Some (very slim) signs of movement on Gaza

Secretary of State  Hillary Clinton’s remarks about how to restart the Israeli-Palestinian track have sparked some buzz, it appears.   Clinton said that "Of course, we believe that the 1967 borders, with swaps, should be the focus of the negotiations over borders."   Now analysts are in a bit of tizzy, trying to figure out whether this ...

Muhammad Alostaz/PPM via Getty Images
Muhammad Alostaz/PPM via Getty Images
Muhammad Alostaz/PPM via Getty Images

Secretary of State  Hillary Clinton's remarks about how to restart the Israeli-Palestinian track have sparked some buzz, it appears.   Clinton said that "Of course, we believe that the 1967 borders, with swaps, should be the focus of the negotiations over borders."   Now analysts are in a bit of tizzy, trying to figure out whether this formulation signals some dramatic new departure and a hint about where talks are going.  Maybe.  I'm more inclined to think that it was just carelessness, the sort of thing everybody talks about in private but isn't supposed to come from a podium.  I'm far more intrigued by a couple of admittedly feeble signs that perhaps movement on Gaza will finally be put on the table -- something that I and many others have been urging for a long, long time

What are the signs?

First, Haaretz reported yesterday that "The United States has suggested to Israel that easing the Gaza blockade would help counter the fallout from the Goldstone report on alleged war crimes during Operation Cast Lead a year ago." The message was reportedly delivered to an Israeli Foreign Ministry delegation by several State Department and NSC officials (including Samantha Power).   The Haaretz story has been picked up widely in the Arab media

Secretary of State  Hillary Clinton’s remarks about how to restart the Israeli-Palestinian track have sparked some buzz, it appears.   Clinton said that "Of course, we believe that the 1967 borders, with swaps, should be the focus of the negotiations over borders."   Now analysts are in a bit of tizzy, trying to figure out whether this formulation signals some dramatic new departure and a hint about where talks are going.  Maybe.  I’m more inclined to think that it was just carelessness, the sort of thing everybody talks about in private but isn’t supposed to come from a podium.  I’m far more intrigued by a couple of admittedly feeble signs that perhaps movement on Gaza will finally be put on the table — something that I and many others have been urging for a long, long time

What are the signs?

First, Haaretz reported yesterday that "The United States has suggested to Israel that easing the Gaza blockade would help counter the fallout from the Goldstone report on alleged war crimes during Operation Cast Lead a year ago." The message was reportedly delivered to an Israeli Foreign Ministry delegation by several State Department and NSC officials (including Samantha Power).   The Haaretz story has been picked up widely in the Arab media

Second, Nabil Shaath the other day became the first high-ranking Fatah official to visit Gaza since 2007.  He met with a number of senior Hamas officials.   This has sparked a flurry of rumours that Hamas and Fatah may finally be ready to sign the fabled reconciliation document — perhaps in time for the Libya Arab Summit next month, suggests the Palestinian newspaper al-Quds.  

Finally, in his controversial speech at the Israeli Herzliya conference, Palestinian Authority/Ramallah  Prime Minister Salam al-Fayyad said bluntly that "it was essential that “our country be reunified,” and that lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip would go along way toward enabling the PA to reassert control there."  This follows several other references to Gaza by PA/Ramallah leaders in recent days.

Will this amount to anything?  It’s easy to be skeptical.  Israel isn’t likely to change its Gaza policy just because of some American suggestions (although they may do so based on their own calculations of self-interest), and this was hardly a high-profile, public Presidential (or even Secretarial) push.   Reports of an impending Hamas-Fatah deal have come and gone so often in the last year that it’s become something of a regional punchline, and the underlying conflicts seem as intense and forbidding as ever.  PA leaders may be talking about Gaza now only because their failure to do so in the past has cost them with Palestinian public opinion.  I’m as skeptical as anyone, believe you me.

But if there were something brewing to alleviate the blockade of Gaza and to achieve some sort of functional rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, this would be far significant than the latest tweak in wording over the kinds of negotiations which the PA and Israel may or may not begin thinking about considering at some point.  The Obama administration’s approach thus far has appeared bereft of new thinking: overly focused on resuming negotiations for their own sake, learning the wrong lessons from the unsuccessful attempt to get a settlement freeze from Netanyahu,  and stubbornly wedded to an inadequate "West Bank First/PA Only" approach to the Palestinian side.  A bold move to alleviate the humanitarian suffering of Gaza could finally introduce some new cards into the game, strengthen the hand of the PA with its own public, generate some Arab support for the process, and — no small thing — significantly improve the lives of a devastated Palestinian population.  Let’s hope that these faint signals develop into some new momentum for real change.   

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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