When the skies over Gaza fell silent, the battleground shifted.
Diplomats have been fighting a war against time as the clock on a 72-hour cease-fire runs out, scrambling to pull together an agreement to extend the truce. The Israeli diplomats have been shuttling between Cairo and Jerusalem, while phone calls from Cairo to Hamas leadership in Qatar have been fast and furious, according to Israel’s Ha’aretz.
The activity in Cairo also has been frantic: U.S. and United Nations officials scurry between Egyptian mediators and delegations from both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, racing to put on paper even a basic outline of an agreement as Friday’s 8 a.m. (1 a.m. ET) deadline fast approaches.
Instead of rockets or airstrikes, the salvos fired on the diplomatic battleground have been put forth as unmovable “red lines.” The Palestinians are demanding that a crippling Israeli blockade be lifted, and Israel is pushing to turn Gaza into a demilitarized zone.
As the hours slip away, the sleeves have been rolled up and it feels as if the stakes have been piled ever higher — a dangerous game for Israel if history is any indication, analysts say.
Backdoor diplomacy is not a new tactic for Israel, but it has been a traumatic one. Israel has a poor track record when it comes to winning diplomatic battles brought on by the tiny nation’s military offensives, Middle East Analyst Herb Keinon writes in the Jerusalem Post.
That was true, he argues, in the 1949 war that led to Israeli independence and the Six-Day War of 1967 which saw Israel capture the Golan Heights, West Bank, Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula — doubling the territory it controlled while also spawning an occupation that has led to generations of resistance.
“It was true after the previous two operations against Hamas in Gaza, when Israel both times delivered a resounding punch but was unable to create a situation whereby Hamas would be unable to rebuild and come back to fight another day,” Keinon adds.
Is it against that bruised backdrop that Israeli delegates have come to Cairo to make their demands. Jerusalem is standing firm and insisting that Hamas — and all other militant groups — be “defanged” of rockets and of the ability to rebuild any tunnels before any deal is signed, according to London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper.
An unnamed source in the same newspaper says that Jerusalem has ceded some ground “in principle” to some Palestinian demands, including some of the primary issues at stake: the lifting of a coastal blockade and the reopening of Gaza's border crossings.
If that is true, it would signal a huge trade-off. In order to gain the “quiet” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised his people and make progress in the cease-fire talks, Israel — according to the unnamed Al Auds source — would have to postpone any discussion of demilitarization. Egyptian mediators are reportedly encouraging Israel to do just that.
But many Israelis would perceive this as yet another diplomatic defeat — giving Hamas, a "terrorist" organization, instant credibility by fulfilling its key conditions and getting, at best, mere hopes of peace in return.
"Under these impossible conditions Israel can't win the diplomatic war. At most, Israel can hope not to lose"
Some Israeli analysts say a steady stream of images of dead Palestinian children in the Western media — as opposed to Hamas rockets targeting civilians or the group’s use of human shields — have heaped unbalanced pressure on Israel. They say Israel’s international image is unfairly damaged, which has stacked the odds against Jerusalem in the latest diplomatic battle.
"How can Israel win the diplomatic war when most of the news channels in the world are serving the propaganda of Hamas,” asked Boaz Ganor, Director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel. “Under these impossible conditions Israel can’t win the diplomatic war. At most, Israel can hope not to lose this war."
But other analysts say Israel was destined to lose the war of public opinion in this latest Gaza conflict, as well.
Palestinian politician and analyst Mustafa Barghouti said that as long as Israel is occupying Palestinian land, the diplomatic war will be lost. The images of civilian casualties in the latest crisis are simply Western media reporting on the truth, he said.
"Nothing can mask the images of destroyed homes, of more than 1,900 killed and 9,500 injured," Barghouti told NBC News. "Every person who lived through this tells a story that condemns Israel."
Amid anger on both sides, already it is clear the temporary pause in fighting could be just that: fleeting.
Hamas officials say they will renew their rocket attacks on Israel as soon as the deadline passes on Friday if there is no agreement, according to Israel Radio News, while Israel — in a quick response — has pledged to "escalate its reaction,” according to Israel’s Security Cabinet member, Gilad Erdan.
With just hours left to go, the war of diplomacy could be lost by both sides — and the temporary peace shattered, forcing a return to the traditional battlefield.
For now, questions remain. Will Hamas compromise? Will Israel cede on its demand that Palestinian militants disarm? Will both sides jettison all of their demands and simply agree to extend the cease-fire and their talks?
The answer soon will become clear.