Middle East Triangle

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gone from a violent, intractable, clear-cut duel to a violent, intractable, three-way chess match. Today, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas each fears that the other two will reach a deal at its expense. And each is determined to prevent that outcome.

For Hamas, a rapprochement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel represents a threat. The closer Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas move toward a negotiated settlement, and the more they can point to concrete achievements, the more difficult it will be for the Islamists to maintain and expand their support. An effort by Israel to suffocate Gaza, which Hamas now controls, together with attempts by the Palestinian Authority to further squeeze Hamas's infrastructure in the West Bank, where it is under pressure, and to round up its West Bank militants, who are in hiding, also would expose the Islamist movement.

Israel worries that Abbas, pressed by Palestinian public opinion, Arab countries and his party's fear of a Palestinian civil war, will reconcile with Hamas. Not a day passes without some unofficial contact between Abbas's Fatah party and its Islamist counterpart. Beyond that, Palestinian unity comports far more with any Palestinian leader's instincts and inclinations than Palestinian discord. A renewed national compact and the return of Hamas to the political fold would upset Israel's strategy of perpetuating Palestinian geographic and political division. It also would thwart the expectation that Palestinian security forces might go after the Islamist movement and do to Hamas what Israel, with all its might, has been unable to do.

Abbas and his colleagues fear an understanding between Israel and Hamas that would bolster the Islamic movement at Fatah's expense. They are worried the two may find common ground, striking a deal involving a mutual cease-fire, an easing of Gaza's blockade and a prisoner exchange. This concern is not unfounded. Despite the death and destruction in Gaza, reports of indirect dealings repeatedly surface. When hawkish members of the Israeli establishment, including Ephraim Halevy, a former head of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency; Giora Eiland, who served as national security adviser to Ariel Sharon; and Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister, openly advocate some form of engagement with Hamas, Abbas and his Fatah cohorts cannot help but notice. An arrangement between Israel and Hamas could advance both sides' interests. Israel has been unable to quell incessant rocket fire from Gaza, and the release of a soldier captured in the summer of 2006, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, remains a key objective. For its part, Hamas seeks to strengthen its grip on Gaza, reestablish law and order, and demonstrate that it can govern. A deal with Israel would go a long way toward accomplishing all three. It would boost Hamas's legitimacy, show that the movement can deliver, and undermine the notion that it can be defeated through military action and economic strangulation.

Nervous about being left out, all three parties are laboring mightily to avert an understanding between the other two. Hamas threatens the nascent Israeli-Palestinian political process, challenging its legitimacy and intimating that it could resort to more violence. Israel warns that renewed Palestinian unity will bring that process to an abrupt halt. Abbas actively discourages any third-party contact with Hamas. The end result is collective checkmate, a political standstill that hurts all and serves none.

The truth is, none of these two-way deals is likely to succeed. In tandem, no two parties are capable enough to deliver; any one party is potent enough to be a spoiler. There can be neither Israeli-Palestinian stability nor a peace accord without Hamas's acquiescence. Intra-Palestinian reconciliation will not last without Israel's unspoken assent and willingness to lift its siege. Any agreement between Hamas and Israel over Abbas's strong objection is hard to imagine.

For any of these dances to go forward, all will have to go forward. Synchronicity is key. Fatah and Hamas will need to reach a new political arrangement, this time not one vigorously opposed by Israel. Hamas and Israel will need to achieve a cease-fire and prisoner exchange, albeit mediated by Abbas. And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will need to negotiate a political deal with Abbas, who will have to receive a mandate to do so from Hamas. The current mind-set, in which each side considers dealmaking by the other two to be a mortal threat, could be replaced by one in which all three couplings are viewed as mutually reinforcing. For that, the parties' allies ought to cast aside their dysfunctional, destructive, ideologically driven policies. Instead, they should encourage a choreography that minimizes violence and promotes a serious diplomatic process. Otherwise, no matter how many times President Bush travels to the region, there is no reason to believe that 2008 will offer anything other than the macabre pattern of years past.

Hussein Agha, a senior associate member of St. Antony's College, Oxford University who has been involved in Israeli-Palestinian affairs for four decades and Robert Malley, Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group and special assistant to the president for Arab-Israeli affairs from 1998 to 2001.