything, it came close to saving him.
There Is a Chance We Will See a Fifth Election in Israel in 2021
There are only a few days left to establish an alternative government so there is a chance we will could see a fifth election in 2021. The coming week or so will show where this process will end.
Another emerging victorious leader in the region is the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Egypt showed it was able yet again to broker a ceasefire. Although el-Sisi is no fan of the Muslim Brotherhood and even though Hamas is linked to the Brotherhood’s ideology, el-Sisi has power over Gaza-controlled Hamas since it borders on Egypt.
His security apparatus has connections with Hamas and his generals have been able to achieve agreements. It seems the Egyptians will mediate talks this time while also attempting to achieve a long-term ceasefire under conditions that will allow the continued rebuilding of the Gaza Strip, the influx of Qatari funding, and the return of the bodies of Israeli soldiers held in Gaza. El-Sisi has shown the region and mainly Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Egypt is the most powerful Arab state.
Two Distinct Political Changes in the Region
In addition, there have been two distinct political changes, the first being the role of Arab citizens in Israel. The clashes that mirrored similar fighting in 2000 have shown many Israelis that the civil partnership between the two sides has limited results.
Even though the past 20 years produced considerable change and the willingness last year of the Islamist party to join the Israeli government, which seemed like a watershed moment, the latest violence has set back the peaceful coexistence process for years. Indeed, there is a real chance that Jews will boycott Arab businesses, which could have a serious effect on the Arab population as a whole. It is too early to tell, but there are initial signs of this happening already.
Another result has to do with American politics. The last presidential election saw an increase in Jewish support for the Republican Party. Progressive support of the Palestinians will intensify and we will see a deeper dive of American Jews joining the ranks of the GOP, mainly among Orthodox Jews.
The Future of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah
The biggest question is the future of the Palestinian Authority and the PLO. Fatah, the cornerstone of the PLO, has been losing ground among Palestinians for decades. The latest cycle of lost support was a result of the cancelation of the election in Gaza, a move based on the fear that Hamas would win by a landslide and wipe out Fatah.
Right now, the old leadership of Fatah is almost gone. Abbas is the last of the founding generation of the PLO. The next generation will be Palestinians who joined Fatah and spent time in Israeli prisons. The problem is there is no clear leader emerging, leaving the arena wide open for Hamas. Gibril Ragub, Marawan Baraguti and Muhamad Dahalan are the most popular of the new generation of Palestinian leaders. It seems Hamas will grow in strength and Iran will continue to hold sway over the region.
The bottom line is this latest cycle of violence did not really change much, and things are more similar than different after 11 days of fighting.