In the last few weeks we have witnessed a series of developments that at face value might appear inconsistent with the general trends of deterioration that the Arab-Israel conflict in particular and the Middle East in general has been experiencing.
There have been reports about indirect Syrian-Israeli negotiations mediated by Turkey and not objected to by the US. Egypt succeeded in brokering a truce between Israel and the Hamas leadership in Gaza that has been observed successfully, albeit only just. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice strikes an optimistic note regarding the current negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas.
So is the trend reversing? Are negatives becoming positives and are we in the middle of a peace offensive, as some commentators have described it? Or are these just illusions and gimmicks motivated by the short-term political interests of certain leaders?
It is usually helpful to try and look for connections between the external political behaviors among the different leaderships in the region and their domestic circumstance. And the above developments all seem to have coincided with significant developments in Israel, which is usually the major driving force behind political developments in the context of the Arab-Israel conflict.
Olmert is motivated mainly by his domestic crisis and struggle for political survival. In addition to the difficulties he has been facing in keeping his coalition together, the corruption scandal has seriously challenged his premiership and is still likely to bring him down. Nevertheless, as part of his maneuvering for survival he has been trying to create the impression among his public as well among as the political elite in Israel that his continued survival is crucial for the potential success of the different political processes he has set in motion.
Yet all of these tracks are more about illusion than substantive progress.
While the ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza might be considered a significant sign of progress toward security and peace and has succeeded in temporarily ending the violence and consequently reducing public pressure on Olmert, it cannot represent any significant progress toward peace. Israel is not negotiating peace with Hamas and the Islamist movement has been clear that the ceasefire does not mean an end to attempts at strengthening the military capabilities of Hamas, including by continuing the smuggling of arms to Gaza. In fact, there was consensus among analysts that the ceasefire strengthens Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority and the peace camp in Palestine, with whom Israel is supposed to be negotiating peace.
The reopening of indirect Israeli-Syrian contacts, meanwhile, is also an illusion, particularly because Israel is making no secret that its implicit objective in these contacts is isolating Syria from Iran and reducing Syrian influence in Lebanon, including with Hizballah. Clearly, Syria has no motivation for losing either its alliance with Iran or influence in Lebanon, merely because of promises from an Israeli government that is on its last legs.
Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine serious political progress in the Arab-Israel context without significant American involvement and support. And since the US is in the middle of presidential elections it is not at all likely we can expect significant political developments from any side.
For all these reasons, one has to conclude that the recent political developments are motivated by the domestic circumstances of the different parties and have very little chance of success. In addition to Olmert’s domestic woes, Hamas needs to reorganize itself and reduce the pressure on the Gazan population, while Syria wants to break the isolation that was imposed on it by the US and its allies in the region.
In other words, the parties are benefiting domestically from these political developments while they are not in a position or cannot afford to do what it takes for these processes to reach their stated destination: peace in the region.
Most illustratively, and in spite of contradicting statements, negotiations between Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas seem unable to breed any serious and justified optimism. That will be the case for as long as they fail to end the consolidation of the occupation and the expansion of settlements, the sine qua non of progress in the peace process.