How Egypt Prolonged the Gaza War

As Israel and the Palestinians struggle to reach yet another cease-fire, the mediators in Cairo are making the conflict worse -- and empowering radicals in the process.​

As negotiations on a lasting cease-fire in Gaza grind on in Cairo, it's not only the animosity between Israel and Hamas that is complicating the talks -- it's also Egypt's role as mediator. Egypt's internal politics -- far more fraught and violent than they were during Hosni Mubarak's era -- have intruded on the attempts to reach an agreement, as the military-dominated government in Cairo attempts to use the talks as part of its war against the Muslim Brotherhood.

This subtle shift -- from mediator with interests, to interested party that also mediates -- has led to a longer and bloodier Gaza war than might otherwise have been the case. And while a strong Egypt-Israel alliance was supposed to cut Hamas down to size, this strategy has also backfired on the diplomatic front. However much it has bloodied Hamas -- and particularly the population of Gaza -- the war has actually led to a breaking of international taboos on dealing with Hamas, a former pariah.

Egypt has always brought its own long-standing national security interests to the table in previous Gaza mediation efforts. Cairo has never wanted militants or weapons to enter Egypt from Gaza, nor has it wanted to take over responsibility for humanitarian or security affairs there, having had the unhappy experience of occupying the Gaza Strip for almost 20 years following 1948. Egyptian intelligence officials have always taken the lead in dealing with Gaza -- even during the yearlong presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi. While one might have thought that Morsi would have opened the floodgates to Hamas, the Brotherhood's ideological bedfellow, in actuality Egypt kept the border with Gaza largely closed during his presidency and continued efforts to destroy tunnels. Whatever his personal sympathies, Morsi stayed within the lines of a policy designed to ensure that Egypt was not stuck holding the Gaza hot potato.

But after removing Morsi in a July 2013 coup, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then defense minister and now president, transformed Egypt's policy toward Gaza into part of his larger domestic and international political agenda. He is clearly using Gaza to prosecute his own relentless crackdown against the Brotherhood -- an effort that also helps cement his alignment with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In the first phase of Egyptian diplomacy during this recent Gaza war, Egyptian mediators played their hand transparently -- and ruthlessly. They attempted to corner Hamas by publicly announcing a cease-fire proposal on July 15 that had only been coordinated with Israel; when Hamas balked, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promptly announced that the rejection provided "international legitimacy" for an expanded Israeli operation. Thus what was touted as a proposal to end the conflict actually enabled a ground incursion, which resulted in a more thorough elimination of Hamas tunnels and rockets than Israeli missiles alone would have been able to accomplish.

The ground invasion also led to at least 1,600 more Palestinian deaths. Previous Egyptian presidents would have blanched at complicity in such violence.

As the conflict continued, however, Sisi found that he could no longer completely exclude Hamas if he also wanted to preserve Egypt's role as mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. And indeed, for all the ways in which the diplomatic efforts to manage the Gaza war have worked against Hamas, one of the most striking aspects of the current Egyptian-led effort has been how it has shattered the fiction that Israel and Hamas will not negotiate.

The two parties have conducted diplomacy before, of course -- but it was also carried out with levels of deniability, indirectness, and distaste. Each round of fighting chipped away at the principle that Israel and Hamas do not deal with each other diplomatically. Now the only dimension missing is direct contact: Diplomacy takes place in Cairo, with delegations arriving in daylight and exchanging positions (and threats) not merely in public, but through Egyptian mediators.

This process has also shattered another myth -- that the primary game in town is about how to achieve a two-state solution between Israel and the PLO. Today, two-state diplomacy seems to be at best in hibernation. The talks in Cairo, on the other hand, are substantial. They cover violence, security, reconstruction, living conditions in Gaza, movement and access to the territory, Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, and internal Palestinian governance.

In that sense, Cairo is presiding over a process that follows the priorities of Hamas, which has always rejected the diplomatic process that began with the 1993 Oslo Accords. The current state of negotiations reflects Hamas's position that only talks about interim arrangements and truces are acceptable; conflict-ending diplomacy is not. The Israeli right can also feel vindicated, as the talks suggest that the conflict might be managed, but that it will not be resolved anytime soon.

The Palestinian Islamist camp and the Israeli right, however, should take little joy in this accomplishment. The diplomatic efforts led by Egypt will likely give Hamas little, and the new Egypt-Israel alliance is based on a short-term coincidence of interests rather than any strategic consideration. Israeli and Palestinian societies, meanwhile, are already paying a high price for the continuing failure to reach a lasting peace accord.

There is one more troubling aspect of Cairo's diplomacy that has largely escaped notice. While Egyptian mediators were forced in the end to deal directly with Hamas's leadership in order to reach a cease-fire, they have tried to mitigate this unpleasant reality in two ways. They have not only been seeking to enhance the role of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas -- something Mubarak always did in his day -- but may also be flirting with Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a group far more committed to violence against Israel than Hamas. PIJ leaders such as Khaled al-Batsh have been quoted in the Egyptian government-owned media recently insisting that no other state can take Egypt's place as mediator.

Egypt's military-dominated regime, then, has proved that it is not against forging alliances with violent Islamists; its only feud is with those allied with the Muslim Brotherhood. The apparent Egypt-PIJ flirtation highlights how the country's highly polarized politics might cause Cairo's military-dominated leadership to cultivate clients that are hardly in the interests of the United States or Israel. An Egypt that looks and acts more and more like Pakistan is not something to celebrate.

Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images


Beyond Ukraine: NATO Solidarity in a Time of Crisis

It’s time for the Czech Republic and European allies to stand up.

When the late Czech President Vaclav Havel received an invitation to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1997, he noted that the treaty did more than guarantee security. First and foremost, Havel said, NATO membership was an opportunity to assume our share of responsibility for peace on the European continent and to contribute to the defense of the values cherished by the alliance.

The crisis in Ukraine has been a true game changer for Europe. Russia's annexation of Crimea earlier this year, followed by the outbreak of fighting in what had been deemed a stable European country, has shaken the foundations of the continent. In a matter of days, the basic tenets of  Europe's security were dealt a serious blow. The inviolability of borders established with the Helsinki Final Act -- the 1975 agreement between Europe's countries, the United States, and Canada to respect sovereignty and refrain from use of force-- was breached. So was the Budapest Agreement, the 1994 treaty that guarantees Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July sent further shock waves through European capitals. Armed conflict erupting on our doorstep has been a powerful reminder of our shared responsibility. We have learned that security in Europe cannot be taken for granted.

More than ever, Havel's words on NATO ring true. The events in Ukraine have underscored the irreplaceable role of the transatlantic partnership in ensuring Europe's peace and stability. Russia's annexation of Crimea and the armed clashes that ensued have ignited a vigorous public debate in Europe on defense issues, which normally enjoy only marginal attention among the wider public.

The Czech Republic has been and always will be an active and integral member of NATO. The alliance has always symbolized both "the return to Europe" and the transatlantic bond which we see as the foundation of our security policy. When the Czech Republic joined the alliance, we saw NATO as being primarily a military defensive organization that would help us ensure stability and territorial integrity. NATO membership has had a huge impact on the transformation of our armed forces. The aim was to develop a modern, mobile, and small-sized force, and to achieve an adequate level of interoperability with new allies and partners. It was also important to the Czech Republic that our neighbors, too, were striving for membership. That coordination and shared efforts have provided an incentive for regional stability and cooperation. Today, Central Europe is well anchored in the European and Euro-Atlantic security and defense architecture.

But 15 years since the Czech Republic joined NATO, the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine poses a serious test for the alliance as a collective defense organization. A creeping sense of insecurity hardly bodes well for a Europe, whole, free and at peace.

NATO's immediate response to the current crisis was adequate. Allies have demonstrated a high level of unity and cohesion and the alliance has managed to adopt some countermeasures, such as deploying fighter jets to the Baltics, dispatching AWACS reconnaissance planes to fly along Ukraine's borders, and has held regular talks to better coordinate diplomatic efforts.

NATO as a collective defense organization offers an ideal vehicle to assuage legitimate worries of countries from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The premium the alliance places on solidarity, an essential aspect of NATO's credibility, proves as important as ever. Without escalating the situation, it is paramount that the alliance takes the necessary steps to reassure those NATO member states who feel their security might be at risk. In the long run, we should intensify joint exercises, contingency planning, and sea and air patrolling, to name but a few measures. A visible demonstration of NATO's solidarity is important to reassure allies.

But it is important that NATO members see the alliance's security guarantees as a two-way street, not only in bringing benefits in the form of extra security, but also responsibilities. This applies to each and every member state. 

This fact has never been more in our minds than it is now, following the loss of five Czech soldiers in Afghanistan last month. Our troops are risking their lives every day on NATO missions around the world. They have earned the respect of their NATO peers and have established an impressive track record. Since the Czech Republic's entry into NATO, we have been faced with a number of crisis response-type operations outside NATO's territory. These operations -- from the Balkans to Afghanistan -- have seen Czech troops take on a range of tasks, including post-conflict reconstruction, training local forces, and providing humanitarian relief.

The Czech Republic's constructive role in world affairs and security challenges around the globe has come despite a military budget has been creeping downwards for years. Until last year, it was only slightly over 1 percent of GDP. In the recent past, the defense budget has not been a priority for many European countries. The protracted economic crisis has perhaps done the worst damage as it forced governments to channel scarce funds to other areas. This applies not only the Czech Republic but to most NATO members who have slashed defense spending and seen the public's interest in defense issues all but disappear.

The new Czech government is ready to start increasing defense spending beginning next year, even in this difficult economic climate. In order to build a modern armed forces and reverse previous defense cuts, the Czech military budget should gradually climb to 1.4 percent of GDP by 2020.

On March 12, 2014, the 15th anniversary of the Czech Republic's NATO membership, the leaders of both government and opposition parties signed a joint declaration on defense. The document calls for prioritizing defense as well as securing funding for the defense budget.

But discussions of joint declarations and allocations for defense are inconsequential in the face of the recent death of five Czech soldiers. Our commitment cannot be measured only by the size of defense budgets, but by what real allies sacrifice for the common cause, the utmost price -- human lives.

With regard to worrying developments closer to home, it is obvious that a more serious and long-term approach to security is needed. When it comes to NATO -- and this is especially the case with its European members -- we are reminded of the old adage that security comes with a price. And we all need to be ready to shoulder our share of responsibility.