No peace, no stability

The evidence has been accumulating in recent days that the broad outlines of a ceasefire are falling into place on both the Lebanon and Gaza fronts. This development reflects first and foremost Israeli military achievements in diminishing Hizballah’s and Hamas’ fighting capacities. True, the katyushas and Qassams continue to fall on the Israeli civilian rear, the heavy civilian deaths at Qana in southern Lebanon are delaying ceasefire efforts and Israel is confronting its own military shortcomings. Nevertheless, ceasefires appear to be near.

In Lebanon the picture seems clearer, if only because Hizballah is a disciplined organization with a unified command; the only actors that might disrupt progress toward a ceasefire that Hizballah is interested in are Iran and Syria. Also in Lebanon, the ceasefire would presumably be reached between two sovereign governments, in Beirut and Jerusalem, and would be backed up by the international community in the form of a UN Security Council resolution and an international force designed to compensate for the weakness of Lebanon’s governing institutions and army. Under current circumstances, it is ironic to note that in Lebanon Israel has to deal with "only" one militant Islamist organization and one government.

The picture in Gaza appears to be much murkier. There we are talking about the renewal of a unilateral ceasefire agreed among Palestinian factions and not directly between them and Israel, with the latter being asked to cease its attacks only in the next phase. In the Gaza reality, which is more anarchic than southern Lebanon, it is sufficient for a single small militant faction to reject the ceasefire in order to sabotage it before it sees the light of day. In this way, Islamic Jihad and elements of the Aqsa brigades, which originated in Fateh, have at Iran’s behest apparently been sabotaging ceasefire efforts that are acceptable to most if not all of the Hamas leadership.

Those efforts center on the release of kidnapped Corporal Gilead Shalit and a Palestinian cessation of hostile acts, followed by an Israeli cessation, and accompanied by Israeli release of detained Hamas parliamentarians and politicians and a commitment to release women, minors and veteran prisoners to President Mahmoud Abbas rather than to the Hamas PA government. Another aspect of the internal Palestinian agreement would be the appointment of a new government based on both Hamas and Fateh, thereby presumably opening up channels of direct financial aid that have hitherto been frozen. Egypt is once again the primary third party mediator in these efforts. One clearly positive dimension of the current movement toward a Palestinian ceasefire is that it reflects the desire of both Israel and nearly all the Palestinians to separate the Gaza conflict from that in southern Lebanon. Another is that the international media’s relative neglect of the Gaza front in favor of lebanon has deprived Hamas of knee-jerk world sympathy for the "underdog".

Another is that the international media’s relative neglect of the Gaza front in favor of Lebanon has deprived Hamas of knee-jerk world sympathy for the "underdog".

Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the Palestinian effort to stabilize the situation in Gaza is that, at least as far as Israel’s involvement is concerned, it is spearheaded not by Hamas but by Abbas and Fateh circles, i.e., by the weaker actor among the Palestinians. The latter purport to know what Hamas is thinking and what it requires, and turn to Israel to make the necessary gestures with regard to aid and even weaponry for Abbas’ presidential guard. Yet these more moderate Palestinians, who are desperate to return to even a modicum of power inside the PA, have over recent months demonstrated a poor understanding of what really makes the Islamist Hamas tick.

They have also predicated efforts to form a new post-ceasefire Palestinian coalition government on the prisoners’ document, a problematic agreement that doesn’t mention Israel or a two-state solution, reaffirms the right of return and sanctions violence in the occupied territories. That the moderate Abbas approves this document is troublesome, just as was his agreement back in March 2005 to the Cairo pact with Hamas, which features a particularly extreme version of the right of return. Fateh activists have reassured us that these are "internal" documents, needed to bring Hamas into the Palestinian political fold. But they also have the effect of obliging Fateh to acquiesce in more militant positions for the sake of unity.

Eventually, the current efforts will bring about a ceasefire in Gaza. But it is unlikely that this will quickly empower a moderate and responsible Palestinian government or pave the way to a renewed peace process. Nor can a Palestinian or Lebanese ceasefire remain stable as long as the government on the Arab side is institutionally weak and incapable of exercising effective sovereignty.

In parallel, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert will be hard put after this conflict–which began with the Arab violation of recognized borders to which Israel had withdrawn unilaterally–to restore the momentum for an additional unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. Hence a ceasefire might usher in a period of dangerous stagnation on the Palestinian front.