The Israel-Hamas clash in and around the Gaza Strip offers an important reminder to the second Obama administration: You can ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for only so long.
You can, with wishful thinking, derogate that conflict to a low priority on your list of Middle East tasks — well below Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and the democratizing of political Islam. But it will contrive to bounce right back up to the top of your list.
Currently, the administration confronts two urgent developments related to the conflict: the Gaza fighting and the determination of the Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to seek U.N. General Assembly recognition of Palestine as a quasi-state.
Washington’s natural inclination is to fall back on shopworn formulas for pushing these issues back off the immediate agenda: another Egyptian-mediated cease-fire, however temporary, in Gaza; and promises to Abbas that if he just backs away from the U.N. the administration will sponsor yet again discussion of the Oslo-begotten formula for a two-state solution.
These tactics might even work for a while, at least until the new administration gets organized and Israel gets through its Jan. 22 elections. But they are just that: tactics. They reflect the prolonged absence in Washington, Jerusalem and Arab capitals of a viable and realistic strategy for dealing with the Palestinian issue in all its complexity.
Looking at the Gaza Strip, five years of economic blockade failed to weaken or moderate Hamas, while giving Israel a bad name. Military reoccupation is justifiably shunned by Israel as counterproductive; every incursion into the Strip has a quick exit plan. Hamas refuses to talk with Israel and Israel, backed by Washington, refuses to talk with Hamas.
Now, with the support of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government and the deep pockets of the Qataris, Hamas feels more confident than ever, despite the bashing it has received from Israel. It confronts us with the specter, in a best-case scenario, of a three-state solution. In a worst-case scenario, its provocations could bring Egypt and Israel to the brink of dangerous armed tensions.
Turning to the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority is close to bankrupt and the P.L.O. still pretends it can represent Gaza in the U.N. and in talks with Israel, the absence of substantive negotiations for the past four years points to the effective demise of the Oslo process, the strategy of the past 20 years.
The failure of the Olmert-Abbas talks back in September 2008 was far more than a tactical setback. In retrospect, it must be understood as a reflection of the parties’ true inability to bridge their “narrative” gaps regarding refugee right of return and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Under these sad circumstances, “Just get to the damn table” (Leon Panetta, Dec. 2, 2011) is not a strategy for resolving this conflict. These issues will not go away.
The coming months of transition in Washington provide a unique opportunity to review failed strategies in the Israeli-Palestinian context and examine new ones, even if the objective is stabilization and limited progress rather than an elusive end-of-conflict.
For starters? West Bank unilateral-withdrawal proposals by the Israeli political center and strategic think tanks deserve serious consideration.
The new Egyptian leadership could be pressed by Washington to persuade Hamas to negotiate directly with Israel, where many would welcome this opportunity.
And conceivably, Abbas’s U.N. initiative could be leveraged into a useful “win-win” formula for partial progress toward a two-state framework.
Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He is a contributor to the recently published book of essays, Pathways to Peace: America and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.