Towards a Gaza Cease-Fire: Talking and Shooting in Cairo


Intended or not, Israelis and Palestinians have been talking and shooting at the same time. After 29 days of inconclusive blows of force between opponents and claims by both sides of victory, Israelis and Palestinians gathered in Cairo for Egyptian mediated proximity talks. After an additional 21 days of talks, frequently interrupted by exchanges of rockets and aerial strikes, negotiations came full circle: to a general ceasefire.

These three weeks, the last of the recent flare-up in Gaza, highlight the linkages between armed force and negotiations, as well as the need to better understand them. Examining this conflict in the context of broader negotiation frameworks makes apparent the unique ways in which combat and negotiation overlay on one another.

Politics and Force

The transition to negotiations and near simultaneous, continued engagement in armed action linked the use of force to political objectives in a starkly direct way. More specifically, rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel and return strikes from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) amid the ceasefire breakdown on August 19 illustrated the calculated use of force to directly support respective negotiation delegations.

In contrast to a recent argument by Claire Yorke in War on the Rocks that force is futile, the interplay of negotiations and ceasefire breakdowns reflects that force is just one factor in a conflict. The two sides’ use of force during ongoing talks demonstrates the notion of “utility of force”, to borrow from Rupert Smith’s 2005 work of the same name. In the latter half of the conflict, this utility was directed towards bolstering the ability of each side to negotiate from a position of relative strength. The same utility was present during the first 29 days of armed conflict, but became amplified when the two sides were actually involved in negotiations.

This amplification served to situate the utility at the intersection between political negotiations and the on-and-off again nature of violence that occurs within a protracted social conflict. Similarly, it reminds each negotiation delegation – as well as the watching world – of the direct political and negotiation effects of armed force. Applying key elements of broader negotiation frameworks, including no-deal alternatives, inter- and intra-party dynamics, and the implementation challenges of an agreement, helps us understand this intersection better.

No Deal Reminders

No-deal options, best described by Harvard Business School Professors James Sebenius and David Lax in 3D Negotiation, consist of the options a party has available if they do not reach an agreement. Savvy negotiators not only review their own no-deal options frequently but also attempt to understand the no-deal options of their interlocutors.

When an opponent’s no-deal option is viewed as worse than what they are being offered at the negotiation table, a negotiator may choose to remind his or her interlocutor of that no-deal option. Viewed through this prism, both morning wake-up rockets from Gaza and the flattening of Hamas-affiliated infrastructure by the IDF were attempts to ring the bell of the other’s negotiation delegation: if you don’t agree, your no-deal option is more of these rockets/air strikes.

Inter-and Intra-party dynamics

The proximity negotiations facilitated by Egypt reflected intriguing party dynamics within the Palestinian delegation, and in a slightly different way, within the Israeli delegation as well. The Palestinian delegation was reportedly a multi-stakeholder affair including the Palestinian Authority (PA), Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Despite announcing reconciliation earlier this year, Hamas, which controls Gaza, and the PA, which governs the West Bank, do not share the same cost-benefit calculus amongst them. Including Islamic Jihad, they have different equities in the form and shape of any enduring understanding with Israel. In the near term, how each Palestinian organization portrays the general ceasefire and its role in it will be revealing about the dynamics of the Palestinian delegation in practice.

Similarly, while the composition of the Israeli negotiation delegation was less well known, during the initial ceasefire it included both political leadership and defense officials, representing different communities and schools of thought within the Israeli government and Israeli Defense Forces.

Together, the diverse compositions of the Palestinian and Israeli delegations reflect the fact that there are actually threenegotiations taking place in any given negotiation involving delegations: the negotiation across the table between delegations, but also the negotiation that takes place within each respective delegation. In this case, the negotiation between the Palestinian and Israeli delegations was most visible, but those within each of the delegations were perhaps less apparent, but potentially no less important to the outcome.

These internal deliberations can also be every bit as difficult as the across the table negotiations. If internal deliberations break down, it becomes difficult to keep a negotiation delegation intact, let alone present a unified position on any issue. This also bears hallmarks of Robert Putnam’s two-level game theory: an agreement at the international table must still be delivered domestically, and vice-versa. Time will certainly tell how well each of the Palestinian factions and the Netanyahu government coalition fare politically based on the agreement they made in Cairo.

Implementation Challenges

Whether this ceasefire will hold or whether Palestinians and Israelis will return to striking each other is not yet clear. Any two parties can get together and sign an agreement. Whether, and how, that agreement will be implemented is another story. Agreements that tend to be implemented successfully carry a distinguishing but obvious characteristic: they have an agreed upon implementation plan built into the agreement itself, rather than simply an end state disassociated from any means of reaching it.

The lack of a clear implementation plan to continue the general ceasefire is not an inadvertent omission by Palestinian and Israeli negotiators: when negotiators have little common ground, a vague implementation plan helps parties reach an agreement. Conversely, this can make the terms of the agreement more challenging to fulfill. Even more challenging is that Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in at least two forms of negotiations, or at least components – the immediate one to reach a ceasefire, and the broader and deeper one regarding the protracted social conflict that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry most recently attempted to mediate.

While details emerge of the understanding reached in Cairo, the connection between the agreement and implementation will become more apparent. Depending on whether we hear more about talking, shooting, or the combination of talking and shooting in the weeks to come will reveal how well this ceasefire – crafted by Israeli, Palestinian, and Egyptian negotiators and interspersed with the application of force – will hold up.


Michael Baskin is a PhD Candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. A former US Army infantry officer with service in Afghanistan and Iraq, his dissertation examines negotiations within armed conflict with a focus on U.S. military officers in Afghanistan. He holds a BS from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he was awarded the History of the Military Art award, and an MA from the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya, Israel.


Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces