The Glass Half-full in Gaza

A rule of thumb in Chinese medicine is that it takes a month of healing for every year of illness. The implications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be obvious, but if they aren’t, this Economist piece titled “The Hundred Years’ War” ought to make things clear. There are examples from recent history of reconciliation between warring nations and peoples. I’m thinking of the rehabilitation of Germany in Europe, and more recently still, the still-astonishing, post-apartheid transition in South Africa. But it takes time, and that’s something the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rarely seems to offer peace efforts.

That said, and keeping in mind that events on the ground might render this post moot before I even publish it, I’m optimistic about the chances, both shortterm and longterm, of the French-Egyptian ceasefire mediation (via Der Spiegel). The situation on the ground now perfectly reflects the predicted stalemate of the military conflict, but in ways that both Israel and Hamas can choose to find acceptable. Israel has demonstrated its willingness and ability to apply ruthless force across broad swathes of Gaza, while Hamas has demonstrated the deterrent capacity that makes any more ambitious assault into its urban centers unattractive. Beneath the bravado, both have good reason to stop here, which is why Israel has postponed plans to expand the offensive to give the Cairo negotiations time to solidify.

Everyone knew that going in, just as everyone knew the terms of the ceasefire that would eventually be needed to end the fighting. There are still some very devilish details to be worked out. Egypt is understandably reluctant to become a subcontractor of the Israeli occupation of Gaza, which is what control of the Gaza border crossings would essentially mean. And Israel will probably put high demands on the actual rules of engagement of any multinational force deployed around or in Gaza. But Egypt has limited room for maneuver here, and the UNIFIL force in Southern Lebanon offers a precedent for Israel’s willingness to accept even imperfect remedies that internationalize the enforcement of its security. The fact, too, that the man representing Israel at the table, Amos Gilad, is a political advisor to Ehud Barak (who has been described as the most averse of Israel’s political triumvirate to the military option) probably reflects the seriousness with which the proposal is being studied.

My strong feeling all along has been that the terms of a ceasefire agreement would be hammered out and an Israeli withdrawal in the process of being implemented before President-elect Obama takes office. I imagine that his public silence gave him the time to formulate his team’s consensus, and I also imagine that backchannel messages have already been delivered to Israel to the extent that come Jan. 21, this will not be the bouquet of flowers waiting for Obama in the honeymoon suite of global opinion.

That said, and contrary to what I’ve read elsewhere, I think this offers an opportunity for Obama by creating a radically altered status quo, admittedly uncertain but with potential space for new diplomatic initiatives. If this Guardian exclusive (via Rob at Arabic Media Shack) about plans by the Obama administration to open backchannels to Hamas is true, that’s already taking shape. There’s a reason why, despite all the misplaced derision, France and Egypt are the two names on the proposed ceasefire, and it’s because they are among the few countries that have communication channels, whether direct or indirect, to all the parties involved. Like it or not, Hamas will have to be included in any equation to initially quiet the guns, and ultimately create the breathing room needed for the next step.

The emerging common wisdom is that the next step will be a two-stage process, whereby the torn fabric of Palestinian representation is reknit, followed by more robust (read: chaperoned) Israeli-Palestinian final status negotiations. It’s a testament to the catastrophe of the past eight years that the former is now a thornier problem to resolve than the latter.

If there is one alarming aspect of the new status quo that might emerge from the ashes of Gaza, it’s the diminished standing of Turkey (via EurasiaNet) as one of the communication channels bridging the various divides. Longterm relations between Israel and Turkey are unlikely to be dramatically damaged. (Quote of the Day: Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s recent remarks to the Turkish parliament, “I would like to remind those who call for Turkey to freeze ties withIsrael that we administer the republic of Turkey, not a grocery market.”)

But the sharpness of Erdogan’s public criticisms of Israel, along with the extent of popular outrage in Turkey over the Gaza operation, create political obstacles to Turkey taking a prominent role in the cooling off period that will be essential to reinforcing any immediate exit strategy from the conflict. Turkey is still being mentioned as a candidate for heading the multilateral force that would oversee the implementation of a ceasefire. Whether or not that happens will be a good indicator of how active a role it will play in the nearterm healing process that needs to take place before any of the other scenarios, admittedly optimistic to the point perhaps of being naive, become more realistic.

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