Don’t Expect Peace Soon

The Guardian- 08/12/2006

Don’t expect peace soon: Hostile forces have to be defeated before any meaningful Middle East talks can take place.

Internal politics and wider regional strategy largely explain the sudden re-emergence of talk about conflict resolution between Israelis and Palestinians. The leading party in Israel’s government has been drifting, rudderless, since the conclusion of this summer’s war with Hizbullah. The big idea of prime minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party was unilateral disengagement, which was implemented in Gaza in 2005.

But the results have included: the transformation of Gaza into an armed camp as the result of massive smuggling of weapons; the victory of Hamas in Palestinian Authority elections in January, at least partially as a result of disengagement being depicted as an Israeli flight in the face of Palestinian military action; and the failure of Israel to achieve deterrence vis-à-vis Hamas-led Gaza, with the resulting launches of Qassam rockets.

The war with Hizbullah has helped to further damage the idea of unilateralism, at least for the moment, because of the perceived need for Israel to rebuild a strong deterrent stance, and the negative effect that disengagement is seen to have had in this regard.

The government of Israel has thus found itself lacking a strategic agenda in the past months. The renewed interest in negotiations based on the “road map” with a PA unity government led by Mahmoud Abbas is meant to fill this gap.

On the external level, the contents of the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq point to a shifting US regional strategy, of which attempts at a revival of the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process form a part. The US is facing a dire situation in Iraq. The current idea is to “engage” with the region in order to recruit the good offices of regional players to help prevent further meltdown.

From this point of view, it matters little if there is coherence to the notion that dysfunction and strife in Iraq are in any way related to the separate matter of the Israelis and Palestinians. The point is that the people with whom the US now wishes to engage profess great interest in the Palestinian issue. So to get them on board, some semblance of movement on this front is necessary.

But is there nevertheless a chance for substantive progress? There is, sadly, little cause for optimism. Rather, the position of the Hamas-led government of Ismail Haniyeh has become entrenched by the latest developments.

From Hamas’s point of view, things are going rather well. Attempts to found the long-awaited unity government in the PA remain becalmed because of the refusal of Hamas to compromise on Israel’s right to exist, commitment to prior agreements, and abandoning terror.

The movement will present any deal for the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit as its own achievement. Following this, there will be no rush to further steps. Reports indicate that Hamas has found a way around economic sanctions, engaging in smuggling cash into PA areas. This money goes largely towards financing the movement’s charity and paramilitary structures. In the meantime, the ceasefire suits Hamas just fine, enabling it to replenish and re-arm. And to return to the fight at a time of its choosing.

The bottom line is that no substantive revival of the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians should be expected any time soon. Local and regional dynamics point to likely further confrontation. Behind the scenes, many of those involved acknowledge this. The speeches and exhortations have a rationale of their own. They serve the needs of various players. But one should not be dazzled by them. Forces hostile to peace and stability are on the rise among the Palestinians and their regional backers. Their defeat or containment are likely to precede any return to a genuine diplomatic process.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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