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Amid Flux, Mideast Talks Mulled Anew

Prepared by: Michael Moran
July 16, 2007

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A year ago this week, war raged between Israel and two stateless entities on its borders, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas inside the Palestinian Authority’s Gaza Strip. The resulting air strikes, missile exchanges, and small-unit actions bruised both sides, killing civilians in Gaza, northern Israel, and especially, in Lebanon. Militarily, as Israel’s own inquiry concluded, launching the two-front operation reflected a “weakness in strategic thinking.”

A year later, the balance sheet is even more sobering. The three Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping helped spark the dual Israeli offensives remain in captivity (JPost). In Gaza, the cohesion of the Palestinian Authority, already dodgy before the Israeli incursion, suffered a mortal blow, collapsing completely last month. That left formerly stateless Hamas, in the words of former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, Jr., with a “territorial base … on the Mediterranean” (WSJ).

In Lebanon, Hezbollah bragged of having bested the mighty Israeli military, and set about quickly casting itself (rather than Lebanon’s pro-Western coalition government) as the true defenders of the nation. Bluster, perhaps. But, as CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Vali R. Nasr noted, the stock of Hezbollah’s Syrian and Iranian backers rose nonetheless. With the country still on edge, Walid Phares, a U.S.-based Mideast analyst, sees signs Hezbollah may even risk a Hamas-style coup (Counterterrorism Blog) of its own.

Yet in the Middle East as elsewhere, hope springs eternal. President Bush on Monday announced new aid to the rump Palestinian government (NPR) in the West Bank. President Mahmoud Abbas won concessions from Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on “wanted” (Al Bawaba) and jailed members of his Fatah party. Hamas, feeling isolated, has launched a public relations campaign (LAT) to “soft sell” its motives. Nathan Brown, a Mideast expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman that the warring Palestinians invariably must reconcile.

Meanwhile, hoping to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, the so-called Mideast Quartet (the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations) also meets this week, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as well as Tony Blair, recently anointed (FT) as Quartet Middle East envoy, in attendance. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Arab League sends its first-ever delegation to Israel on July 25 to explore ways to revive talks about a comprehensive, two-state settlement very likely based on the 2002 Saudi peace plan (BBC).

The recriminations and shifting power dynamic since last year’s fighting may bedevil these peacemakers. While Olmert has staved off the post-war collapse of his government, he hardly appears politically strong, and recriminations continue. For instance, Efraim Inbar, head of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel, recently published a dissection of Israel’s “bungling” in Lebanon. Bush, too, has been weakened by an inability to produce fast results in Iraq. The major Sunni Arab governments of the region—Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia—would like to see talks resume (hence the Arab League delegations). Clearly they fear the concurrent rise of radical Sunni Islamists (al-Qaeda, Hamas) and Shiites (Iraq’s government, Hezbollah, and Iran). Yet Iran, in particular, could play the spoiler should any signs of progress emerge toward comprehensive talks.

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