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Nov 20, 2012 | 10:52 GMT

A Delay in Escalation in Gaza as Clinton Heads to Region

Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images
Summary

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, en route from Cambodia, will arrive in Israel on the night of Nov. 20. She will meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials the next day before flying to Cairo to discuss plans for a cease-fire with Egyptian officials. The White House has said the goal of Clinton's trip will be to work toward a de-escalation of the conflict in Gaza.  

Israel has agreed to hold off any ground operation into Gaza for 24 hours during Clinton's visit. The trip will delay any agreement on a cease-fire as all sides wait to see what Washington's demands are and what incentives it may offer.

The United States has shown little interest in getting involved in the conflict in Gaza. Its involvement now is likely driven by Israel's need for U.S. help with Egypt. Cairo is mediating cease-fire talks and has met with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad officials. It will be key to any deal — both in guaranteeing Hamas' commitment to a cease-fire and crucially in supporting any mechanism that would allow Israel the means to confirm the depletion, destruction or removal of any remaining long-range Fajr-5 rockets in Gaza.

Cease-fire talks have been ongoing for several days, though their pace has picked up significantly since Nov. 18. The Israeli Cabinet met late Nov. 19 and again Nov. 20 to discuss the situation. Arab and Israeli media reported Nov. 20 that Israel wanted a 72-hour truce as a first step toward a cease-fire.

Palestinian officials continue to hold talks in Cairo, but any decisions now will probably be postponed until Clinton arrives. In the meantime, Hamas continues to fire rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel — though notably, it has been more than 24 hours since long-range Fajr-5 rockets have been fired — and Israel continues to launch airstrikes.

During her trip, Clinton will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before traveling to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank. In Cairo, she is set to meet with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and other senior Egyptian officials. The stopover in Ramallah is really intended to show the Palestinian Authority's relevance, but it will not likely impact the situation in Gaza, since the Palestinian Authority has no power there and does not represent Hamas.

The key will be Egypt. Clinton will probably not meet with Hamas, which Washington labels a terrorist organization, so Cairo will be both mediating and representing Hamas during the talks. The United States has important levers over Egypt, including $1.3 billion in military aid. Cairo-Washington ties hit a rough patch after the 2011 Arab uprisings, though both sides would like to reaffirm relations. 

In late September, the Obama administration prepared the release of $450 million in emergency budget support funds as part of a $1 billion debt-relief package aimed at bolstering the flailing Egyptian economy. The United States also provides $1.55 billion, including $1.3 billion in military aid, to the Egyptian government. However, those disbursals have been put on hold due to the opposition of members of the U.S. Congress. The funds are important in addressing Egypt's severe balance-of-payments issue.

Israel will rely on Washington to obtain guarantees from Egypt. The importance of the Fajr-5 rockets in Gaza cannot be overstated. Their presence, and Hamas' resulting ability to threaten the Israeli core — the triangle of Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where the bulk of Israel's population resides — creates an intolerable situation for the Israeli government. It cannot allow Hamas to have a weapon that the Islamist group can use at will to threaten the Israeli heartland.

The Israelis are casualty-averse — a fact Hamas would likely try to exploit. The Israelis do not want to engage in house-to-house combat. But at the same time, they cannot accept Fajr-5s in Gaza. Israel needs an outside power to put some pressure on Egypt, and that power is the United States. Ultimately, however, guarantees will be difficult to achieve, which leaves Israel still seriously considering a ground operation.

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