Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Death of Peace?

The Israeli offensive in Gaza may have produced the very result that hardliners on both sides of the Israeli Palestinian divide prefer: the death, at least temporarily, of efforts to resolve the conflict once and for all. As cynical as this may sound, that may enhance President-elect Barack Obama's chances of restoring some semblance of stability to the region, not by achieving definitive peace but by securing a long-lasting ceasefire based on the principle of live and let live.

That would certainly be in line with the call for a 10-year truce by Hamas, which 16 days into the Israeli offensive appears to be emerging politically stronger albeit militarily weaker. "In Hamas' diplomatic body language...a long-term truce means that it would no longer fight Israel militarily, which would open the door for credible negotiators on both sides to explore opportunities for a negotiated permanent coexistence or formal peace. Hamas has also stated that any negotiated peace accord should be ratified by a referendum of the Palestinian people - the mirror image of Israelis submitting their peace agreements with the Arabs to the Knesset," says prominent Arab journalist Rami G. Khouri in a column in Lebanon's The Daily Star.

It also reflects a growing sentiment in Israel that is losing faith in the possibility of peace and affected by the daily pictures of civilian suffering beginning to wonder whether it is not time to stop the offensive, an implicit admission that there is no military solution to the conflict.

Damascus-based Hamas Political Bureau Chief Khaled Mashaal this weekend adopted a hard line towards negotiations with Israel and ending the war in Gaza. "The time for talking is over... “(Hamas) will not accept any negotiations for a cease-fire while we are under fire. Let Israel withdraw first and our people live rightfully without a siege and with open (border)crossings,” Mashaal said.

Writing in The Washington Post, prominent Israeli journalist and writer Tom Segev says: "I belong to a generation of Israelis who grew up believing in peace. At the end of the Six-Day War of 1967, I was 23, and I had no doubt that 40 years later, the Israeli-Arab war would be over. Today, my son, who is 28, no longer believes in peace. Most Israelis don't. They know that Israel may not survive without peace, but from war to war, they have lost their optimism. So have I."

Instead of conflict solution, Segev says, the way forward is better conflict management. That would include Israel talking to Hamas, which he recognizes as genuine, popular national and religious movement that "cannot be simply bombed away… . Rather than design another fictitious 'road map' for peace, the Obama administration may be more useful and successful by trying merely to manage the conflict, aiming at a more limited yet urgently needed goal: to make life more livable for both Israelis and Palestinians," Segev says.

One reason Segev has lost faith in the possibility of a solution is the fact that Israelis and Palestinians are battling about much more than security, land or water: they are fighting over a national identity in which "both the Israelis and the Palestinians define themselves by the Holy Land -- all of it. Any territorial compromise would compel both sides to relinquish part of their identity. In recent years, with the rise of Hamas and the increasing militance of some Jewish settlers, this precariously irrational conflict has also assumed a more religious character -- and thereby become even more difficult to solve. Islamic fundamentalists, as well as Jewish ones, have made control of the land part of their faith, and that faith is dearer to them than human life," Segev says. "So I find myself among the new majority of Israelis who no longer believe in peace with the Palestinians. The positions are simply too far apart at this time."

While Khouri does express the same degree of pessimism that Segev does, his analysis is not all that fundamentally different. "Israel has used such barbaric tactics against Hamas and the civilians of Gaza because it wants to wipe out forever any Palestinian insistence on dealing with the core national and human issues that emerged from the 1948 war and the creation of Israel. Hamas is a troubling reminder for Israel that the state of the Jewish people was created on the ashes of the indigenous Palestinian Arab community - the community that is now the refugee population of Gaza and other regions in the Arab world. Israel is not just bombing Hamas facilities; it is trying to bomb into oblivion the idea that any Palestinian man, woman or child can stand up and demand the end of their national dismemberment and exile," Khouri says.

The Israeli government may well too have given up on the notion of a definitive peace. Its actions in recent years appear to contradict its pronouncements in favor of a final settlement. Israel is turning itself into a ghetto with a high-tech security fence built to separate itself from the West Bank and siege of Gaza. These "are in the end attempts to shut out reality. Palestinians have become a vague abstraction to the vast bulk of Israelis not within the range of Hamas rockets: out of sight, out of mind," says columnist Roger Cohen in the International Herald Tribune. "Israel has the right to hit back at Hamas when attacked - but not to blow Gaza to pieces. What it does not have the right to do is delude its people into thinking that peace is achievable without coming to terms with the deeply entrenched Middle Eastern realities that are Hamas and Hezbollah. Those realities have been strengthened by (Israeli Prime Minister Ehud) Olmert's last fling, the reckless foray of a failed leader."

Aaron Mannes, who interprets computer modeling of terrorist group behavior at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics, suggests some of the thinking probably underlies the Israeli offensive in Gaza and would strengthen the belief of those that a definite resolution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict is not possible, at least not while Hamas sways major influence. Writing on TheTerrorWonk blog, he says: “ Strategic decisions to reduce violence were not in evidence (with Hamas(. The key driver appeared to be capability. .. It could be argued that the 2006 war in Lebanon was a relative success – Hizbollah has kept that border quiet since. The likelihood of a similar modus vivendi with Hamas is Gaza seems less likely based on the model and also based on Hamas rhetoric. In an interview given just days before Hamas began launching rockets in November that helped end the ceasefire with Israel, the deputy chief of Hamas’ Damascus wing (Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzouk) stated: Your 'question implies that the Tahdiah [truce] is a central issue behind [our] decisions, consultations, and mediation attempts. However, the opposite is true… [for us,] resistance is the main [element] in the relations between the Palestinian people and the Zionist occupation.'"

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