Mideast cease-fire may be near – what comes next?

Birds fly as a plume of smoke is seen over central Gaza Strip, after an airstrike by Israeli forces, as seen from the Israel Gaza border, Monday, Nov. 19,...
Birds fly as a plume of smoke is seen over central Gaza Strip, after an airstrike by Israeli forces, as seen from the Israel Gaza border, Monday, Nov. 19,...
AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

Israel and the Palestinians are said to be nearing a cease-fire, though no announcement will come Tuesday night, Israeli news is reporting. The potential deal would put an end to a conflict that has claimed over 100 Palestinian lives and three Israeli civilians. Hamas and Egypt have confirmed the deal, but Israel says it hasn’t been finalized.

Word of the potential truce came as Sec. of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Israel and began immediate talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Clinton is scheduled to meet with Palestinian and Egyptian leaders later. Her arrival suggests a more concerted international push to end the violence.

“In the days ahead, the U.S. will work with partners here in Israel [to find a solution that] bolsters the people of Israel, improves conditions for the people of Gaza, and moves toward a comprehensive peace,” said Clinton at a press conference with Netanyahu, adding that ”America’s commitment to Israel’s security is rock-solid and unwavering.”

Ensuring that any cease-fire endures might not be easy. “For a cease-fire to be effective, it has to have defined terms that are clear and made publicly available,” said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of Jerusalem Fund. A truce in 2008 between Israel and Hamas collapsed “because each side had its own interpretation of the terms,” he said. The ceasefire breakdown led to an Israeli incursion into Gaza that left hundreds dead.

And any cease-fire has to be effectively enforced. “There have to be mechanisms for accountability, a way of holding violators responsible, or else it falls apart,” added Munayyer, a former policy analyst at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Such mechanisms can be worked out by credible international mediators and agreed upon by Palestinians and the Israelis.

Here the Egyptians can play a key role. Egypt has often sided rhetorically with the Palestinians, recently comparing Hamas to George Washington in insisting on its right to self-defense. But Egypt has been instrumental in passing messages between Hamas and the Israelis, and the Obama administration has signaled that it sees Egypt as a potential honest broker in the conflict.  ”We are encouraging Egypt to use its influence on Hamas,” said the State Department on Friday. “We’ve been in contact with them before. We’ve been in contact with them afterwards.”

“Unquestionably the most significant outcome of this conflict is the demonstration of Egyptian influence,” said Bernard Avishai, author of The Hebrew Republic. After the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt, there were worries that the new Islamist government would scuttle the 30-year-old peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. “Now we see that there is a cooperative, reciprocal relationship between Egypt and Israel,” said Avishai.

Egypt and the United States have been eyeing each other warily since the government took power following the country’s revolution that overthrew the longtime pro-American Egyptian dictator Honsi Mubarak in February 2011. Some Members of Congress tried to withhold a large aid package delivered to the Egyptians earlier this year.

Its positive role in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict suggests that Egypt wants to maintain good relations with the United States, however. “The Obama administration deserves credit for understanding how to get closer to Egypt during this, how it could pressure Hamas,” says Avishai. “Washington played this the way it needed to be played. Egypt has good incentives to cooperate with the United States. America is vital in securing loans to Egypt from the International Monetary Fund. On Tuesday, the IMF agreed to grant nearly $5 billion to Egypt, an important signal to international investors that the country has a safe economic program.

If the United States continues to push Egypt to push Hamas and Israeli to make peace, a ceasefire just might be able to hold.

Mideast cease-fire may be near -- what comes next?