The bombs have stopped dropping and the missiles flying and people in the south of Israel and in Gaza can now catch their breath and get a night’s sleep. Is this just a temporary lull, or is there reason for cautious optimism that the unrelenting trajectory of conflict between these two may have shifted, even just a little?
There is reason for guarded optimism, perhaps because all the major parties can claim victory. Everyone feeling like a winner is an essential prerequisite to taking a step away from deadly violence.
Gazans erupted in noisy celebration as soon as the ceasefire was declared. They had watched on their televisions and smartphones for eight days as Israelis scrambled for bomb shelters. Hamas rockets had come closer to Israel’s big cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem than they ever had before. And Arab leaders had come to Gaza to express solidarity and support. But there was more than psychological satisfaction. The ceasefire commits Israel to refrain from targeted assassinations and promises the opening of Gaza’s border with Israel, if not with Egypt. Those are real gains.
Israelis too had reason to celebrate, although the public mood was far more sombre than in Gaza. The ceasefire requires Hamas to refrain from all military activity across the border. That is not the first time this promise has been made, but this time Egypt committed itself to enforce the promise. That’s new.
Also important was the exceptional performance of the Iron Dome anti-missile system; designed and manufactured in Israel, it delivered beyond expectation. Its capacity to intercept missiles targeted at population centres reassured the public and gave Israel’s leaders the space and time they needed to explore a ceasefire. And the badly frayed relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu was repaired as the two worked together on the terms of a ceasefire, and Israel’s prime minister faced down some of his cabinet colleagues who wanted to escalate the fighting.
Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi comes out of this conflict a very big winner. He expressed his support for Palestinians, sent his prime minister to Gaza, but was able to work closely with Barack Obama to get the parties to stop shooting and to agree at least to some vague outlines of a political process. Turkey, on the other hand, was marginalized because it had cut off its relationship with Israel. It was Mr. Morsi who had leverage and knew how to use it.
Even cautious optimism can be fatal in the Middle East but without it, everyone is condemned to renewed cycles of violence. Egypt and Israel fought each other fiercely in 1973 and both came out of that war claiming that they had won. From their individual claims of victory sprouted a shared agreement ten years later. That may be far too much to hope for here but at the very least, one of the critical conditions for a step forward is in place.
Janice Gross Stein is the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
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