After eight days of the fiercest fighting in years, a cease-fire agreement between Israel and the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers could usher in a new era of relations between the bitter foes. The renewed quiet on both home fronts raises questions about what those involved gained, and lost, from the fighting and its aftermath.
Israel secured an agreement to stop the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel without launching a ground invasion or losing the support of its international allies. Benjamin Netanyahu's bid for re-election in January could be vastly strengthened by the operation and by the killing of Hamas militant leader Ahmed Jabari on the first day of fighting. Netanyahu got the backing of President Obama during the fighting, a significant achievement after their already shaky relationship grew colder when Netanyahu was perceived to favor Republican Mitt Romney. Israel also secured a commitment from the U.S. to help stop weapons smuggling into Gaza.
And while Netanyahu faces some domestic criticism, many analysts said the cease-fire will help the leader. If the cease-fire holds -- a major if -- Netanyahu now has several weeks before the election to turn domestic and international focus back to his signature security issue: Iran. The operation did not destroy Gaza's Hamas rulers and even emboldened them regionally, and there is broad agreement in Israel that the offensive lasted too long to accomplish a fairly narrow mission of stunting Gaza militants' ability to launch rockets. But letting it drag out further, analysts and officials said, would only benefit Iran. A lingering, bloodier war probably would have distracted the international attention Netanyahu has worked almost obsessively to center on Iran's nuclear program.
The Islamic militant group that rules Gaza gained significant international credibility, with Arab and Turkish diplomats pouring into the Palestinian territory to show support. Though it has been branded a terror group by Israel and the United States, it was treated as an equal partner with Israel during indirect cease-fire talks in Egypt. In those talks, it secured a commitment for the freer movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza. Hamas also proved its ability to fire rockets as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem despite being battered with airstrikes. As the Arab Spring brings Islamists to power across the region, Hamas' influence is on the rise.
Mahmoud Abbas, who lost control of Gaza to Hamas five years ago, might be the biggest loser. He had no seat in the cease-fire negotiations and was largely sidelined during the crisis. Hamas' ability to stand up to Israel and survive could also diminish Palestinians' patience with their president's so far fruitless efforts to push for a negotiated solution to the conflict with Israel. Abbas' Western-backed government only rules in the West Bank, and his dreams of reconciling the rival Palestinian territories seems more elusive than ever.
The former Muslim Brotherhood leading figure emerged from his first major international crisis with enhanced prestige and proved his government can mediate between the two sworn enemies, something the United States cannot do because it considers Hamas a terrorist organization and doesn't allow contacts between its members and U.S. officials. Egypt's sponsorship of the cease-fire ensures Mohammed Morsi a central role in the future of the changing region.
While the Obama administration has sought to refocus its foreign policy on Asia, the Gaza fighting forced it to turn back to a conflict that it has sought to move past. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's last-minute shuttle diplomacy might have strengthened a U.S.-Egyptian partnership that has been strained in the 21 months since Egyptians toppled autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak. After a first term characterized by repeated failures in forging Israeli-Palestinian peace, the U.S. role in supporting the cease-fire could signal renewed U.S. engagement in the region. A U.S. commitment to help stop arms smuggling to Gaza could also help repair President Obama's strained ties with Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu.