This piece appears in the new issue of The American Conservative
At this writing, the Gaza crisis continues, exacting a painful toll on the civilian population, hammering Israel’s image in ways unseen since Lebanon in the early 1980s, and relegating talk of peace to the funny pages. The working assumption is that there will be a ceasefire in which Hamas continues to be the governing address for Gaza—a political victory for the Islamic Resistance Movement (the literal translation of the acronym for Hamas). But for a ceasefire to hold, there will need to be an opening of the border crossings in an ongoing and predictable way, as well as a mechanism for preventing weapons smuggling into Gaza
The desire to avoid any semblance of Hamas achievement is one factor that has prolonged the fighting and encouraged alternative endgame scenarios. But the other options are even less attractive or realistic: an indefinite Israeli re-occupation of Gaza (publicly unpopular and militarily draining given anticipated resistance), handing Gaza over to Palestinian Authority/Fatah control (a killer blow for Fatah credibility when conducted on the back of an Israeli tank and likely to lead to an anti-PA insurgency in Gaza and possibly the West Bank), or stationing international forces in Gaza (just try recruiting nations willing to deploy for that mission). There is an in-between option: IDF troops remain on the Gazan side of the border with Egypt or conduct ongoing incursions, as they do in West Bank cities, creating conditions hardly conducive to a ceasefire.
Whatever the details of the de-escalation, when the smoke clears there will still be Hamas, there will be more angry Palestinians and Israelis, and the 94 percent of the Occupied Palestinian Territories that is not Gaza will still be dotted with settlements and Israeli forces. The larger conflict will remain very much unresolved.
Some might be tempted to push on with the Annapolis process launched by President Bush in November 2007. The new Obama administration will almost certainly flirt with the idea. But doing so would mean ignoring the flaws in the existing approach that the Gaza crisis has cruelly exposed. A hesitant Israeli leadership, enfeebled Palestinian Authority, and popularly challenged Arab regimes have all found a shared comfort zone in a process that has no end and almost never requires hard choices. Except that Operation Cast Lead has shown this zone to be not so comforting after all.
The edifice upon which Annapolis and U.S. policy toward the conflict have been constructed cannot hold. Israel, Fatah, and America’s Arab allies are unwilling or unable (sometimes both) to take the kind of action that might constitute a robust alliance against the regional forces that challenge them—forces of change and resistance, sometimes violent, often religiously inspired. Israel is not ending the settlements and occupation. The moderate Arab states cannot openly embrace Israel absent this step. And Fatah has neither the legitimacy nor the capacity to sign or implement a reasonable deal were such an offer available. The state of contemporary Israeli-Palestinian relations is one of conflict, not partnership. Israel and Fatah cannot defy this reality without a radical reconfiguration of the landscape.
The Gaza crisis has brought all of this to the fore. The handicap that plagues the so-called “alliance of the moderates” is visible in all its debilitating deformity. Israel brings destruction on Gaza and claims it is serving the cause of moderation and peace. Enraged Palestinians disown Fatah and the PA, accusing them of complicity, and are in turn intimidated by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. Fatah leaders fight among themselves. Certain Arab allies are quietly supportive of Israel’s move, or unwilling to counter it, and are thereby further alienated from their own publics. Egypt bears the brunt of popular regional displeasure. The regime in Cairo looks more fragile than at any time during the 17 years of Mubarak’s rule, and such frailty is no basis for regional leadership. The idea that this collection of actors holds the key to negotiating and implementing an historic peace simply does not pass muster.
The policy question for the new U.S. government is whether there will be an acknowledgement of the collateral damage inflicted upon the Annapolis process during this Gaza crisis. It is now a victim of friendly fire and will need to find its resting place alongside many far more innocent victims.
There is no decisive victory to be had in the Middle East against an axis that is sometimes called “Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hezbollah,” but which is far more and far less than that. Less in that the so-called extremists do not walk in lockstep. There are distinct national, movement, and religious tensions within this camp. We are often the glue that holds them together. They also represent far more, offering an alternative narrative, many elements of which have popular appeal, and a broad following in the region—not just with Islamists but with democrats, reformers, and nationalist-based oppositions. Paradoxically, these may well be the people who can most effectively counter the brand of Islamism that actually does represent an implacable and dangerous foe: al-Qaeda-style Salafi extremism.
The Bush administration’s attempt to score a decisive victory for the so-called forces of moderation has more often than not been rejected in the region as an antidemocratic, humiliating neo-imperialist project. It has of course also been used as a recruiting tool by al-Qaeda and Co.
After Gaza, all sides must take a step back from exacerbating tensions, deepening divisions, and dreaming of unequivocal victories in this destabilized Middle East. The language of moderates versus extremists must be abandoned or at least much more sparingly applied. It is relevant for the Salafi jihadists, but that is it.
A new starting place would be to differentiate and disaggregate the various actors lined up against the U.S., Israel, and the ancien regimes. A region bubbling over with conflicts that are part regional proxy, part local circumstance is not a desirable situation. Gaza is the latest example—and a particularly bloody one.
The best way forward is simultaneously to de-escalate tensions at the regional level and resolve or at least defuse specific local conflicts. For instance, at the regional level, a Syrian-Saudi reconciliation might be encouraged and a similar approach adopted for overcoming internal Palestinian divisions. More broadly, and over time, a modus vivendi will need to be found with the non-al-Qaeda reformist Islamist groups, often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. None of this means that the excesses of the hardline narrative or the recourse to unprovoked violence should be accepted. The de-escalation formula will probably face its keenest challenge in attempts to test flexibility in Iran’s behavior. The current approach has mostly served to extend Iran’s reach well beyond its natural echo chamber.
Gaza again is an example. The Hamas-Israel conflict is primarily a local one, but if the local circumstances are not addressed, it can take on regional dimensions, as is currently the case. The local conflict and the regional equation—Syria, Iran, and the Muslim Brothers back Hamas; America and its allies are ranged against Hamas—feed off one another. De-escalation should happen in both directions, regional and local.
Recent developments in Lebanon may be instructive. Hezbollah has not joined the Gaza confrontation, avoiding a second front with Israel (at least as of day 18 of the conflict). According to the regional dynamic, Hezbollah should be getting involved. But in this case, the local dynamic is pushing in a different direction. The power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon brokered by Qatar sees Hezbollah back in government and looking ahead to new elections in June. A local incentive has been created which causes Hezbollah, a constituency-based organization, to weigh local considerations against regional alliance ones. So far local concerns are proving more resilient.
Now apply that to Hamas, Gaza, and the Israel-Palestine situation. Insufficient local incentive has been created to affect Hamas’s calculation. Hamas is also a constituency-based organization, attentive to the needs of the Palestinian population. By maintaining the closure on Gaza, Israel and the international community gave up a potential lever for modifying Hamas’s behavior—public Gazan pressure for extending the ceasefire. Likewise, when a Palestinian power-sharing arrangement was negotiated in the Saudi-brokered Mecca deal of February 2007, it was opposed and actively undermined. An opportunity was again missed for reframing Hamas’s options. The situation is most decisively effected by paralysis in addressing the bigger issue—the need for de-occupation and Palestinian statehood alongside secure borders for Israel.
A post-Gaza reconfiguration of Middle East policy may not come with the hugs and handshakes of past peace deals. It may look more like a begrudging separation with hard borders, international guarantees, and even NATO forces deployed, as well as strong incentive packages for both sides. It will require local conflict-resolution and regional de-escalation components. Crucially, it will demand an American rethink and a jettisoning of the certainties of neocon dogma, support of credible mediators where possible (sometimes European, sometimes regional such as Qatar or Turkey), and finally, frank discussions between the U.S. and its regional allies—and that does not just mean Israel.