Israel’s interest in maintaining a lull in the south and on the Palestinian front as a whole is seemingly obvious. The relative quiet is clearly better for southern and central Israel
residents than frequent clashes. Still, there are two more key strategic considerations that require Israel’s government and the IDF
to adopt a restrained, cautious policy on the southern and Palestinian fronts.
First, there is a strategic doctrine formulated a while ago by the defense establishment and approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
and top ministers: The peace treaties with Egypt
must be preserved for as long as possible, even if their implementation is not perfect. The very existence of the treaties prevents an all-out war and a major clash in Gaza, the West Bank or the Sinai would require Israel to earmark troops, intelligence resources and new divisions to the area at a huge cost.
Meanwhile, a senior defense official asserts that given the current state of affairs in the wake of Arab world uprisings, Jordan would have trouble maintaining the peace treaty with Israel should Egypt annul the Camp David Accords. For Israel, peace with Jordan is an asset that is no less precious than the agreement with Egypt, and even more so at this time.
Another strategic consideration adopted as policy in Jerusalem (on the initiative of Defense Minister Barak
and Prime Minister Netanyahu) is even more important: Giving top priority to thwarting Iran’s nuclear threat and contending with the threats produced by Tehran and its emissaries. The practical implication is that Israel must avoid anything that would erode our military, economic and diplomatic resources required for the mission, even at the expense of challenges that are no less important in terms of national security.
A major flare-up in the south, for example, could reinforce Israel’s diplomatic isolation and its dependence on the United States. In this case, Israel’s ability to press the West and the UN on the Iranian front would diminish. Hence, such flare-up should be avoided as much as is possible, even if this requires restraint.
These and other considerations have led to secret contacts between all parties in the aims of maintaining the lull. The Egyptians coordinate these moves and ensure dialogue that is indirect, but intensive and ongoing, between Israel and Hamas.
This dialogue is undertaken via a sort of “mechanism” that neutralizes volatile situations in the Israel-Palestinian-Egyptian theater. A similar, more secretive mechanism is in place vis-à-vis the Jordanians.
The "Egyptian mechanism" operates mostly in the Gaza-Sinai context and has already registered several success stories: The completion of the Shalit deal, the termination of the Gaza round of fighting in April of this year and the end of the hunger strike
by Palestinian prisoners on the eve of "Nakba Day."
Israeli officials regularly involved in this mechanism include IDF Major General (res.) Amos Gilad, head of the Diplomatic-Security Bureau in the Defense Ministry, the head of the IDF Planning Branch (up until recently Amir Eshel, who is now the Air Force Chief,) and Shin Bet Chief Yoram Cohen. Hamas members who regularly represent their group within this mechanism are Khaled Mashaal and his deputy, Musa Abu Marzuq from Hamas’ political bureau, dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar from Gaza, and head of Hamas’ military wing, Ahmed Jabari.
The Egyptian mediators are headed by military intelligence chief Murad Muwafi, but the daily work is undertaken by two senior military intelligence officials, Rafat Shahata and Nader al-Aasar. Both are highly skilled negotiators, and those who worked with them praise the creativity they have shown while hopping from one hotel room to another where the Israelis and Hamas members sit.
Notably, this “mechanism” only works during periods when the parties have a real interest in reaching an agreement. The Egyptian mediators present the positions of each side, with some interpretation, creative proposals and Egypt’s own incentives, both carrots and sticks. In short, not everything presented by the Egyptians to both sides necessarily reflects, accurately, the other side’s position in letter and spirit – yet this mechanism works, and one does not argue with growing success.