The Hamas-Israel ‘Calm’: Will it Work This Time?

The announcement that Egypt was successful in negotiating a period of “calm” between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas, which has control of the Gaza Strip, has understandably been greeted with much skepticism, based on previous failed attempts at a meaningful cease-fire. Under the announced terms of the agreement, Israel and Hamas have agreed to a truce — Hamas prefers the term “calm” — in and around the Gaza Strip, which was to go into effect last Thursday. Skeptics have pointed out that all previous efforts to achieve a true cease-fire with Hamas have failed, and that the period of “calm” was used by Hamas to regroup, obtain more weapons and to prepare for a resumption of rocket attacks into Israel. There was also no announced intention by Hamas to free the captive Israeli soldiers they have held prisoner since the two-front war of two summers ago. In addition, there was no announced intention by Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist and to abide by any and all previous and future agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which is headed by Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas.

While all of the above concerns are legitimate, there are some significant differences between the Egyptian-brokered truce and previous failed attempts. The Egyptians spent several months in intense back-and-forth diplomacy between the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and the de facto Hamas Prime Minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh. If the truce holds, the relentless rocket attacks launched by Hamas from Gaza into Israeli towns like Sderot and Ashkelon, which have caused numerous deaths and serious injuries would stop. Of course other factions not directly under Hamas, like Islamic Jihad could continue the attacks, but these would be more difficult if Hamas abides by the terms of the agreement. Certainly an end to the Qassam and Grad/Katyusha rocket attacks against Sderot and Ashkelon will be welcome by the residents of those and other neighboring communities. Perhaps if the truce holds and the Egyptians remain engaged in the process, a prisoner exchange could result in the repatriation of the captive Israeli soldiers.


Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is under investigation for serious alleged financial wrongdoing, has been accused of engaging in a several-track negotiating effort as a means of “distracting” attention from his troubles. There may be some truth to those claims, but if real progress towards peace can be made on several fronts, it will make no difference whether Olmert or a successor is in charge of the Israeli government.

In addition to the truce with Hamas, Israel is involved in direct talks with Syria in Ankara, Turkey, aimed at reaching a full peace treaty between Israel and Syria based on an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which would be de-militarized, in exchange for mutual recognition, recognition of permanent borders and normal diplomatic relations. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has gotten into the diplomacy round by offering to host a face-to-face meeting in Paris between Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

While all of the above diplomatic activity is unfolding, Israel has reached out to the new government in Lebanon for direct talks. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week made a surprise visit to Beirut for the first time since Hezbollah gained power in an agreement that ended the political deadlock in that nation. Israel and Hezbollah have also been holding indirect talks through German intermediaries, aimed at a possible prisoner exchange. Of course in the past, Israel has had to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for even only one Israeli soldier, but Israel’s highest priority is the safety of its own citizens and soldiers, and so such deals are part of the reality of the Middle East.

Skepticism is certainly understandable in responding to the various peace efforts, but cautious optimism might also be warranted. There is clearly a shift in the Middle East away from military confrontation towards reaching political and diplomatic solutions to the various conflicts. Despite our doubts based on prior disappointments, we continue to support Israel in its goal, first announced with its Declaration of Independence 60 years ago, to achieve peace with all of its neighbors. If these recent efforts help achieve that goal, they deserve our full support, despite our realistic concerns about their prospects for success.