Reality Check

The Peace Process Tooth Fairy

The Peace Process Tooth Fairy

I’d love to believe in the peace process tooth fairy. I really would.

In the wake of the Israeli-Hamas ceasefire in Gaza, I’d love to believe:

That the Egyptian government — backed by the Turks, the Saudis and the Qataris — would put its money where its mouth is and press Hamas to give up its deadly and indiscriminate arsenal of unguided rockets.

That Hamas would meet the Middle East Quartet’s conditions, including the renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel, and enter into a dialogue with the Israelis.

That Hamas and Fatah would reconcile — forging one gun, one authority, and one negotiating position. This unified Palestinian national movement would then settle on terms for a deal with Israel that belongs to this world, not some fantasy galaxy.

That Israel would cease settlement construction in the West Bank and understand that its long-term security and its character as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people depends on a meaningful peace with the Palestinians.

But back on planet Earth, this wish list remains as realistic as the tooth fairy’s business plan. And instead of progress toward a two-state solution, another more realistic and less transformative trend is underway.

Like Grinches who stole the peace process, the three most important regional actors — Israel, Egypt, and Hamas – have indirectly aligned at the expense of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to take the two-state solution in a completely different direction. The members of this informal cabal are pursuing policies that cannot possibly guarantee long-term stability, let alone produce a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. But that may just fine with them, and it may even be all that the peace-process traffic can bear right now. Here’s why.

Hamas

It took almost a quarter century for the Palestine Liberation Organization — the secular manifestation of Palestinian nationalism — to recognize Israel and to engage in a peace process with Israel. One can only surmise how long it will be before Hamas — the religious manifestation of Palestinian nationalism — follows the same path. Hamas officials, such as the organization’s head Khaled Meshaal, have flirted with the idea of coming to terms with Israel’s existence (for now). But not recognizing Israel, as Arafat and Abbas have done.

But all of this is really beside the point. Hamas has other objectives right now — consolidating its control over Gaza, ending economic restrictions on the Strip, continuing to spread its influence in the West Bank, and deepening its relations with other Islamists in the Arab world.

None of this is served by a continued fight with Israel, nor by a peace process that forces Hamas to violate its own ideology and split its ranks. Indirect talks with Israel that leading to a long-term truce, or hudna in Arabic, would do nicely.

Egypt

We need to distinguish between President Mohammed Morsy’s tactics and his strategic objectives. Like Hamas, he may have radical end goals, but he currently has other priorities — namely, consolidating power and securing economic aid from the West.

His ownership of the recent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas had less to do with wanting to play a central role in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts than a means to achieve those other ends.

The recent escalation in Gaza threatened to trap Morsy in a no-win situation. If the conflict worsened, it would have placed him in an escalating crisis with Israel and the United States and forced him to respond aggressively against fellow Islamists if the Israelis launched a ground incursion.

Once Israel and Hamas gave him enough room to broker an agreement, he saw an opportunity to cover a move on the domestic side — his assault on the judiciary — through the goodwill he’d earned from the Americans and others.

Morsy is not like Egyptian presidents of yesteryear — Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak –when it comes to the peace process. He has other objectives right now, and reaching out to Israel or pressuring Hamas or Abbas to accept concessions aren’t among them. As a Muslim Brother (once a BRO always a BRO), Morsy will have a tough time accepting major concessions on Jerusalem. Indeed, he can barely bring himself to talk about two states. But in the short term, he too benefits by stability in Gaza and a longer-term ceasefire.

Israel

For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Gaza ceasefire offered a lifeline: He demonstrated two months before an election that he has functional relationships with U.S. President Barack Obama and Morsy, avoided a costly incursion into Gaza, and restored quiet to Israel’s southern communities — all without making any major concessions.

The current Israeli government cannot afford a big peace-process effort right now. Barring some event we cannot divine, Netanyahu will be in a position to form the next Israeli government. The ceasefire agreement ensures it.

But Bibi won’t want a bold peace-process move next year, either. Moving forward on borders, Jerusalem, and refugees will divide his coalition and confront him with agonizing choices he doesn’t want to make. And besides, his major priority in 2013 won’t be the peace process, but Iran. It may well be that no Israeli premier would be in a position to make major concessions on a Palestinian state until there’s much more clarity on the Iranian nuclear issue. A long-term de facto agreement with Hamas serves his purposes too.

Abbas, America, and the two-state solution

There’s no need to belabor the obvious. The current alignment of Egypt, Hamas, and Israel will come at the expense of Abbas and the peace process. And there’s little he can do about it. Pushing for observer state status this week at the United Nations may be critical for Abbas — but it counts for very little given what’s happening on the ground.

Abbas will remain relevant because the two-state solution is too important to fail even though it’s too complex to implement. And besides, the current Egypt-Hamas-Israel troika won’t hold forever. Hamas will rearm and reload, and there are limits to the economic concessions Israel is prepared to make in Gaza. Sooner or later these two will come to blows again, and Morsy will find himself forced to push for more from the Israelis.

Still, if left to its own devices, the current alignment may well conspire to shape the political landscape of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict away from a conflict-ending solution toward a series of provisional outcomes — some more manageable than others.

One thing is clear. There will be no meaningful peace initiatives coming from Egypt, Hamas, Abbas, or Israel. That leaves the Obama administration — perhaps the only conceivable peace process actor now — to contemplate changing this new status quo.

And because this president has either convinced himself or been convinced by others (perhaps rightly) that the two-state solution may well expire on his watch if nothing is done, I suspect he’ll try to do something significant — regardless of the odds against success.

There’s no stopping it: Beavers build dams, teenagers talk on the phone, and American presidents and secretaries of state conduct very serious diplomacy on the Arab-Israeli peace process. It’s in our DNA. We can’t help ourselves — nor, in the minds of many, should we control ourselves. The peace process and its imagined outcome — a two-state solution — has been sainted and canonized in America’s foreign policy.

Even so, the holy grail of Middle East peacemaking seems to recede further from our grasp with each passing year. One can only hope that, this time around, the president’s foray into the peace process is better considered, better timed, and more thoughtfully conceived than his first.