Israel and Hamas, the diplomatic dance behind the deal

Along with the flurry of negotiations and high-level meetings, the path to a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas involved a diplomatic dance between the two main parties who refuse to deal with each other directly.

Ceasefire: Day 1


9 years ago
CBC's Nahlah Ayed reports from Jerusalem and tells us the question on both sides of the conflict is how long will the ceasefire hold. 3:44

Along with the flurry of negotiations among senior government officials and heads of states, the path to a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas involved a diplomatic dance between the two main parties who refuse to deal with each other directly.

Although a large number of participants, including officials from Turkey and Qatar, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, took part in the talks to resolve the conflict in Gaza, the principal players in negotiating the ceasefire were officials from the U.S., Israel, Hamas and Egypt.

But since Israelis and Hamas officials will not hold face-to-face negotiations, it fell to Egypt, a country that has relations with both, to act as the facilitator.

U.S. officials also had to relay their concerns through Egypt as the Obama administration will not speak directly with leaders from Hamas, which they have labelled a terrorist organization.

"There are always indirect channels between parties who don't speak to each other," Janice Stein, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, told CBC News. "So Hamas speaks to Egypt, Egypt speaks to Israel, Israel speaks to the United States, United States speaks to Egypt, Egypt speaks to Hamas."

"These are really skilled people who do this all time," she added.

Although it's unclear how the negotiations were carried out in this particular case, Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt,  Israel and Jordan, said that often the process is as simple as the different parties being in different rooms or different floors of the same hotel.

"That begins a process of the facilitator speaking to one and then going to the other and negotiating with each of them, presenting each other's views and then trying to come up with a middle ground that would be acceptable to both," Bell told CBC News.

In this case, if Israeli and Hamas negotiators staying in the same hotel happened to run into one another, they would just ignore each other, Bell said.

That neither side in this conflict will directly talk to one another does make finding common ground a bit more challenging, Bell said. During his times as Israeli ambassador in the early and late '90s, he said, negotiators had less problem getting representatives of Israelis and Palestinians to sit down and talk.

"We used to say the first day is devoted to everybody attacking everybody and day two we started to work. All that would be multiplied in the present circumstances."

Cool hands

Bell said the Israeli-Hamas negotiations this time probably benefited by being spearheaded by Egypt's new intelligence chief  Mohammed Shehata, a longtime intelligence bureaucrat from the Mubarak regime. He is known to both sides for his role in mediating talks between Hamas and Israel regarding captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was released in a prisoner exchange by Gazan militants in October 2011 after five years in captivity.

This chart shows which parties talked with one another during diplomatic negotiations to resolve the Israeli/Hamas conflict. (CBC)

"Given his origins, I suspect he would be pretty practical," Bell said of Shehata. "These negotiations were not in the hands of some starry-eyed Muslim Brotherhood [official] but I'd suspect a cool old-time pragmatist."

During the ceasefire talks, Egyptian President  Mohammed Morsi met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, but not with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or any Israeli official.

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said that under former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak there were more contacts between Israelis and the government of Egypt.

"What is missing here is the Israelis don't have a direct contact with the president of Egypt," Abrams said. "They used to talk to Mubarak but they don't talk to Morsi.

"The only party that appeared to be talking to everybody is Egyptian intelligence. So it places a lot on the intelligence people to first of all to be a faithful messenger but secondly to be a broker," said Abrams.

A former foreign policy official under Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, Abrams noted that Egypt surprised many observers this time by reasserting itself in the region and by playing essentially the same role it did under Mubarak — the broker and the middleman.

"People were saying Qatar's much more important, Turkey's much more important, but that's turned out today not to be the case. Cairo is the centre of Middle Eastern policy again," he said.

Power broker

While Turkey and Qatar met with Egyptian officials earlier, Turkey, long seen as a power broker in the region, was unable to play any kind of substantial diplomatic role this time around.

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"Turkey had aspirations to play a role but it cut itself off from Israel as a result of its diplomatic dispute with Israel," Stein said. "Paradoxically it's been frustrated because it's not been able to have contact with both parties in the same way that Egypt does."

Qatar may have been able to assert some influence on Hamas after the country's emir recently pledged $400 million to Hamas following a recent visit to Gaza, said Abrams.

But sidelined from playing any major role was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Although Morsi, Clinton and Ban met with the Palestinian leader, those were mostly courtesy calls.

"If they bypass him completely ... it really undercuts the moderates and enhances the radicals," Bell said. "Everybody knows his influence is limited, they want to give him a role, at least a cosmetic role where he's seen to be involved and consulted so he doesn't lose any more credibility that otherwise would be the case."