A Ground War in Gaza & the Future of the Middle East

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An Israeli soldier flashes the V-sign for 'Victory' on a tank seen moving along the border with Gaza on July 17, 2014 on Israel's border with the Gaza Strip.
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After 10 days of air strikes, Israeli Defense Forces invaded Gaza late Thursday night, targeting a series of tunnels that reach from the Hamas-controlled territory into southern Israel.

The ground offensive began just a few days after Hamas rejected a peace deal proposed by Egypt. As Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told the Associated Press, "Hamas today is isolated. It rejected an Egyptian cease-fire proposal that was sponsored by the Arab League and the United Nations. That same proposal was endorsed by the Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas." 

Egypt has long played a leading role in the Middle East peace process, but in the wake of the Arab Spring and the counterrevolution last summer, Egyptian leaders seem somewhat distracted by their own, internal problems.

Daniel Kurtzer served as U.S. Ambassador to Egypt under President Clinton and Ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush. He examines Israel's strategy in Gaza, and Egypt's diminished role in maintaining Middle East peace.

"Hamas has found itself in this conflict with very few friends—maybe Qatar and Turkey—and has also seen Egypt, which was traditionally a major supporter, move much closer to Israel," says Kurtzer. "In fact, [Egypt] coordinated the cease-fire proposal earlier this week with the Israelis more so than with Hamas. The Israelis are gaining something in terms of public affairs, the question is whether they've established conditions in which they can decided when to end this conflict."

Kurtzer says that one of the primary goals of the Israeli invasion is to destroy tunnels Hamas has dug out of the Gaza Strip into Israel.

"In fact, the discovery of 12 or 13 infiltrators yesterday morning was probably one of the key percipients of this ground invasion," he says. "But the second goal, which is harder to define, is to degrade Hamas's military capabilities and 'restore calm.'"

There is no metric for "restoring calm," Kurtzer adds, saying that the Israelis will be using their own discretion to make that determination. In the end, Kurtzer says, the situation in the Gaza Strip may ultimately empower Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

"It appears that both the Israelis and Egyptians are trying to do that by negotiating the cease-fire conditions through [Abbas]," says Kurtzer. "If in fact he can be seen as producing that cease-fire, his fortunes will rise as Hamas's fortunes deteriorate. After all, the real victims here are the people in Gaza who are seeing their lives destroyed and their infrastructure destroyed. The question is whether or not they will continue to provide support for Hamas, or return it to the Palestinian Authority."

Though some would like to forge a new way forward without Hamas or Abbas, Kurtzer says that is unlikely. 

"The reality is, Abbas is probably the best we have and that we're going to get for sometime to come," says Kurtzer. "He has been a constant opponent of violence to achieve Palestinian ends, and he's been a constant supporter of peace. There aren't many in the leadership ranks of Palestinian society who can claim both of those. I think holding out for someone else is a prescription for failure." 

Though Mahmoud Abbas could provide a way forward for the Palestinian people, Kurtzer says that he'll be unable to unless Israel agrees to certain concessions, like freezing settlement activity, releasing prisoners, or easing restrictions in the West Bank. 

"Abbas runs an Authority that is under occupation, and derives all of its ability to produce things for its population from its relationship with Israel," says Kurtzer. "The question after the fighting ends here, and hopefully Abbas is empowered a bit by negotiating a cease-fire, is whether or not Israel will allow a relaunched peace process in which Abbas can begin to deliver some positives to the population."