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While most Israelis are focused on the “Bibi yes, Bibi no” theme of the coming [third] elections, at least one man takes notice of occasional rocket fire from Gaza and seems concerned with the potential electoral effect of instability there: the prime minister.

Over the past weeks, Benjamin Netanyahu has conveyed to Egypt his wish to “try something new” in Gaza, only to face a resounding “no” from Cairo.

Here is what happened:

A Changed Netanyahu Equation: Border tranquility suddenly trumps delegitimizing Hamas.

As the most dominant mediator between Hamas and Israel,  Egypt was asked by Israel in recent weeks to support an effort by the (outgoing) Israeli government to reach a long-term (5-10 year), comprehensive deal with Hamas, involving codified ceasefire understandings, substantial easing of the Israeli closure of the Strip, and a major reconstruction plan.

Hamas’s decision to reduce tensions along the Gaza-Israel border, punish cease-fire violators, and, most dramatically, stay out of the most recent round of violence (prompted by the mid-November Israeli assassination of Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu Al-Ata) were all used to explain the change of heart in Jerusalem.

The new strategy was a reverse of consistent Israeli rejections of repeated Hamas offers of such long-term deals. The previous Netanyahu approach confined all understandings to short-term and reversible relief measures, coupled with a ceasefire formula that had no built-in mechanisms for sustainability and did not exceed the mantra “quiet will be rewarded with quiet.”

This narrow and – as evidenced by repeated instances of rocket fire, rioting near the border fence, and the launching of incendiary balloons – largely ineffective policy had been commonly attributed to Netanyahu’s concern with the right-wing response to more generous, comprehensive approaches, particularly from individuals like Naftali Bennett. The prime minister’s fear was that such individuals might accuse him of being “soft on Hamas.” Having secured his right flank by naming Bennett his new minister of defense, it appears that Netanyahu judged the electoral cost of another round of violence to be more damaging than reversing course on legitimizing Hamas and solidifying its control over the Strip.

Still, as with the previous strategy, the new one is also consistent with Netanyahu’s determination to enshrine the separation between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, thus depriving Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of a claim to represent all Palestinians and undermining his standing as a negotiating partner.

Sisi to Bibi: Legitimizing Hamas rule? Not on my watch!

Two weeks ago, Cairo vetoed the Netanyahu version of a more far-reaching Gaza strategy. Senior Egyptian intelligence officials advised their Israeli counterparts that they would neither  mediate nor accept a deal that reinforces Hamas rule and bypasses the PA.

Specifically, Egypt insisted on injecting a third element into the equation: all such ceasefire and reconstruction understandings must involve the PA. Cairo fully understood that by insisting that long-term Gaza stabilization requires restored PA management of the Strip, it was explicitly going against Netanyahu’s policy of keeping the West Bank and Gaza under divided rule.

As previously reported here and elsewhere, it was the Gaza war of summer 2014 that triggered an Egyptian reassessment of the containment strategy that had failed to prevent previous outbreaks of violence. It was shortly thereafter that an Egyptian “three-legged strategy” – upgraded and codified ceasefire understandings and mechanisms, a comprehensive rehabilitation and reconstruction plan, and a gradual restoration of PA management – was presented to Netanyahu.

With Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas strongman in Gaza, having endorsed the Egyptian plan (including by issuing a Hamas invitation to the PA to restore management of all civil affairs), Netanyahu’s greenlighting it was the last prerequisite before tending to the most challenging task of overcoming the objections of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).

Within weeks, though, Cairo detected an Israeli effort to sabotage its plan. It turned out that Netanyahu had reconsidered. Separating Gaza from the West Bank again took priority over stabilizing the Strip and preventing violence and misery.

Last week’s Egyptian rejection of the Netanyahu request was thus consistent with Cairo’s policy since Operation Protective Edge. Egypt stood ready to offer its good offices should Israel remove its veto over a gradual process of re-linking Gaza and the West Bank. Otherwise, the Egyptian officers explained, Egypt is prepared to entertain alternative Israeli suggestions for dealing with Gaza as long as those do not enshrine Hamas rule over the Strip. In the interim, the Egyptians continued, they are standing by to “play firefighter” whenever open conflict erupts. Still, Egypt understands that its interests in the Sinai, along with a better future for Gazans and their Israeli neighbors, will not be seriously advanced by such a tactical approach. Cairo continues to want to see the PA reassume control over Gaza, and will not be dissuaded by Netanyahu’s own efforts to keep the West Bank in PA hands and Gaza under Hamas rule.