Dividends of truce

By Ian Black, the Guardian’s Middle East editor (THE GUARDIAN, 19/06/08):

Only a foolhardy observer would predict that peace is about to break out in the Middle East because of the ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas – snatched from the jaws of a large-scale Israeli incursion into the Gaza strip after weeks of intensive, rollercoaster, Egyptian mediation.

Continuing Israeli attacks in Gaza, and Palestinian rocket fire across the border into Israel, are reminders that this is a conflict that will not be easily ended. And there is clearly room for substantial disagreement over key questions: will the Cairo deal include the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal captured two years ago? Will the Rafah border crossing open at once and who will control it? What if weapons smuggling continues through the maze of tunnels under the border? And what is the link between the situation in Gaza and the West Bank, where the Israelis insist on the right to maintain security?

Still, six months of tahdiya (the Arabic word means “quiet” rather than “ceasefire”) would be a welcome change for ordinary people on both sides. Palestinians have suffered hundreds of dead and injured in recent Israeli raids.

Politically, the agreement boosts the credentials of Hamas, isolated since it took control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in a preemptive coup almost a year ago. The Islamists are looking like a partner for the first time.

Pragmatism has won the day for now, though some Israelis will see uncomfortable parallels with the success of Hizbullah in Lebanon, establishing itself as the legitimate armed resistance and the keeper or breaker of ceasefires, according to mutually agreed “rules of the game”. Haim Ramon, an Israeli deputy prime minister, bemoaned “another victory for radical Islam” and a “chance to represent Gaza as Hamastan state”.

Another key outcome of the tahdiya should be to promote the urgent need for Palestinian national reconciliation, apparently now accepted by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and Fatah leader. Abbas changed tack late last month and is backed by an influential Arab coalition of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which recognise that the Annapolis peace talks with Israel have got nowhere slowly. Only this week Israel announced the construction of yet more housing in East Jerusalem, which it insists is outside the scope of any concessions in the West Bank – even as Condoleezza Rice was paying yet another fruitless visit.

Abbas has virtually nothing to show for going along with the US-Israeli policy – backed by the Quartet and its envoy Tony Blair – of “showcasing” the West Bank to prove to Gazans that they are backing the wrong horse in supporting Hamas. Aides admit privately that he is in a “desperate” position. Now the likelihood must be of a return to the format of the Saudi-backed Mecca agreement of last year, under which Hamas mandated the PLO to negotiate with Israel, accepted (however grudgingly) existing peace agreements (Oslo), and respected a ceasefire. The burning issue of recognition of Israel (and the Hamas charter) will again be left sensibly to one side.

Abbas’s demand that Hamas restore the pre-takeover status quo in Gaza will not be easily met. But if the ceasefire holds, Hamas will be in a strong position to contest new presidential and parliamentary elections. Palestinian unity will put the Palestinians on a far more equal footing with the Israelis. It will also help those, especially in Europe, who are advocating an end to the boycott of the Islamists which is at the heart of western policy. So small beginnings in Gaza could yield big dividends more widely – even if experience teaches that it would be unwise to hold your breath.