A version of this article first appeared as part of an Expert Views special feature on the new rules of the game in the Iranian-Israeli conflict.

The trilateral mediation process headed by Qatar, Egypt, and the United States between Israel and Hamas has failed to date to produce a second humanitarian pause that could lead to a permanent cease-fire and the simultaneous release of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. Pressure by the US president on Israeli officials has pushed Israel to allow more humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip — but even these expanded volumes are not nearly enough to avert famine. At the same time, there are reports Israel is in the midst of preparations for a ground invasion of Rafah, in southern Gaza — the last refuge left inside the territory for the more than 1 million Palestinians who fled the northern and central parts of the strip.

Although none of the parties to the talks have declared them dead, neither of the two conflicting parties, Israel and Hamas, has been willing to make the tough concessions needed to get to a deal. Each blames its opponent for obstruction, and the US administration has put its finger on the scale by blaming Hamas for being the major obstacle to reaching a breakthrough in negotiations.

It is fair to say that the Israel-Hamas mediation process is on hold and will take significant changes in the Gaza conflict dynamics, either due to internal or external pressure or both, to substantially alter the calculi of the two main opponents about the value of reaching a deal. Leaders in Israel and Hamas, though not necessarily for the same reasons, still believe a deal will hurt their interests more than the status quo.

Both the Israeli prime minister and the Hamas leadership, particularly Hamas leaders who remain in Gaza, are fighting for political survival in the former case and for physical survival in the latter. They face existential decisions, meaning the costs of failure are high and consequences are not just theoretical. Whatever decisions they make at present will have irreversible consequences for their own personal future.

Pressure exercised by the Israeli electorate seeks to push the Israeli prime minister toward concessions that could secure a deal. Yet such a deal might spell the end of his political future. From the other side, Qatari and Egyptian officials have also been applying pressure on the Hamas leadership to come to an agreement. But meanwhile, Israel has not stopped its onslaught on Gaza and is now threatening a ground invasion of Rafah. For Hamas leaders, especially those remaining in the Gaza Strip, a deal is primarily aimed at their physical elimination and ending Hamas’ role in the governance of Palestinian affairs. Indeed, Israeli and US officials have been quite vocal about their interest in achieving these two aforementioned objectives.

While the trilateral mediation team has access and is accepted by the two combating sides, it is not trusted by either. Each member of the team brings its own agenda to the table, which makes negotiations among the mediators about the desired objectives of the talks challenging in their own right. Both conflicting sides also suffer from a trust deficit in their respective camps. Intra-Palestinian and intra-Israeli divisions hamper the ability of the leadership on each side to make tough decisions that are not necessarily going to be acceptable to all stakeholders in their respective camps. Among Palestinians, there is growing public opposition to Hamas, blaming the group for the pain and humiliation they are suffering. Similarly, there is increasing public opposition among Israelis to the Israeli prime minister for failing to bring the hostages home and for his bad management of the war and its political implications on Israel’s reputation abroad.

Adding to the complexity of these negotiations are the side conflicts that directly impact on the decision-making calculi of the leaders in the Israeli-Hamas conflict. The uptick in the Iranian-Israeli confrontation as well as the progressive escalation in the Hezbollah-Israeli border clashes, where past rules of the game that governed those conflicts have been upended, add another element of unpredictability to an already volatile situation. They distract attention away from the war in Gaza and make the decision by Israeli and Hamas leaders to get to a deal even more difficult. For the Israeli prime minister, adopting restraint on the Iranian-Israeli front reduces his margin of maneuver on concessions that could be made to Hamas, especially if he needs to preserve the support of his right-wing coalition members. A war in Lebanon might buy him political time; though, if past is prelude, previous Israeli wars in Lebanon usually ended with the Israeli prime minister discredited and eventually removed from office.

Iran’s decision to make its shadow war with Israel a direct one between them, Hezbollah’s declared policy of escalation with Israel, as well as the involvement of other members of the Iran-led resistance axis in support of Hamas also gives them and Tehran a seat at the decision-making table, further convoluting the already fractious decision-making process on both sides.

Multi-party, multi-issue negotiations usually take a long time to conclude with a deal acceptable to all sides. This is especially true if the negotiations are taking place in the midst of an active conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives and injured many more, upended the lives of millions, and has, to date, involved six different military theaters. We should not expect a negotiated end to the war to come quickly or easily.


Randa Slim is the Director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program at the Middle East Institute and a non-resident fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced and International Studies (SAIS) Foreign Policy Institute.

Photo by Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images

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