A Truce Too Big to Fail?

WASHINGTON - The tandem un-negotiated ceasefires that Israel and Hamas announced Jan. 18 across the Gaza-Israel front line remain fragile. Local and international efforts to consolidate the truce have stalled, and officials and analysts around the world warn of a high risk of further escalation.

Further complicating the truce stabilisation effort, Israelis go to the polls Feb. 10 in a general election that Binyamin Netanyahu's rightwing Likud Party, now in opposition, and allies further to his right may well end up winning.

Israel has meanwhile refused to allow even basic construction materials into the Gaza Strip. With thousands of homes and much basic infrastructure in ruins, the situation of the Strip's 1.5 million people remains dire.

Since Jan. 18, both Hamas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have sent emissaries to Egypt, where intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who brokered the (largely successful) ceasefire that ran for six months through mid-December 2008, has again emerged as the main channel for indirect negotiations between them.

But since Jan. 18 there have also been several exchanges of hostilities between the two sides. And as rockets fired from Gaza, by Hamas or others, have fallen from time to time on southern Israel, Netanyahu has scored points by voicing harsh criticisms of the Olmert government's "failure to finish the job" against Gaza.

Under strong pressure from Likud and its allies at home, Olmert has so far refused to meet the demands that Hamas has insisted on in Cairo. Hamas's main demand is that as part of the truce agreement Israel lift the punishing siege it has maintained on Gaza since Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections, back in January 2006.

Meanwhile, at the international level, U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy to the region, Sen. George Mitchell, completed his first fact-finding tour of Israel, Palestine, and three pro-U.S. Arab countries and reported back to Obama in the White House on Wednesday. Mitchell said he plans to return to the region later this month.

No one in the Obama administration has announced anything substantive about the outcome of Mitchell's first mission. However, before Mitchell met with Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that Hamas still needed to meet the three tough conditions defined by the Bush administration in 2002 before it could be included in any formal-level diplomacy.

The momentum with which the new administration dove into Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking during its first week in office now seems largely - and worryingly - to have dissipated.

Three major diplomatic challenges face regional powers and the international community regarding the ever-important Palestine question. The first is to stabilise the Gaza ceasefire. The second - which has been receiving increasing recognition from around the world, including from weighty personalities in the U.S. like former Secretary of State James Baker - is to find a way to fold Hamas into the formal peace negotiations, even if only indirectly. The third is to give the final-status peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians considerable new momentum and seriousness.

Robert Pastor has worked very closely with Jimmy Carter on the peace-promotion missions Carter has undertaken in the Middle East in recent years - which included two rounds of discussions that Carter held with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Damascus, Syria, last year. (Carter and Pastor also held intensive talks with Israeli leaders and visited rocket-affected communities in southern Israel.)

Speaking recently at the Washington-based Palestine Centre, Pastor stressed that the strengthened ceasefire agreement for Gaza should be "signed, public, and official; there needs to be a recognised single text... The ceasefire needs to be reduced to its basic elements and should not be freighted down by extraneous issues, such as Israel's demand that Gilad Shalit's release be part of it."

Shalit, a corporal in the Israeli military, was taken as a prisoner-of-war by Gaza-based militants in June 2006, and has been under Hamas's control since June 2007. Israel meanwhile holds some 12,000 Palestinian detainees, including two dozen elected Hamas legislators from the West Bank. Negotiations for a prisoner exchange have continued intermittently since 2006.

Pastor said the Gaza ceasefire agreement should specify an end to all military actions by each side against the other, Israel's opening of the crossings into the Strip, and the establishment of a monitoring mechanism in which the Middle East Quartet - the U.S., the United Nations, European Union, and Russia - should be involved.

Pastor provided several details of how, in the case of the six-month Israel-Hamas ceasefire of last year, the absence of an agreed, public text made it hard for Hamas to insist on Israeli compliance when the Israelis reneged on a commitment Hamas thought Olmert had made, to restore the freight passage through the crossings to the level it was at before the siege began in 2006.

He and many others have noted that Hamas and the main secular Palestinian nationalist group, Fatah, now urgently need to get over the sharp conflict they've been engaged in since June 2007, so they can get the reconstruction for Gaza speedily underway and to allow for rapid and substantive steps forward in the final peace talks.

Amman-based Palestinian analyst Mouin Rabbani has noted that objectively, Hamas and Fatah both need each other: Fatah, to share some of the new political legitimacy Hamas gained through the courage and capability it displayed during the recent war, and Hamas, to gain access to international forums and aid channels from which it is currently barred.

However, as Rabbani and others have noted, rebuilding a collaborative relationship between them may not be easy.

Washington-based analyst (and former Palestinian negotiator) Amjad Atallah said he judged that the rift between the two groups had been significantly exacerbated, if not completely caused, by the strong campaign the Bush administration waged against Hamas, in which it enrolled several key Fatah leaders.

"If the new U.S. administration can just stop that campaign, then reconciliation would become a lot easier," he said.

Regarding the possibility of a resumed and newly energised final-status peace negotiation, all plans for this, whether drafted in Washington or elsewhere, remain on hold pending the outcome of Israel's Feb. 10 election - and of the weeks-long coalition-forming process that is nearly always required after Israeli elections.

Some pro-peace people, including Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, have said that having Likud in power, with its clearly stated opposition to the establishment of any Palestinian state west of the Jordan River, may make matters clearer in the international arena than they have been under Olmert's "centre-left" coalition. Levy noted that the Olmert government held endless negotiations about a Palestinian state while still, in practice, building Israeli settlements that reduce the possibility of the Palestinians establishing a viable state of their own in the West Bank and Gaza.

Whether Likud will win the elections, and the effect that might have on negotiations, both remain to be seen. What is clear, though, is that the Gaza War of 2008-09 has had a deep influence on the politics of both the Palestinian and Israeli communities, strengthening hardliners in each. The risks - to the stability of a largely U.S.-dominated regional order, as to the hard-pressed people of Gaza - remain very high indeed.

Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org

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