A determined refrain heard among those thinking about or dealing with the Middle East is that the Gordian knot of the region is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Cut it and conflict will recede everywhere, because the frustrations engendered by Arab-Israeli animosity will evaporate.
Maybe. The Bush administration partly adopted that logic several months ago when it sponsored a regional peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. President George W. Bush promised that a final agreement would be signed between Israelis and Palestinians before he leaves office in January. Some don't buy into that deadline; many accuse Washington of being insincere in its efforts. But the real question is whether the United States can actually do anything when it comes to altering the outcomes.
The Palestinians complain that the Bush administration leans too heavily in Israel's favor, and is therefore not a credible mediator. Most egregiously, the U.S. is allowing Israel to create facts on the ground in Jerusalem and the West Bank, complicating prospects for peace. As the Palestinian-American journalist Rami Khouri has written: "There is now only one real test of progress, or criterion of political seriousness, in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the short term: Can the United States make Israel stop expanding its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories? If not, talk of peace is a cruel hoax that will only raise and then dash expectations, leading to unknown consequences when the backlash occurs."
The Israeli argument is that the Palestinians, divided between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, pose a persistent security threat to Israel. Unless there is a Palestinian interlocutor who can guarantee a positive outcome in negotiations, there is little need to offer vital concessions at present. The Palestinians respond that such an attitude only strengthens Hamas by discrediting the Palestinian Authority—which supports a peace deal with Israel—making a resolution even less probable. The Israelis come back that if the Palestinian Authority is so frail, then Israel has even less of an incentive to negotiate. And on and on the exchange goes, descending into proliferating circles of disputation—all of it very logical, all of it tightening further the Gordian knot.
But what can the United States do? The reality is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so replete with minefields that even a concerted American push would almost certainly fail in the end.
Yet no one can deny that there is a need to break out of the sterile cycle of rhetoric afflicting Palestinians and Israelis alike. Israel's obtuseness in dealing with the Palestinians, its uninterrupted expansion of settlements, and its reluctance to dismantle even those settler outposts successive governments have declared illegal, has strengthened its most dedicated enemies. Yet no Israeli government today is likely to survive the kind of concessions needed to revive the Palestinian Authority. At the first sign of dramatic change, the right-wing parties, perhaps even cabinet ministers, would oppose major concessions. This would likely lead to early elections that could bring about the victory of Likud, which is even less enthusiastic about giving up land. We would soon be back where we started. But then even the ruling Kadima and Labor parties don't believe in the Palestinian Authority enough to conduct serious business with it.
On the Palestinian side, the situation is even more dysfunctional. The Palestinian leadership is divided between two rival governments, one dominated by Fatah, the other by Hamas, each claiming legitimacy. The president, Mahmoud Abbas, refuses to speak to Hamas unless the Islamist movement first reverses its takeover of Gaza last summer. Yet Abbas' control over armed Palestinian groups, even those opposed to Hamas, is tenuous. The international community, particularly the United States, supports the Palestinian Authority, but all that does is discredit Abbas in the eyes of his own people, because such support has not even allowed him to end Israel's physical and economic strangulation of Gaza. Everyone regards Abbas as weak, so that now even Western pundits, former officials, and think-tank mavens are calling increasingly on Israel and the international community to talk to Hamas—a step that would all but destroy what remains of the Palestinian Authority
The thing is, Abbas happens to be the one Palestinian partner willing to give up land to achieve a mutually acceptable peace pact with Israel. Hamas has no such intention and has never committed publicly to the idea. However, this hasn't prevented Israel from taking measures that, intentionally or not, have facilitated the emergence of an Islamist mini-state in Gaza, headed by a movement that considers armed struggle against Israel a quasi-religious duty. In fact, Hamas' charter tells us "that the land of Palestine is an Islamic waqf [religious endowment] consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day."
The Islamists believe history is on their side, and see a region shaping up in their favor. In Egypt, the government faces a potent and rising challenge from the Muslim Brotherhood, as does the monarchy in Jordan. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is deployed along Israel's northern border with tens of thousands of rockets in its arsenal. Hamas, observing the heightening of contradictions all around, but also sensing that it may be close to overwhelming its rivals within Palestinian society, feels it can wait Israel out and one day push for victory in collaboration with its allies elsewhere. The movement's charter also outlines steps toward this end by asking "Arab countries surrounding Israel…to open their borders to the fighters from among the Arab and Islamic nations so that they could consolidate their efforts with those of their Muslim brethren in Palestine."
Faced with this mess, the Bush administration has few ways to succeed. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is today a perfect storm of unfeasible diplomacy. No one wants to give up the fight, because a vacuum may be far worse than keeping up some kind of dialogue, whatever the results; but no one has much of a clue about how to reach the endgame either.
When in a stalemate, the theory goes, try something new—anything. Take the idea of talking to Hamas, now all the rage. No one has defined what Israel or the international community should talk to Hamas about, let alone what Hamas would agree to discuss, given that the movement refuses to even recognize Israel's right to exist. So, the prevailing outlook is that Israel and Hamas should avoid the matter of recognition now and agree to a long-term truce, allowing a revived peace process to kick in. But giving precedence to the gesture of talking over the substance of recognizing the other party means that Hamas has everything to gain from continuing to deny recognition. The signs are that it hopes to do just that while imposing a ceasefire during which it could rout its Palestinian foes and rearm for a final showdown with Israel in future decades.
How can the U.S. address all this? Trying to stifle Hamas isn't working. Talking to the movement will go nowhere, but will kill Abbas politically. Forcing Israel to make serious land concessions would bring down the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert—to be replaced by one bound to be even more intransigent. And expecting the Palestinian Authority to impose its will on all Palestinian factions is laughable. So the short answer is that the U.S. has little to offer any of the parties. Blame Bush for many things; blame him for acting too late on the Israeli-Palestinian front. But don't seriously expect him to produce a miracle.
reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon