Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa | Analysis

MIDEAST: Disputes Coming to a Head

Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Mar 23 2009 (IPS) - Key issues in conflict between Israelis and Palestinians are all coming to a head. But, even if these immediate issues are resolved, in any event, the conflict itself and an overriding diplomatic paralysis threaten to take long-term hold and to stymie all efforts to move the conflict onto a peace track any time soon.

At stake within the coming fortnight: a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas, a ceasefire arrangement in the wake of the Gaza war, the lifting of the Israeli siege of Gaza, and the subsequent international re-construction endeavour and ongoing attempts to form a broad-based government within both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Despite expectations that one of the consequences of the Israeli offensive against Hamas would be to unblock these issues which, for nearly three years, have plagued the region, bedevilled relations between Israelis and Palestinians, and hamstrung regional efforts for stability. A state of diplomatic limbo prevails.

The central link in the chain of command for solving the problems is the prisoner swap. Under it, an Israeli corporal, Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas for the past 1,000 days, would be exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including hundreds of Hamas men convicted of deadly attacks on Israelis.

Several weeks after Israel withdrew its invading forces, the outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suddenly conditioned the concluding of talks for a ceasefire on the successful outcome to the prisoner deal. But when last week Olmert declared his government would not cross “red lines”, and he refused to “submit to Hamas demands”, the situation seemed to regress. Accusations were traded over who scuttled the deal. Each side threatened to toughen its position. Then, over the weekend, a senior Hamas leader, Moussa Abu Marzouk, suggested that there is still ground for resuming the negotiations.

In the absence of such a deal, Palestinians, hoping for the international pledge to reconstruct Gaza after its devastation during the Israeli offensive to materialise, are left waiting in limbo for the opening of the border crossings through which heavy duty equipment needed in the re-building effort must pass. And, increasingly, in the absence of a ceasefire, Israelis who face the threat of sporadic Hamas rockets into their southern towns and villages are coming to terms with a realisation that not only did the war not remove the Hamas threat – it was pointless.

The Olmert gambit of linking the ceasefire to the prisoner talks was in no small measure aimed at putting pressure on Hamas to conclude the deal while he was still at the helm. Olmert is due to be replaced by the right-wing Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu; he’s perceived as much less amenable to the kind of concessions Olmert said he was ready to make towards Hamas. The breakdown in the Egyptian-mediated talks indicated that Olmert’s gambit hadn’t worked. The Olmert government’s days are numbered.

Now, however, with Netanyahu still exploring the possibility of re-centring his coalition by including the Labour Party rather than relying entirely on far right and religious parties, Olmert remains in office for two more weeks.

The delay in forming a new government not only gives Olmert the opportunity but gives Netanyahu the hope that, perhaps, Hamas will backtrack after all and that the deadlock-breaking prisoner deal can still be concluded before the change-over. That would, in turn break the deadlock with respect to the ceasefire and the Gaza siege, issues which Netanyahu – who is committed to getting rid of Hamas – would have difficulty pushing through.

Only last week it seemed certain Netanyahu would be ready to put his narrow hard-right coalition in place. His surprise volte-face towards Labour and its leader, Olmert’s defence minister Ehud Barak, suggests the prime minister designate wants at least to create the impression that his policies towards the Palestinians and the Arab world will not be downright confrontational.

But, even should the immediate contentious issues – prisoners, ceasefire, siege, reconstruction – be resolved, meaningful peace negotiations are not on the cards.

On the Palestinian side, Egypt is engaged in a major push to convince the U.S. and the EU to adopt a more pragmatic approach towards Hamas to encourage a positive outcome of the Hamas-Fatah unity talks. But Hamas’s proposed inclusion in the Palestinian Authority would not be welcome by the Netanyahu government – to put it mildly. Even in the best-case scenario for Palestinians and Israelis to solve their respective domestic agendas, the end result would be two unity governments in each of which there would be a major component that does not recognise the other component and is dead- set against the principle of a two-state solution.

Beyond what Netanyahu does or does not do, beyond whether Hamas and Fatah are able to reconcile, beyond what policy positions the Arab League adopts at its forthcoming summit, topping them all, embracing them all is an issue that looms large over the entire region: Can the U.S. successfully contain Iran’s surge for a nuclear capability through diplomatic means?

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei demanded concrete policy changes from the U.S. as the price for new relations between the two states. But in the weeks and months ahead, the focus of the whole region will remain the outcome of President Barack Obama’s offer of “a new beginning” in U.S. relations with Iran.

The outcome of this diplomatic offensive – successful or failed – will determine the fate of any fresh Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab initiatives.

But, in the next two weeks, there’s still a prisoner deal to be concluded.

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