Middle East Conflict: Need for Credible Mediator


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No. 148/2014 dated 25 July 2014

Middle East Conflict:

Need for Credible Mediator

By James M. Dorsey


Synopsis The need for a credible universally-accepted mediator between Israelis and Palestinians has

never been greater. Despite Israel’s devastating bombardment of Gaza the two sides for

the first time agree on what a long-term arrangement should be. Both want a long-lasting

ceasefire but need a third party to negotiate the terms.


Commentary


AMID THE death and destruction raining down on the Gaza Strip there is a sliver of hope.

Seldom have the makings for a mutually-agreed long term arrangement that would give both

parties a degree of stability and security and allow for Palestinian as well as Israeli

economic growth, been better than today.

In fact, in a perverse way, the Israeli assault on Gaza has improved chances for

such an arrangement by politically strengthening Hamas, the Islamist militia, which is no

match for the Israeli military but has already scored a psychological victory. Hamas

demonstrated its ability to reach major Israeli cities with its rockets, infiltrate Israel proper,

persuade international airlines to halt flights to Tel Aviv, and put up fierce urban resistance

inside Gazan towns.


Israel’s military victory but political defeat

Israel hopes to weaken and demilitarise Hamas but not totally eradicate it because that

could open the door to more militant Islamist groups taking control of Gaza. In its view, a

weakened Hamas would strengthen Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas

and either undermine the Palestinian position or render it incapable of negotiating a final

solution of the conflict on terms remotely acceptable to Palestinians.

Palestinians.

This would spare Israel the painful decisions it would have to take that are necessary

for any definitive peace settlement to work such as the dismantling of Israeli settlements

on the occupied West Bank and a shared future for East Jerusalem, both of which it

conquered during the 1967 Middle East war. As a result, Israel’s preferred solution for

the medium, if not, the long term, is the status quo with effectively full control of the West

Bank and a defanged Hamas.

Although for very different reasons and on different terms, Hamas shares with Israel the

goal of a longer term arrangement that would not force it to make political concessions

such as recognition of Israel and renunciation of the armed struggle. Hamas has

repeatedly called for a ten-year ceasefire.

It recognises that Palestinians are in no position to persuade or impose on Israel terms

that would guarantee a truly independent Palestinian state alongside Israel that would be

anything more than a militarily weak adjunct of its powerful neighbour.

Nevertheless, as in most armed confrontations with Palestinians and Arabs since the

1967 war, Israel wins militarily but loses politically. If anything that trend is even more

pronounced in the current conflict against a backdrop of improved Palestinian military

performance, however limited, and mounting international unease not only with the

toll in civilian lives but with Israeli policy towards Palestinian territories at large.


Hamas’ growing street credibility


In addition, Hamas has increased street credibility while Abbas has been rendered

even more ineffective than he already was. Using the death of three kidnapped

teenagers as a pretext, Israel went on the offensive against Hamas even before it

attacked Gaza to undermine the one effort by Abbas and Hamas for the formation

of a national unity government that could have enabled the Palestinians to negotiate a

final solution to the Palestinian problem.

As a result, with neither party really interested in a final resolution, a long-term

arrangement is potentially the best deal on the table. Nevertheless, a deal on a long-

term ceasefire could well be stranded on issues such as the future of the seven-year

old Israeli blockade of Gaza that impairs its ability to freely import goods.

Other issues are Palestinian demands that it be able to build an airport and a port

- requirements for economic growth that would complicate Israeli control. Only a

mediator trusted by both parties would be able to explore whether those hurdles

can be surmounted.


Interlocutors talk to interlocutors


And that is where the problem lies. No single mediator – the United States, the

European Union, Egypt, Qatar or Turkey – is able to talk with any credibility to the

two key parties, Israel and Hamas. The US and Israel as well as various European

countries refuse to engage with Hamas whom they have labelled a terrorist

organisation. Egypt, while professing to sympathise with the Palestinians, is happy to see the Israelis

do the dirty work for them in weakening what they see as an offshoot of the Muslim

Brotherhood, the group it has banned as terrorists. Turkey’s relations with Israel have

hit a new low and Qatar has no formal ties to Israel.

What this in effect means is that interlocutors have to talk to interlocutors to reach one

of the two concerned parties – hardly a recipe for the kind of success that does not simply

end the immediate bloodshed but creates the basis for a longer term arrangement that has

a chance of moving things forward.

The ideal solution would be to bring Hamas in from the cold. That is obviously, with the

fighting on the ground, beyond the realm of the possible. US President Barack Obama’s

approach prior to the Gaza crisis was, after Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed effort

to negotiate a peace agreement, to let the parties stew in their own mess.

Letting the parties stew fails to recognise opportunity and produces calamities like Gaza.

A more constructive approach would be to recognise that neither Israel nor Hamas

– two parties without whom a final resolution will remain an illusion – want peace but do

want a long term cessation of hostilities. Achieving that would constitute significant

progress and make the massive loss of life less senseless.



James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,

Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture

of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of

Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.




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