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    Middle East
     Nov 21, 2012

A rare chance to take in Gaza
By Victor Kotsev

The exchanges of missiles and air strikes between Gaza and Israel showed no sign of abating on Monday night, even as leaks of breakthroughs in talks in Cairo appeared and the Egyptian prime minister expressed his hope that "we will reach something soon that will stop this violence and counter violence".

While the chances of a ceasefire look slim, certainly within the critical time frame of 24 to 48 hours suggested by United States President Barack Obama in an interview on Sunday, the Middle East is capable of surprises. There may be a brief moment of opportunity, and while many such have been wasted in the past, not all hope of avoiding further escalations is gone.

The leaked content of the talks, among other signs, suggests that


the two sides are either seriously interested in a compromise, or are trying very hard to give that impression. Hamas has reportedly asked for the blockade to be lifted, while the Israelis have requested a long-term lull of at least 15 years. [1] These and other terms under discussion go to the core of what both sides need from each other at the current moment.

Israel has a strong interest in prying Gaza out of Tehran's orbit and plugging the gaping security hole that the Strip has become for it (even more so if it plans to attack the Iranian nuclear program in the next months). Hamas is interested in consolidating power domestically and reaching out internationally toward the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. Incidentally, this puts it on a collision course with Iran - mainly because of Syria, from where Hamas was forced to evacuate its headquarters earlier this year.

Both Israel and Hamas, furthermore, share an interest in stealing the thunder of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is pushing to become the leader of an implicitly recognized state at the United Nations later this month. If both - and specifically the Islamists, whose slain leader Ahmed al-Jabari had refused to speak directly to any Israeli in any capacity - could be persuaded that talking to each other is more beneficial than fighting, a breakthrough of unimagined proportions could happen.

In fact, Jabari had just received a proposal for such a breakthrough drafted by a group of Israeli and Palestinian activists a few hours before his death. When asked by Asia Times Online if he thought there was a real chance that Jabari would have accepted the proposal, one of the authors of the draft, the prominent Israeli peace activist Dr Gershon Baskin, sighed: "Yes."

According to Baskin, who also published an op-ed in the New York Times addressing the Jabari assassination, "with him died the possibility of a long-term cease-fire. Israel may have also compromised the ability of Egyptian intelligence officials to mediate a short-term cease-fire and placed Israel's peace treaty with Egypt at risk." [2]

However, reports that Israel has requested precisely such a lull suggest that the Israeli leaders think otherwise. One possibility is that Israel did not trust Jabari as a partner in peace and wanted to impair the rocket capabilities of the Gaza militants prior to the start of a truce. To a certain extent, this conclusion is understandable: after all, rockets had been flying liberally into southern Israel for several days at the time of the arch-terrorist's assassination (a barrage that had slowed to a trickle, but not stopped in the final 24 hours when a ceasefire brokered by Egypt had taken effect). Moreover, even Jabari may not have been able to rein in smaller and more militant organizations such as Islamic Jihad, which is heavily influenced by Iran.

What is ironic in this reading of the events is that the man who now leads the Palestinian negotiators in Cairo is Khaled Meshaal, the once-hardline supreme chief of the movement who was set to retire in days. He was himself the target of a failed assassination attempt in 1997, ordered by nobody other than the current Israeli prime minister.

More recently, however, he issued several relatively moderate statements and attempted to reconcile with the Palestinian Authority. In the process he incurred the wrath of Jabari and his other political opponents in Gaza, but with several of them out of the way, his star may be on the rise again.

Stranger things have happened in the Middle East, but also much greater opportunities have been wasted. There exists, too, a darker interpretation of the developments: if the talks fail, both Israel and Hamas would want to claim that they have tried hard to reach a compromise. They would do this in order to seek the moral high ground in the inevitable war of rhetoric and legal arguments that would follow a bloody land operation.

Among other negative signs, the Lebanese army discovered two missiles in southern Lebanon on Monday, aimed at Israel. Perhaps it was one of the Palestinian factions in Lebanon which planted them, rather than Hezbollah, but this is nevertheless a significant reason for concern (see "The Levant braces for regional war," Asia Times Online, November 13, 2012).

Also the West Bank is seething with unrest. On Monday, two Palestinians died and over 50 were reportedly wounded after violent clashes with Israeli soldiers throughout the territory. This bodes worse to come, while Hamas support in the West Bank is reportedly on the rise.

According to a recent report by the influential intelligence analysis firm Stratfor, "[Abbas's party] Fatah is hoping that Hamas and Israel reach a truce as soon as possible. Indeed, the West Bank group is likely using its channels with the United States and Israel toward this end. Clearly, Fatah does not want protests in the West Bank to go from supporting Hamas and Gaza to turning against mismanagement in the West Bank. At the same time, this could be a reason why Hamas, which seeks a resurgence in the West Bank, would want to prolong the conflict somewhat."

It is hard to ignore a CNN report on Monday that "Three US Navy amphibious warships are returning to the eastern Mediterranean to remain on standby in the event they are needed to assist Americans leaving Israel in the coming days." While, as the proverb goes, it is always darkest before dawn, it could be a very genuine storm approaching. It is unlikely that a conflict involving Gaza alone would require the evacuation of Americans.

The hopeful outlook is that all sides involved appear to have a clear interest in a long-term truce, and there is a genuine, albeit brief opportunity to achieve it. Down the line, this could even lead to genuine peace. The track record of Palestinians and Israelis making use of such opportunities is not good, however, and often great explosions of violence happen right after one is wasted.

1. Palestinians: Israel demands 15-year lull, Morsi guarantee, Ynet, November 19, 2012.
2. Israel's Shortsighted Assassination, , New York Times, November 16, 2012.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Gaza crisis has more to come
(Nov 19, 12)

Netanyahu's high-stakes game in the Strip (Nov 19, 12)



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