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Agha and Malley: "The Road from Mecca" (NYRB)

TO: Distinguished Recipients
FM: John Whitbeck
Transmitted below is a hard-headed analysis of the prospects for
movement in the Arab-Israeli conflict by the reality-based duo of
Hussein Agha and Robert Malley. As with many of their prior articles, it
is published in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS.
For those of you who may lack the time to read this article (which
prints out to 9 pages), the conclusion is that there is no realistic
hope for any positive movement: "The time may yet come. Meanwhile, the
wait, and the waste, go on."
Notable for its absence among the alternatives considered by Agha and
Malley is the potential initiative most likely to stimulate movement --
a shift in the declared goal of the Palestinian liberation movement from
a Palestinian mini-state on scraps of the national homeland to a single
democratic state in all of Israel/Palestine with equal rights for all
who live there ... or at least clear public indications that such a
shift would be likely in the absence of positive movement.

The New York Review of Books <>

*Volume 54, Number 8 · May 10, 2007

*The Road from Mecca*

*By Hussein Agha <> and Robert Malley


The idea that negotiations conducted bilaterally between Israelis and
Palestinians somehow can produce a final agreement is dead. The world,
slowly, is coming to this realization. Its fate was sealed in part
because neither side has the ability, on its own, to close the gaps
between the positions they have taken. The two parties also lack any
sense of trust, but that, too, is not an overriding explanation. If
bilateral negotiations have become a fast track to a dead end it is
because today neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli political system
possesses the requisite degree of coherence and cohesion.

On the Palestinian side, the national movement is undergoing its most
fundamental, far-reaching, and destabilizing transformation since Yasser
Arafat took it over and molded it in his image over four decades ago.
The transformation is more complex than a mere question of succession.
It is the metamorphosis that comes with the passing of a man who
gradually had become the movement and on whom all serious political
deliberation depended. Arafat achieved what, before him, was the stuff
of unachievable dreams and, after him, has become the object of wistful
nostalgia: the identification of man and nation; the transcendence of
party politics; and the expression of a tacit, unspoken consensus.

Competing organizations, leftist and Islamist in particular, challenged
him. He faced opposition and dissent within his own Fatah. One after
another, Arab countries sought to bend the nationalist movement to their
will. But by dint of hard work, personal charisma, and political acumen,
and assisted in no small measure by the steady accumulation and astute
use of arms and funds, Arafat managed to control Fatah, co-opt the
leftists, keep the Islamists at bay and Arab states at arm's length.

Arafat never bothered with a detailed program. He trusted his instincts
and inclinations that—disputed and contested as they were—implicitly and
through a tortuous process became those of the national movement as a
whole. As both leader of the national movement and father of the
political compromise, he could straddle two seemingly incompatible
worlds, that of the revolutionary and that of the statesman, and embody
both steadfast commitment to the original struggle of 1948 and pragmatic
acceptance of a two-state solution. On core issues, what he did mattered
far more than what he said. Accused of indecisiveness and passivity,
Arafat acted resolutely when he believed it necessary and when he saw fit.

Arafat bequeathed a system aching to fall apart; it had only a brief,
transitional afterlife. After his death, Fatah continued to rule, albeit
without the confidence and sense of unquestioned entitlement to which it
had grown accustomed. After Hamas won parliamentary elections in January
2006, Fatah still clung to its former habits of domination, controlling
the civil service as well as the security forces and, with only rare
exceptions, monopolizing international relations and legitimacy.

Much of this was an illusion, and a transient one at that. Deeper down,
irreversible structural changes were afoot. Today, a little more than
two years after Arafat departed from the scene, the Palestinian movement
no longer has workable political institutions. It lacks effective
leadership. It has lost any clear and readily recognizable political

The Palestine Liberation Organization once could justifiably claim to be
the people's sole legitimate representative. Not anymore. Today, it
appears antiquated and worn out. It barely functions and, insofar as it
does not yet include the broad Islamist current principally represented
by Hamas, it is of questionable authority. Fatah, long the heart of the
national movement, is deeply divided, rudderless, and bereft of any
clear political program, prey to competing claims to privilege and power.

Rival sources of authority have multiplied. The presidency is in the
hands of Fatah; the government in those of Hamas. Gaza is cut off from
the West Bank; each is developing its own outlook and creating a
separate identity. Old divisions are resurfacing between Palestinians
living in the occupied territories and those languishing in exile.
Competing security branches and militias are proliferating while
families and clans play an increasingly assertive role. Foreign
countries, Arab and Western, wield greater influence and in greater numbers.

Today there is serious doubt whether the Palestinian national movement
can confidently and effectively conduct negotiations for a final peace
accord, sell a putative agreement to its people, and, if popularly
endorsed, make it stick. There is insufficient consensus over fateful
issues, but also over where decisions should be made, by whom, and how.


The Mecca agreement reached last February between Fatah and Hamas, and
the formation of a national unity government that followed, is a first
step toward clarification. It's an important step, but it may yet fail
and what has happened since has only partially allayed concern that the
two rival movements cannot work together. Fatah clings to the belief
that it has not lost any power and Hamas to the notion that it has
gained a preponderance of it. In the Gaza Strip, where competition is
most intense, fighting between the two groups has persisted, although it
is now less violent and more susceptible to control. An immediate
wholesale breakdown of relations between the two groups at the moment
appears less than likely, for nothing unites Palestinians more than an
antipathy to violent internecine strife. Should a breakdown of relations
between the two nonetheless occur, fueled by domestic power struggles
and stoked by outside interference, it would cause mayhem, instability,
and violence, directed initially at fellow Palestinians but also, in
time and inevitably, at Israel.

Even if the Mecca agreement and the unity government survive, they will
face a period of deep and enduring instability, prompting a sweeping and
significant change on the Palestinian political scene. The Mecca
agreement is about the establishment of a national unity government, but
that is the least of what it is about. If successful, it marks the
beginning of the end of single-party rule and the dawn of wider
political participation. It affects the distribution of power within all
Palestinian institutions, those of the PA as well as those of the PLO,
political as well as military bodies.

If fully implemented, the agreement will mean Hamas's integration into
the PLO as well as the integration of Hamas's armed wing into the
Palestinian Authority's security structure. It will set off nothing less
than a political revolution concerning the source of political
authority, how decisions are made, and what those decisions might be.
The agreement is a test of whether genuine power-sharing can work in a
system that has never before known anything of the sort. Forming a new
government, in other words, has not ended the conflict within the
national movement. It has simply set off a different, thornier phase. It
has also prompted tensions within Hamas over how to deal with Fatah and
how to adapt to new realities. With any diplomatic progress, Hamas will
come under pressure to further clarify its position on relations with
Israel, and the movement could divide. Some in Hamas might argue that
the next phase of the struggle should be a civilian—i.e.,
nonmilitary—jihad; others that the time has come to further radicalize
and expand the fight. A split could give rise to a breakaway, radical
jihadist spin-off that might quickly flourish because its members are
already operating on the ground and have roots in society. Even under
optimal circumstances all this will take time to sort out. Until then,
the Palestinian national movement will be a work in progress, caught
between one system that has expired and another that is still struggling
to take shape.

Whatever happens, the Palestinian movement will remain a fluid entity,
as difficult to pin down as it will be to pressure or to deal with. The
US and Israeli governments will be tempted to ignore the change,
persisting in their attempts to isolate Hamas and deal only with
non-Islamist members of the government. But it is only a matter of time
before such fantasies come crashing down. One of the goals of the US and
Israel may be to bolster Abbas, yet nothing has weakened the Palestinian
president more than misplaced international attempts to strengthen him.
If Hamas feels thwarted in its attempt to share power, it will do what
it can—and it can do much—to torpedo Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
One cannot prevent the Islamists from ruling and then expect them to
acquiesce in a political process from which they have been kept out. To
negotiate with the Palestinian Authority while simultaneously excluding
Hamas would be tantamount to negotiating with only one part of the
political system, controlling only part of the security forces, and
commanding only partial loyalty from a divided, and inherently
suspicious, population.


* *

Can Israel's current political system deliver what its Palestinian
counterpart cannot? There is cause for doubt. Not so long ago, Israel
acted with apparent self-assurance. Prime Minister Sharon had
established himself as master of the nation's domestic politics; in the
diplomatic world too, he commanded the initiative. Seeking direction,
Israelis needed to look no further. He said very little, but what he
said was telling: he spoke not of resolving the conflict, but of drawing
Israel's borders; not of historical reconciliation with the
Palestinians, but of practical separation; not of negotiated agreements,
but of unilateral Israeli steps. Captivated, the Israeli people
listened; converted, they followed.

How distant that time now seems. If bold peace moves require strong and
self-confident leadership, there is little reason for hope. Clarity has
given way to confusion, and on an almost unimaginable scale. The
performance of the Israeli military in last summer's Lebanon war was
more than a setback; it was a shock to a nation for whom the security
establishment historically has been at the very heart of society and
polity, a pillar of strength even amid political storms. The political
system itself is in quasi-perpetual crisis. Each passing day brings a
new, bewildering scandal and more public inquiries implicating in one
form or another many of the nation's most prominent figures.

Corruption, no longer an aberration, virtually is a way of life. Less
surprised than resigned, Israelis are disillusioned with politics and
government. The scarcity of charismatic leaders and the new generation
of run-of-the-mill politicians is another symptom of a system in crisis.
Sharon, who presented himself as the last great Israeli hero, openly
feared the day Israel would become a country like any other, no longer
animated by grand visions and a conquering war spirit, a victim of
impatience, weakness, and hedonistic materialism. If he could see it, he
might say that the day has come.

Nor is there much ideological enthusiasm remaining for a two-state
solution. Israelis accept it and most believe it is inevitable, but gone
is the passion or zeal. The dream of Greater Israel has expired, but so
has Oslo's vision of peaceful reconciliation with the Palestinians.
There has been too much violence and bloodshed, and too much
disenchantment with the Palestinians, their leaders, and their methods
and ability to govern, for it to be otherwise.

With Hamas's rise, Iran's ascent, and Hezbollah's war, the politics of
the region also have become far more baffling; Israelis exhibit uncommon
indecision. They ponder whether it is time for bold military moves or
grand diplomatic bargains, whether to respond to Syria's peace overtures
or to spurn them, whether to deal with Abbas or to forget him. The
government, troubled by its failure to defeat Hezbollah or release its
captive soldiers, is still searching for a response to the Islamists'
intensive rearming. Criticized from all sides and divided from within,
it lives day to day, as if on borrowed time. A nation accustomed to
certainty has become hostage to doubt.

The present Israeli sense of paralysis only aggravates two more
longstanding obstacles to peacemaking. One is institutional: Israeli
governments are often short-lived, subject to the vagaries of an
anachronistic political arrangement, itself the product of an electoral
system which often requires coalition governments and allows smaller
parties to dictate their parochial wishes to larger ones or,
alternatively, to oust them from office. A peace initiative threatens to
upset the delicate political equilibrium and reduce the prime minister's
term in office. The stubborn gap between the public's support for an
agreement with the Palestinians and the leadership's inability to
accomplish it is explained in part by this feature.

The other impediment is strategic. It relates to the vast imbalance of
power that separates Israel from its adversaries, whether alone or in
combination, and which has proved both a gift and an impediment.
Israel's power provides it with self-confidence but also lures it away
from the necessity of compromise. Without the threat, there is little
pressure, and without the pressure, there is scant incentive to take
political or military risks for the sake of an uncertain and ill-defined
peace. Why give up concrete and physical assets in return for promises
from parties that may well lack the ability to deliver them?

Israel's sense of security has its limitations, and these have been
tested in recent times. Its foes may employ a tactic for which Israel
has no adequate response; Palestinian suicide bombings are one example.
Or Israel may embark on a military operation to which its adversaries
have an unexpectedly effective answer; last summer's assault against
Hezbollah in Lebanon, which failed to meet any of its self-proclaimed
objectives, is an illustration. In both cases, Israel must confront the
limits of the power it holds in such disproportion.

What follows has become a familiar pattern: there is shock in the face
of unexpected setback; anger at those who have caused it; exploration of
new forms of retaliation; and lethal and often indiscriminate
punishment. For a moment, there also is consideration of alternative
options, peace initiatives of one kind or another. But once the
immediacy of the pressure recedes, Israel tends to retreat into the
apparent safety of the status quo. The case for boldness, briefly
opened, is swiftly shut. The incentive to move when there is a breakdown
disappears when the old imbalance of power is restored.


* *

Five years ago this month, in April 2002, the Arab League's twenty-two
countries put forward a peace initiative offering full normalization of
relations with Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from Arab
territories occupied in 1967 and a negotiated resolution of the
Palestinian refugee problem. Coming at the height of the second
Palestinian uprising, they made the proposal with what seemed like a
deep sense of awkwardness. Then, they walked away. Ariel Sharon, then
Israel's prime minister, immediately dismissed the initiative. A
near-simultaneous Palestinian attack in the northern Israeli city of
Nahariya and heavy Israeli retaliation did the rest. From the Arab world
as from Israel, one could almost hear a collective sigh of relief.

The multilateral Arab initiative has come alive just at the time when
the prospect for successful bilateral talks has faded. Having been
dormant for years—with the exception of a passing reference in the 2003
Israeli-Palestinian Roadmap for Peace—it suddenly has begun to attract
interest and widespread statements of approval. The US was among the
first to change its position. Discredited by both its war in Iraq and
its support for Israel's war in Lebanon, threatened by a rising Iran,
stung by Hamas's electoral triumph, and desperate for some achievement
in the Middle East, spokesmen for the Bush administration began to
cautiously praise the initiative. In Israel too, the tone of commentary
has been markedly different of late. And the Arab League, so skittish at
the initiative's inception, revived it unanimously and with some fanfare
at its March 2007 summit in Riyadh.

It's an eclectic chorus but, also, a deceptive one. The initiative's
resuscitation is seen, by today's depressed standards, as something of a
breakthrough but the surface harmony conceals the divergent views of the
major parties on the nature and potential of the proposals.

As Arab countries and Saudi Arabia in particular conceive it, the
initiative ought to be valued not so much for its content—its vague
language on territory and vaguer language on refugees hardly qualify as
a peace proposal, let alone a plan—as for its promise. Rather than
provide the substance of an agreement, it was a roundabout way of
inviting Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese to sit down and
sort out their disputes and it was implicitly a way of saying that
whatever they can agree on will be regionally rewarded and protected.

The proposal lacked clarity: about whether there could be territorial
swaps to deviate from the 1967 lines; about how the solution to the
refugee problem would protect Israel's demographic interests in
maintaining a Jewish majority; about the fate of Jewish-populated areas
of East Jerusalem. But this vagueness was in the very nature of the
initiative. The Arab League's offer was not to negotiate with Israel. It
was intended to describe, instead, the shape of life after a
comprehensive agreement: peace, reconciliation, and normalization of
relations with the whole of the Arab world.

Seen in this light, and though it has little to say on issues of
substance, the proposal presented several advantages. Given their
current domestic situation, Palestinians cannot make historic decisions
on their own; but they could do so, perhaps, with the backing and
political cover of the entire Arab world. Internal Palestinian problems,
which loom so large in direct, bilateral negotiations with Israel, will
dwindle in the wider frame of an Arab-Israeli deal. Facing an Arab,
Muslim, and domestic consensus in favor of a peace agreement, Hamas
would have to adjust its position. While it is unlikely to be satisfied
with an agreement that recognized Israel and marked the end of the
conflict, Hamas would find it difficult to actively oppose it. Hamas may
sponsor suicide missions but it is not a suicidal movement. The normal
divisions of Palestinian politics would be neutralized, in part, by the
weight of a broader Arab unanimity—just as divisions between Fatah and
Hamas over the Arab Initiative itself became less prominent at the Arab
summit in Riyadh in March. Arab involvement could compensate for the
current weakness of the Palestinian political system.


Israel would benefit in similar ways. On its own, a peace agreement with
the Palestinians, but without agreements with Syria and Lebanon, will
not necessarily prompt peaceful relations between Israel and the rest of
the Arab world and will do nothing to discourage either Damascus's
allies in Palestine from undermining the deal or Hezbollah from
maintaining its military pressure in the north. For Israel, the
strategic advantages of a separate Palestinian deal are partial and the
political costs are high. By contrast, a comprehensive agreement with
Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese would amplify the payoff. It will
result in peace treaties, diplomatic recognition, and normal relations
with Arab neighbors, far and near. If Israel and Syria can settle their
conflict, a pragmatic Hezbollah will have to put much less emphasis on
its military component and accelerate its transformation into a purely
political party. The Iranian leadership will also have to adapt, not so
much by cutting its ties to Syria as by fitting into a radically
different Arab-Israeli relationship. By boosting the rewards to Israelis
from making territorial concessions, a comprehensive deal can make up
for the absence of sustained effective pressure on Israel to reach it.
In short, peace negotiations under the Arab Initiative's umbrella could
help minimize Palestinian obstacles to a deal while simultaneously
maximizing the returns Israel can expect from it.

One of the Arab Initiative's fundamental assumptions is that there must
be concurrent movement toward a deal on Palestinian, Syrian, and
Lebanese tracks. That might seem like a recipe for failure, for it is
hard to contemplate Israel digesting so many difficult compromises at
one time. Yet today it is just as difficult to imagine diplomacy on any
one track moving very far on its own. Palestinians will need full Arab
backing and cooperation—including Syria's—to legitimize their
compromises, notably on issues that are not exclusively Palestinian,
such as Jerusalem's status or the fate of refugees. The fragmentation of
the Palestinian political scene has made it more porous, giving
additional breathing room to factions with ties to outside players. If
Syria is excluded from negotiations it will continue to support its
allies in Palestine—whether Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or elements in Fatah—
who will continue to undermine the chance of a peace accord. Conversely,
Syria, intent on preserving its status as the vanguard of Arab
nationalism, will be reluctant to fully conclude a deal with Israel if
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still festers.

On grounds of self-preservation alone, Lebanon will not make peace with
Israel before Syrians and Palestinians do. Besides, for Lebanon to
conclude an agreement with Israel requires addressing the fate of the
Palestinian refugees residing on its soil—a virtual impossibility
without the creation of a Palestinian state.


* *

The hitch is that neither Israel nor the US has embraced the Arab
Initiative in quite the way its authors intended. Five years after the
proposal was first put forward and then summarily dismissed, the Israeli
government is suggesting it may have some merit. This is not based so
much on its content. The initiative's call for full withdrawal to the
1967 lines, division of Jerusalem, and a resolution of the refugee issue
in accordance with UN resolutions prompts more Israeli hostility than
hope. Moreover, few Israelis today believe in the possibility of a
comprehensive peace. Rather, the Israeli government views the initiative
as a possible means of sidestepping, for the time being, direct
negotiations with Palestinians and Syrians, and instead engaging
directly with Arab countries and thus achieving the normalization Israel
so craves. Convinced that little can come of talks with a two-headed
Palestinian Authority, having lost faith in Abbas, and having little
desire to deal with Syria, Prime Minister Olmert speaks enthusiastically
of a joint Arab-Israeli interest in countering Iran. He invites Arab
leaders to visit Jerusalem and discuss their initiative. He mentions his
desire for face-to-face talks with the Saudi monarch, and he asks
whether the initiative can be altered to meet Israeli needs. The one
thing he does not contemplate is doing what the Arab Initiative assumes
he must: negotiate with Palestinians and Syrians.

For the US, too, the Arab Initiative has become an instrument capable of
serving higher purposes, of which achievement of a comprehensive Arab-
Israeli settlement is neither the most significant nor the most
pressing. Indeed, insofar as the Bush administration remains intent on
isolating Syria, reaching a comprehensive peace—which necessarily would
include an Israeli-Syrian agreement—is precisely what it does not aim to
achieve. For Washington, the more worthy objectives are to revive its
battered reputation in the region and, above all, work out a strategic
coalition between itself, Israel, and so-called moderate Arab
governments, such as Saudi Arabia, aimed at containing Iran and its
presumed regional allies—Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

Unlike Olmert, the US administration believes that progress between
Israel and the Palestinians is an indispensable ingredient, the glue
that can hold the strategic coalition together and reverse Tehran's
ideological gains. Unlike the Arab League, it is convinced that the
initiative must contain more than a pledge of a future normal
relationship in order to induce Olmert to take political risks. In
essence, Washington hopes to see a down payment from Arab countries in
the form of their making initial contacts with Israel; and it hopes to
see Olmert, emboldened by these contacts, agree to full-fledged
negotiations with Abbas on a final status agreement. The wait could be long.


The very different motives for ostensible support of the Arab initiative
have created a debilitating state of confusion. Arab countries view
normalization of relations with Israel as a reward, the US considers it
an inducement, and Israel believes it is a requisite. Whenever
Washington or Jerusalem brings up the question of Arab contacts with
Israel, they magnify the value of such contacts, lessening the
likelihood that they will occur. Likewise, most Arab countries have no
intention of negotiating with Israel, leaving that to the Palestinians,
Syria, and Lebanon. The vagueness of the Mecca initiative and the room
it leaves for compromise say as much.

A clearer Arab initiative at this stage will no longer be a consensual
Arab initiative but that of some Arabs only, and not necessarily of
those that can ensure its success. The more Israel seeks clarifications
and modifications from the Arabs, the more the Arabs will demand prior
Israeli acceptance of their initiative, and the less either side will
like the responses it will get. If asked, Arabs will insist they mean a
full withdrawal to the 1967 lines and recognition of the Palestinians'
right of return; if asked, Israel will assert it rejects the Arab
initiative. In both cases, these are questions that should never be
posed. The Arab Initiative is turning into what it should not have been:
the object of futile bartering between Israelis and Arabs.

There are further misunderstandings. The US, Israel, and key Arab
governments such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia distrust Hamas and
have an aversion to the Syrian regime. But dislikes come in different
shades. Saudi leaders worry about the rise of Islamists, yet deep down
they realize there can be no agreement without them. They know that
Abbas is the Palestinians' president but not their only leader, and that
a stable Israeli-Palestinian peace cannot be built on the ruins of an
inter-Palestinian war. Similarly, however sour the relationship may be
between Riyadh and Damascus, Saudi Arabia is not about to make peace
with Israel while Israel still occupies parts of Syria. Without a
comprehensive and inclusive Arab-Israeli settlement, one that includes
the issue of the Golan Heights, there is unlikely to be anything more
than a symbolic Arab-Israeli reconciliation.


* *

The impasse of bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians and the
impediments to multilateral negotiations under the umbrella of the Arab
initiative could lead to a revival of Israeli unilateralism. Assuming he
survives the investigation into the conduct of the Lebanon war, lacking
better options, and eager for some diplomatic movement, Olmert—or his
successor —may revert back to the platform on which the prime minister
originally was elected: a unilateral withdrawal from large portions of
the West Bank.

The idea has logic. For most Israelis, the occupation of the West Bank
has become a burden more than a benefit. It represents a demographic
threat to Israel's Jewish majority, a security threat to its
tranquillity, and a strategic threat to its international standing. If
Israel wants to get rid of parts of that territory and if it cannot do
so through bilateral dealings with a dysfunctional Palestinian entity,
why then not do it alone?

Hamas's electoral victory, in a sense, makes this option all the more
attractive. Neither Israel's leaders nor the Islamists today believe in
the possibility of a final status agreement. Neither wishes to deal with
the other. Both potentially could live with a long-term arrangement
centered on new Israeli territorial withdrawals from the West Bank and a
mutual cease-fire. Palestinians would obtain territory without making
commitments they could not honor; they would realize less than their
full dream without relinquishing any part of it, and benefit from an
active Israeli strategy without having to come up with one of their own.
For its part, Israel would promote its interests without having to
depend on undependable Palestinians.

But recent events have taken a political toll. Unilateralism, so
fashionable when Sharon applied it to the withdrawal from Gaza, lost
much of its luster when rocket launches against Israeli territory
nonetheless continued from that area. Unilateral action became anathema
after Israel came under attack from Lebanon, another place from which it
had recently unilaterally withdrawn. Today, Israelis ask who will
guarantee their security if they withdraw from the West Bank and why
they should feel any safer if that land falls into Hamas's unreliable
hands. The mood eventually could change, fostered principally by the
belief that nothing good can come of negotiations, and that something
dangerous may emerge from the status quo. At that point, parallel
unilateral steps—an Israeli withdrawal; Palestinian progress on the
social, political, and security fronts— could be seen as having
advantages. But answers will first have to be found to these unsettling


* *

On the face of it, this is an odd time for the US to reactivate its
peacemaking efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian front. The Israeli prime
minister is weaker than ever before—indeed, weaker than any before him.
As Hamas's strength has grown, the Palestinian margin of diplomatic
maneuver has shrunk. Pro-Western Arab regimes, whether in Saudi Arabia,
Egypt, or Jordan, exposed as impotent by wars in Iraq and Lebanon,
challenged at home by radical Islamists, and fearful of an ascendant
Iran, have also been undermined. No better off, President Bush must
confront a rebellious Congress, a disillusioned public, and a failed
Iraqi policy.

Can opportunity spring from such collective frailty? It is not out of
the question. Abbas needs a political accomplishment to dampen Hamas's
appeal and fulfill his lifetime project of reaching a two-state solution
through diplomatic means. Olmert, his public credibility thoroughly
dissipated, may at some point search for a diplomatic achievement to
regain it. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, having spent the better part
of the 1990s largely watching the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from
the sidelines, now may feel they have to step in and help broker a peace
agreement in order to reverse a hostile regional tide. For a wounded US
administration, an Arab-Israeli breakthrough may mean rescue and
redemption. Launching his final peace bid in 1999 with strong leaders in
Israel, Palestine, and Syria, President Clinton spoke of an alignment of
bright stars. President Bush may be thinking of the current initiative
as a realignment of the fallen ones.

Events are not headed that way. Wherever one looks, one sees only
deadlock. Bilateral negotiations are generally the most promising, for
they directly involve the parties to the conflict who will have to make
the commitments and live with the outcomes. But in its current volatile
condition, the Palestinian political system is not in a position to
withstand such talks on its own: should they fail, Abbas and Fatah will
be significantly wounded and, should they succeed, Hamas will be
determined to derail them. In both cases the fragile internal political
balance will be challenged, which will lead to further confrontation and
fragmentation. Nor does Israel display the ability, today, to face up to
the historic compromises it too will be required to make.

Multilateral negotiations based on the Arab Initiative are another
possibility, one potentially capable of surmounting Palestinian domestic
impediments and of motivating Israel. But each side has its own
conception of how the initiative is to be used, and with each tugging in
a different direction little is likely to come of it. Israel's apparent
decision not to negotiate seriously with the Palestinians, the US's
unmistakable decision not to include Syria, and the joint decision of
the US and Israel to exclude Hamas rob the initiative of much of its value.

Unilateralism too has merit; it means Israel can withdraw from territory
without regard to Palestinian performance and that Palestinians can put
their house in order without concern for Israeli behavior. But in the
wake of Gaza and then Lebanon, prospects for its revival are uncertain.


Not that all is destined to stay still; for the status quo has its own
costs. If nothing happens on the diplomatic front, Abbas and Fatah will
be further weakened in relation to Hamas; Olmert will face increasingly
pointed questions about his leadership; and US credibility in the region
will be further damaged. As Palestinian frustration grows, one hears
periodic mention among Hamas leaders of a third uprising—a comment meant
as a warning, yet at times uttered as a wish. Alarmed at the Islamists'
reported arms buildup in Gaza and in Lebanon, Israeli generals raise the
possibility of a major land incursion, in one place or the other.

If Syria's pleas for a resumption of the peace process continue to go
unanswered, risks of a Syrian confrontation with Israel also may rise.
Tactical military moves by Damascus aimed at attracting Israel's
attention could unintentionally provoke an Israeli response.
Alternatively, Syria may feel it can wage the kind of war that
Hezbollah, with inferior resources, prefigured in Lebanon: firing
rockets into Israel, absorbing punitive responses, and battling incoming
troops with lethal anti-tank devices.

One can imagine a different approach, extracting the best of
multilateralism, of bilateralism, and of unilateralism. One can imagine
a new international effort, inspired by but not based on the Arab
Initiative, that would stipulate a resumption of negotiations on all
tracks and promise full Arab recognition and normalization of relations
with Israel in exchange for a comprehensive peace. One can imagine
Israeli-Syrian negotiations beginning in earnest. One can imagine
unilateral Israel withdrawals from the West Bank —coordinated with
President Abbas and with active supervision by a third party acceptable
to both sides—developing into full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian
negotiations once Palestinians have sorted out their domestic situation
and improved their security capacities. One can imagine and hope for
such an approach, but one ought not to expect it. For it would demand
the kind of political creativity, boldness, and skill that have been
disastrously in short supply. The time may yet come. Meanwhile, the
wait, and the waste, go on.

/April 12, 2007/



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