The situation on Tuesday, the 15th day of Operation Protective Edge, does not seem to indicate the end is near. This is mainly because Hamas is not willing to be flexible on the terms of a temporary ceasefire followed by negotiations.
The head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Mashal, is the one who is calling the shots at the moment and even the heads the organization's military wing are obeying him. Sitting in his luxury hotel in Qatar, he does not feel under pressure nor does he feel the suffering of the Gaza people. Therefore, he is the one setting the conditions for a ceasefire, and is demanding real achievements for merely agreeing to a ceasefire before the negotiations begin. And unfortunately, Mashal is getting a backwind of support from the Gaza Strip.
The losses suffered by the IDF since the start of the Gaza ground operation and infiltrations into Israeli territory that also led to Israeli casualties have caused great elation among Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The Israeli intelligence community has observed this phenomenon, and believes it is "fueling" the intransigence over the negotiations.
It should be noted that the Egyptians are not willing to show flexibility at the moment on the blueprint they offered last week, nor are they willing to guarantee to Hamas the process will end with its demands being met. US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, however, tried to do this on Monday, somewhat awkwardly, when Kerry said that "addressing the underlying problems of Gaza" was now necessary.
For now, therefore, the political negotiations have stalled.
Israel is not really sorry that Hamas is being obstinate, although it seems that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, who are now driving the Cabinet and the government, are ready for a ceasefire either today or tomorrow. Israel has something to gain from drawing out Protective Edge, but it also has something to lose.
There are military considerations: One can assume, with a high level of reliability, that the military action on the ground will meet its objectives. Uncovering the terrorist tunnel network is progressing more rapidly than expected, and intelligence gathered during the fighting in Gaza has led Israel to tunnels it did not know about. At the moment, Israel is talking about more than 20 tunnels, while yesterday it was just 13 or 14.
As it goes along, the IDF is learning things it did not know before about the structure of the tunnel system and the way the terrorists intended - and still intend – to operate them. Conversely, the army has exhausted what it can achieve via aerial attacks. The IAF, as of Monday night, still has objectives in its kitbag, but attacking these targets will not change the face of the campaign or significantly boost Israel's deterrence once the operation is over.
Killing terrorists helps
Another achievement is the infliction of heavy losses on terrorists during clashes with IDF soldiers. Hamas is indeed showing increased resistance, but almost every encounter between combatants on both sides ends in heavy losses to the terrorists, which again contributes to Israel's deterrence.
Losses on Israel's side of course cause great grief among the Israeli public, which sees every soldier in Gaza as a member of the family. But unlike during the Second Lebanon War, there is also public perception that this sacrifice is not in vain and that the war is justified.
This will also give weight to the announcement Tuesday morning a Golani soldier is missing after he was travelling in an armored personnel carrier that was hit Saturday night in Gaza. Hamas claims it has the soldier, but it only has partial evidence and it is safe to assume that the soldier is not alive. It is still unclear for now whether there is any basis for Hamas' claims; there are several possibilities and they are being explored. The chances are, however, that this issue will not improve Hamas' situation at the negotiating table.
As such, there is no public or political pressure on the cabinet to end the operation. One might even claim the contrary.
But there is, of course, as in any war, negative consequences to an Israeli military presence in Gaza - at the forefront is growing international condemnation of death and destruction among the Palestinians.
With this in mind, Israel's legitimacy for a continued operation is quickly eroding. Another negative outcome of the operation is increasing unrest in the West Bank. On Monday night, a Palestinian was killed by IDF fire during mass disturbances in the West Bank, something that could further flame the fires. Forces dispatched by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) are for now quelling the rioters. But they are not completely preventing clashes with the IDF and Border Police, and on this issue the situation may worsen, something that is of course extremely unwanted and could be one of the considerations that would persuade the cabinet to shorten the operation in Gaza.
Political negotiations on reaching a ceasefire followed by a comprehensive settlement to the Gaza problem face difficulties of all kinds - egos, interests and simply too many cooks stirring the pot. Remarkably, although there is no clear outline for a ceasefire, there seems to be - more or less - an agreement by all the parties for such an all-inclusive deal.
Primarily there will be a cease-fire once Hamas and Islamic Jihad receive international guarantees and pledges, maybe even from the UN Secretary-General or Security Council, that their demands will be addressed as far as possible. Hamas does not currently enjoy powerful support in the region, and needs international guarantees to ensure that its issues will be dealt with once a ceasefire is reached, in particular regarding the interests of the Gazan population. This demand for international guarantees is, by the way, acceptable to Israel.
Once the ceasefire is in place, the negotiations will begin, most likely in Cairo. Surprisingly, Israel supports a major benefits package for the Gazan population in almost all areas. Some in Jerusalem are calling it a "mini-Marshall" – echoing the Allies' "Marshall Plan" to reconstruct Germany and other European countries after World War II. The man behind the term "mini-Marshall" is Culture Minister Yaakov Perry, a former Shin Bet chief pushing for a balance of power between an IDF stick and an economic carrot.
While it is a daring move, the primary consideration is rehabilitating a ruined Gaza and significantly easing the situation for its population, thereby giving Hamas an incentive to uphold the ceasefire. Hamas will come away from this with a great achievement in hand, as a "mini-Marshall" plan will only serve to cement its rule in the Strip.
Alongside the stick are some significant carrots to allow the sides to reach a stable ceasefire, and even entice Hamas into agreeing to a demilitarization agreement overseen by the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas, all parties now agree, must be an important component in the solution, both in the immediate and short terms as well as in the long term.