Opinion

Reality check on Middle East talks

Motivation is there, but peace will take time.

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Optimism is taking wing in the Middle East: The Israelis and Syrians have been negotiating and Israel and Hamas are two weeks into a cease-fire. But is the Arab-Israeli conflict moving toward a resolution? A closer look at the situation reveals myriad and contradictory interests at work, making it unlikely that there will be a comprehensive peace in the Middle East soon.

Israel has several motives for reactivating peace talks. Scandal is one: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been greatly weakened by an ongoing corruption scandal. It has prompted members of his own cabinet – specifically foreign minister Tzipi Livni and defense minister Ehud Barak – to call for his resignation. As a result, he is looking for a lifeline. Peace with Syria would overshadow his financial misconduct and become his legacy.

Another possible motive impelling Mr. Olmert to focus on advancing the Syrian track is the Israeli need for image-boosting in the wake of the Gaza crisis. Ever since Hamas won a majority in Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006, Israel has looked askance at the state of affairs in the Palestinian territories, particularly in the Hamas stronghold of Gaza.

Hamas's behavior, from firing rockets into Sderot to infiltrating Israel and kidnapping an Israeli soldier, further alarmed Tel Aviv. When Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Fatah in mid-2007, Israel intensified its policy of isolating the strip.

Yet Israeli measures have proved highly controversial. This is especially true of the blockade Israel imposed on Gaza, a form of collective punishment in which much-needed consignments of food, medicine, and fuel have frequently been denied entry. The result is a humanitarian crisis.

That many Israeli policymakers now view an all-out assault on Gaza as inevitable means something will have to be done to offset the image of Israel as aggressor.

For now, Israel has concluded a cease-fire with Hamas, which is expected to lead to a prisoner swap. Yet if a violent showdown with Hamas occurs, Olmert wants to be able to parry criticism of Israel's policy with its Arab neighbors by pointing to his willingness to compromise with Syria.

But what is Syria's stake in all this? Why do the Syrians all of a sudden appear flexible and moderate?

In the past few years, Syria's meddling in Iraq and Lebanon has isolated it: Syria's only ally is Iran. As soon as Olmert indicated that he was willing to entertain the possibility of returning all of the Golan Heights, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad jumped.

For all his eagerness to rejoin the international community, however, Mr. Assad will not budge without first trying to extract a few concessions. Principal among these is an assurance that the UN tribunal charged with bringing to justice the killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will not implicate the Syrian regime. (If the tribunal is truly independent, of course, it is not within the US's power to provide such an assurance, but Syrians suspect US control.) Assad does not believe he can elicit such a guarantee from the current US administration, and brazenly announced that there will be no Syrian-Israeli agreement in 2008.

What this really means is that Assad probably feels that concluding an agreement with Israel during the current US administration's tenure would be a waste. The Syrian president will bide his time until the next administration comes to power, at which point he will look for his concessions.

Assad's stance irritates the Israelis, who feel that the Syrians are using them until 2009. By way of a response, Olmert made an overture to Lebanon – about which Syria is extremely sensitive – regarding Israeli-Lebanese peace negotiations. Not wanting to allow his country to again be drawn into Israeli-Syrian power plays, Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad Siniora, immediately rebuffed Olmert's approach, but added that Lebanon is willing to make peace with Israel so long as Israel first withdraws from the occupied Shebaa Farms.

This leaves the Palestinians, whose relationship with Israel is complicated by the rise of Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist and will not entertain the possibility of any peace deal more permanent than a lengthy cease-fire. Yet Hamas is afraid of losing support even in its bastion of Gaza, where people may consider turning on the Islamist organization to convince Israel to end its blockade.

Last week, Hamas agreed to an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire with Israel to allow for the entry of much-needed supplies into the impoverished strip and also to pave the way for a prisoner swap. Hamas knows that improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza and winning the release of Palestinian prisoners will boost its popularity. Yet Hamas's position entails a good deal of risk; once the prisoner swap is concluded and the kidnapped Israeli soldier returns home, Israel will have one less obstacle to invading Gaza.

Peace negotiations and cease-fires do not in themselves indicate anything more profound than the usual political jockeying. It is almost impossible to fit all the pieces together so that everybody gets what they want.

As a result of the recent negotiations we may well see (slow) progress on the Israeli-Syrian front. But signs still point to deterioration on the Israeli-Palestinian front, especially in Gaza.

Rayyan Al Sawaf is a freelance journalist in Beirut, Lebanon.

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