Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr has announced a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas. It's good news that the fighting will stop. But aside from the immediate cessation of hostilities there's little to cheer about. Here are three reasons why in the absence of considerable outside intervention, it's only a matter of time until war breaks out again.
A comprehensive peace agreement is not in sight: Peace in the former Palestine rests not only on a permanent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, but on a comprehensive agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. There is little question that the Palestinian Authority government on the West Bank would welcome such an agreement along the lines of the [Bill] Clinton parameters that were drafted at the end of his term after the failure at Camp David. But Netanyahu’s government and Hamas have both rejected any such agreement.
Some American politicians talk as if beginning the “peace process” merely entails getting Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas into the same room, but a minimal condition of beginning the peace process would be an agreement by the Netanyahu to freeze the settlement expansion and by Hamas to abide by a two-state agreement—or even better to join Fatah in a unitary government that negotiates such an agreement. Without these two prior conditions being met, there is little point in talking about a peace process.
With governments like these, war is hard to avoid: Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Hamas are different sides of the same dystopian coin. Netanyahu’s Likud party is the latest incarnation of Zionist Revisionism, which originally advocated a Greater Israel that included both the West Bank and Jordan. Many in the party remain committed to a one-state solution. Hamas, which originated out of a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, is also committed to a one-state solution, but an Islamic rather than Jewish state.
Both the Likud governments and Hamas have done what they could to undermine any attempts at a two-state solution. Politically, they feed on each other. Netanyahu and Likud can point to Hamas as a reason to fear a Palestinian state and to continue expanding into the West Bank. Hamas can point to Likud as a reason to reject Abbas’s moderation and to fire rockets into Israeli towns – an irresponsible tactic that is designed to provoke a retaliation that will result in thousands of Palestinian deaths. With governments like these, conflict isn't a matter of circumstance, but ideology.
Governments and movements are susceptible to change. And that includes Netanyahu’s Likud government and Hamas. In his last tour as prime minister, Netanyahu opposed Oslo, but in 1998, buckled to Bill Clinton’s pressure to abide by it. Under pressure from Barack Obama, Netanyahu rhetorically endorsed a Palestinian state. Hamas for its part has repeatedly hinted and even said in May 2011 that it would abide by a two-state solution as a transitional measure. But left to their own devices, Likud and Hamas will not moderate their views. That will only happen with outside pressure.
The United States has chosen not to get involved: Hillary Clinton seems to have succeeded this week in speeding up the ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas, but she also wasted precious time in visiting the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah on her way to Cairo. The P.A. had nothing to do with the conflict between Israel and Hamas, and had no role in resolving it. If the U.S. wanted to talk to the participants in the conflict, and get them to stop, it had to talk to Israel and Hamas. But it has refused to talk to Hamas until it recognizes Israel, even though the United States talks to plenty of countries—take Saudi Arabia, to begin with—that have never done so. And Congress, with AIPAC looking on, has also ruled against any American efforts to talk with Hamas.
Diplomacy does not required loving, respecting, agreeing with or trusting another country or movement. It is a means to affect their behavior. But in this case, the United States has consistently subordinated its foreign policy to that of the Israeli government—and I use the term “government” not “people,” because I would argue that energetic American diplomacy, absent any artificial constraints, could benefit the Israeli as well as American and Palestinian people.
Washington has reserves of power in the region that it has left untapped; and it can also now call on Egypt, which has considerable influence with Hamas. The United States has leverage on the Palestinian Authority and can influence Hamas directly, if it begins to communicate directly with the group, pressuring it to stop its rocket attacks on Israel and to join Fatah in a unity government. The United States has always had leverage on Israel. The Obama administration has to begin using that leverage—pressuring Netanyahu to stop the growth of settlements and to begin negotiations with a willingness to exchange land for peace—even if that means bucking AIPAC and Congress. Without pressure of this kind, there will not be, as Hillary Clinton put it this week, a “durable peace,” or any peace at all for that matter.