A fragile ceasefire could end in a betrayal of Palestinians

On the surface, the end of the eight-day Israel-Gaza conflict looks depressingly like the ceasefire that concluded Operation Cast Lead, the three-week invasion which ended in January 2009. The terms of the ceasefire are remarkably similar - "durable ceasefire" and "sustained reopening of the crossing points". The central promises of the 2009 UN Resolution were never fulfilled.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state who shuttled between Jerusalem and Cairo to support the Egyptian mediation efforts, was well aware of the failure of the 2009 agreement. At every occasion she spoke of the need for a "durable outcome" - diplomatic speak for "don't make me do this every six months". Of course, it is not strictly Mrs Clinton's problem: she is retiring so it will be her successor who picks up the pieces when the ceasefire breaks down.

There is enough history in the Middle East to suggest that this ceasefire will be torn up as easily as all the peace plans that have come and gone. Israel's history since 1948 - with the exception of the 1973 war - has been one of ceaselessly reinforcing the deterrent effect of its armed forces by launching attacks on its neighbours. Snap opinion polls show that a large part of Israeli public opinion wanted to see more destruction inflicted on Gaza, and was unhappy that the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, stopped short of ground invasion.

But too much focus on history misses some dramatic changes in the region which this conflict has crystallised. History this time could be different.

The first is that the neighbourhood has become much less friendly to Israel over the past two years. Some of America's closest military allies - Egypt, Turkey and Qatar - are cosying up to Hamas. The fact that the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, visited Gaza on Tuesday - and wept at the sight of the dead and wounded- does not change the fundamental relationship between Israel and the US. But it must be a cause of concern for any Israeli who is thinking beyond the next elections.

The second is that Egypt, under its Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, has emerged as a party that the US can do business with. It was with evident relief that Mrs Clinton found that Mr Morsi was able to play Egypt's traditional role as regional power.

Barely two years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood was seen in Washington as the enemy of America and its values. It seems he has passed the first test. Mr Morsi has good reason to need the support of the US: his government has just agreed a $4.8 billion (Dh17.6 billion) loan from the International Monetary Fund to stabilise his ravaged economy. The president will need all the friends he can get.

But we should not be too cynical. The ceasefire agreement looks like a small step towards achieving the "new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world" that President Barack Obama set as his goal in a speech in Cairo in 2009.

The third change is that Hamas has emerged stronger from this contest of wills with Israel. The victory signs can be discounted as wishful thinking: Israel is so powerful that it could, at any time, return Gaza to the Middle Ages, as the Israeli deputy prime minister, Eli Yishai, once said.

But wiser heads in Israel realise that Gaza is a permanent geographical feature and that Israel has to do business with its leaders, and these happen to be Hamas people. The ludicrous idea that military defeat similar to that inflicted on Germany and Japan in 1945 would change the political culture of the Gazans has been ditched. Instead, the opposite has happened. The surrounding political culture in the Arab world and Turkey has moved closer to Hamas.

It is the so-called moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who appears out of step with the times. He is committed to peace with Israel, but not strong enough to enforce any deal, even if one was on offer, which is not currently the case.

The logic of the events of the past two weeks requires action not just fine words. Since Hamas won - fairly and squarely - the parliamentary elections in Palestinian territories in 2006, it has been subject to sanctions and boycott by Israel, the US and the European Union.

With hindsight one can see that 2006 was the real start of the "Arab Spring". The election result prefigured the general trend of free polls in the Arab world since the uprisings: the victory of Islamist-inclined personalities and parties (with the notable exception of Libya). For the past six years - although we didn't know it - we have been living through an "Islamist Spring", to borrow a coinage of the former US State Department official Aaron David Miller.

This boycott of Hamas is now untenable. The Israelis have for years secretly conducted business with the Hamas leadership, and it was the head of the Hamas military wing, the "arch-terrorist" Ahmed Jaabari, assassinated by Israel on November 14, who had enforced the ceasefire to keep the peace, such as it was. In the words of Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Jaabari was Israel's security "subcontractor" in Gaza, and he was terminated when he no longer served his purpose.

Now that Hamas has broken ranks with Iran, there are grounds to hope that it can be reinserted into the Arab mainstream. Of course, it will have to play its part of the bargain. In exchange for Israel lifting its restrictions on the flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza - if this happens - Hamas will have to take responsibility for keeping the ceasefire, which will involve a fight with Islamic Jihad and other Iranian-backed elements. Egypt will have to monitor compliance and sort out the inevitable flare-ups.

This does not add up to peace in our time. But it is at least an alternative to the business-as-usual of Israel demolishing the Gaza infrastructure at regular intervals, while the population of the Strip edges up to two million people who have never seen anything of the world but their 41-kilometre by nine-kilometre open-air prison.

On Twitter: @aphilps


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