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June 23, 2008

Viewing the truce from many sides

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/viewing_the_truce_from_many_sides_20080623

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Israeli strategic thinkers are deeply divided over the implications of the truce between Israel and the Gaza-based Hamas fundamentalists. But whatever their perspective, most agree that it could have a profound impact on the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

There are several schools of thought:

* Dovish optimists hope the truce, or “tahadiyeh,” will create a new atmosphere in which genuine peacemaking with all Palestinian factions—moderates and fundamentalists alike—is possible.

* Pessimistic doves and most hawks are critical of what they see as a strengthening of the Palestinian radicals at the expense of the moderates. They fear this could make a future peace deal much more difficult, if not impossible, to attain.

* Centrists argue that because the conflict cannot be resolved, contained, long-term cease-fires with Hamas are far more realistic than pipedreams of peace with the moderates.

The differences stem largely from the way the different schools see Hamas.

Some see the organization as unshakeably wedded to the radical cause led by Iran. Others believe it can be co-opted onto the side of the regional moderates against Iran. And others hold that even if it cannot be won over, it is a more authentic representative of the Palestinians than the more moderate Fatah and therefore must be part of any viable negotiating process.

The optimists maintain that once goods start flowing freely into Gaza and the economy picks up, the Palestinian-Israel equation will change dramatically. The thinking is that when Palestinians in Gaza see that life can be very different, they won’t want to go back to struggle and hardship, and will press Hamas to extend the tahadiyeh indefinitely. In this scenario, Israel could be the beneficiary of a relatively long truce.

As for Hamas, if it stops attacking Israel, it could gain international recognition and finally have something to lose. The combination of popular pressure and Hamas’ growing role on the international stage could lead the organization to inch its way toward a long-term accommodation with Israel.

Moreover, some of the optimists see in Hamas’ acceptance of a truce with Israel an attempt by the radical organization to subtly distance itself from Iran.

Ran Edelist, a dovish commentator on strategic affairs, sees the six-month truce that went into effect June 20 as part of a wider move by Israel to remove Hamas, Syria and Lebanon from the Iranian orbit. This, rather than any hypothetical Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear installations, “is the big and genuine move against the Iranian threat,” he says.

But others on the left—the pessimists—see serious dangers in the truce itself.

Matti Steinberg, a Hebrew University expert on Palestinian affairs, says that unless Israel neutralizes the deleterious effects of the truce, it will lead to the collapse of the moderate Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank within six months.

Steinberg, a former top adviser to the Shin Bet security service, argues that the truce strengthens the radicals and weakens the moderates because it suggests to Palestinians that the Gaza model of rocketing Israeli civilians is viable, whereas the West Bank model of negotiations with Israel is going nowhere.

This, he says, will soon be accentuated by the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, presumably in exchange for the abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, for which Hamas will claim credit.

Hamas, he says, “will use the truce to strengthen its political position on the West Bank, to renew negotiations with Fatah on its terms and to infiltrate the PLO where it will set a new ideological tone. In short, it will hijack the Palestinian movement and drag Israel into a terrible one-state reality.”

In other words, unless Israel takes steps to reverse the process, Hamas will use the truce to seize control of the Palestinian movement, peace between Israel and the Palestinians will become impossible, and Israel will find itself losing international legitimacy as it rules over an increasingly turbulent Palestinian population demanding equal rights in a single state comprised of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, in which it will soon become the majority.

Nevertheless, Steinberg is in favor of the truce, partly because rejecting it would have led to tension with Egypt, which brokered the deal and wants quiet in Gaza to prevent unrest spreading among its own radicals. But more important, he says, Israel could turn the truce to its advantage, neutralizing Hamas gains by accelerating genuine peacemaking with the moderates and enabling them to deliver statehood.

Steinberg believes this can be accomplished, beyond what has been possible with Mahmoud Abbas, with a major Israeli initiative. It would involve concessions on land and Jerusalem in return for Palestinian concessions on refugees and reviving the 2002 Arab peace plan, which talks of normalization of Israel’s ties with all the Arab states after it returns to its pre-1967 Six-Day War borders.

The critique of the truce from the right is less nuanced. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu sees it as a major strategic blunder: It shows that terror pays, weakens Israeli deterrence and gives Hamas the time it needs to build up its military power for the next round.

“Israel,” Netanyahu told Israel Radio, “got absolutely nothing in return, not even Gilad Shalit.”

The fourth school, the so-called centrists, takes a totally different tack.

Its members – including former Mossad Chief Ephraim Halevy, Tel Aviv University’s Shaul Mishal and former Southern Command chief Doron Almog—argue that Israel should forget about trying to isolate Hamas and try to turn the truce into a long-term cease-fire. The thinking is that Fatah is a declining force without the power to stand behind any agreements it might reach, whereas Hamas does.

Moreover, every time Israel has attempted to “engineer Palestinian society”—that is, create or strengthen forces more amenable to it—it has failed. This school argues that a cease-fire with Hamas is far more realistic than a full-fledged peace deal with Fatah precisely because it does not require making huge “end-of-conflict” concessions on both sides.

Most Hamas spokesmen reject the idea of accommodation with Israel and openly describe the tahadiyeh as a tactical move to gain time to prepare for an inevitable future showdown. But there are some different voices.

“Everyone on your side is saying that the truce is an opportunity for Hamas to narrow the military gap, but it’s actually an historic opportunity for Israel and for all the sides involved to live in peace and build a future for the coming generations,” Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil told Ha’aretz recently.

Anyway you cut it, the truce, if it holds, seems much more than a tactical respite. Still, it remains to be seen whether it will lead to a radicalization of Palestinian life that makes peace impossible, or to a new pragmatism that makes for peace or long-term accommodation.

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