The dangers of practicing the politics of illusions

BY ALON BEN-MEIR

I have just returned from an extended trip to the Middle East, hoping that I would come back feeling recharged by the progress made in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, especially in the wake of the Annapolis peace conference. To my dismay, not in Israel or in Jordan or in talking to Palestinian and Egyptian officials, have I felt or seen much optimism. Those who still believe that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is possible by the end of 2008 –President Bush’s stated desire — are few and far between.

The pervasive sense of resignation does not stem from a lack of strong yearning for peace by either side. It mostly seems to come from the recognition that political conditions in Israel and in the Palestinian territories are not ripe for the transformative concessions needed to make a peace agreement possible.

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And the lamentable fact, as many throughout the political spectrum repeat, is that there is no decisive, visionary leadership that could change the political dynamic to engender public support for a new and credible narrative for peace.

In Israel, although the final Winograd report does not appear to be as damning to Prime Minister Olmert as feared, and thus he may hold on to power, he remains handcuffed by his coalition partners who do not see eye-to-eye with him on how to further the peace process. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party has threatened to leave the government if Jerusalem is put on the negotiating table, and Olmert has already conceded on this issue. The Labor party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, still hopes for early elections, but at a time of his choosing, to unseat Mr. Olmert; in the interim Barak pursues defense policies that often are at odds with those of his prime minister. And Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Foreign Minister, is marking time. Although she called for Olmert to resign after the publication of the initial Winograd’s report, she currently supports him. Convinced that she alone carries the mantra of Prime Minster Ariel Sharon she will miss no opportunity to assume the leadership of Kadima.

The Israeli public is as divided as its government. The people charge their leaders with being self-absorbed, concerned more with their personal interest than with the affairs of the state. The opposition party, led by Natanyahu, who is leading in the national polls, accuses the government of selling Israel’s national security down the river and is lying in wait to capture the premiership once new elections are held. To be sure, although a consistent majority of Israelis (nearly 70 percent) accept the idea of a two-state solution, there is no national consensus on to how to proceed and what concessions must be made to achieve this goal.

The Palestinian side is not faring much better. Mahmoud Abbas appears weak not only in the eyes of Israelis but to most Palestinians, regardless of their political leanings. The continuing violent conflict between the Fatah faction, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza, does not seem likely to abate any time soon. While Fatah seeks quick progress in the negotiations with Israel to demonstrate that moderation pays, the Kassam rockets launched against Israel from Gaza under the watchful eyes of Hamas are designed not simply to demoralize the Israelis, but specifically to undermine any progress in the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas. And while Hamas and Fatah are fighting, ordinary Palestinians, especially in Gaza, continue to bear the brunt of Israel’s closure of the border crossing in retaliation for the Kassam attacks. Out of desperation and partly orchestrated by Hamas, Gazans blasted the Rafah border crossing with Egypt to demonstrate their plight, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians marched into Egyptian territories to buy basic necessities, to the chagrin of the Egyptian authorities. Most Israelis do not believe that the Palestinian Authority, as led by Abbas, is capable of delivering on promises made. They cite the intense and often violent conflict between Hamas and Fatah that makes it nearly impossible to reach a workable agreement with Fatah if Hamas does not accept or at a minimum acquiesce to it.

Egypt, which has been serving as a go-between for Israel and Hamas, has found itself caught between the rock and the hard place. Egyptian authorities have been struggling to find a peaceful solution to the border crisis without violence that could, if left unchecked, result in the death of many Palestinians — an outcome that would play into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is closely affiliated with Hamas — and potentially ignite tremendous unrest in Egypt. As one high Egyptian official explained to me:

“We are not looking to please either the Israelis or Hamas or the Palestinian Authority . . . we do not want the Palestinian people to suffer but by the same token we will not allow our territory to be violated by anyone.” As, however, the search for a permanent solution to the border crisis between Egypt and Gaza continues, it appears that Egypt is, against its intentions, being drawn ever closer into the internal and external affairs of Gaza. For reasons of their own, both Israel and Hamas seem to favor such a development. Although the Egyptian authorities reject, on the face of it, deeper involvement in Gaza, they also know the importance of controlling Hamas and of preventing the Muslim Brotherhood from sowing the seeds of political instability via Hamas throughout Egypt.

Finally, the Bush administration, which is pressed for time to show some progress, continues to exert pressure on Olmert and Abbas to make meaningful concessions. But while they are paying some lip service to Washington, both Israelis and Palestinians are looking to 2009, when a new American administration takes over, to reassess their situations. The sad thing is that every one talks about peace but then everyone sees peace from their narrow and often lost perspective.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. [email protected]