Both Barack Obama and John McCain have promised to make Middle East peace a priority if they are elected. Yet current diplomatic developments in the region seem to be pointing in a somewhat different direction: towards an indefinite military stalemate.
Consider two major zones of Israeli-Arab tension. On the Israeli-Palestinian front, Egypt has been mediating “national unity” talks between Hamas and Fatah for months. Historically, brief periods of “national unity” that have emerged from similar negotiations ultimately strengthened Hamas, with Israeli-Palestinian fighting intensifying in the aftermath. However, as al-Ayyam reported yesterday, Egypt is now insisting that Hamas maintain its truce with Israel as a formal condition of any Palestinian “national unity” arrangement. In turn, as Fatah increasingly signals its willingness to cooperate with Hamas – and as Tzipi Livni struggles to form an Israeli government supportive of making key concessions to the Palestinians – the Israeli-Palestinian sphere seems headed for a period of cold conflict management, rather than peace.
Meanwhile, on the Israel-Lebanon front, Israeli officials have been openly calling for a non-aggression pact with Beirut. Hezbollah has responded ambivalently to this prospect, but the Mubarak government appears poised to play a key role in bringing the Shiite group on board. Yesterday, Egypt invited Hezbollah representatives to meet with other key Lebanese officials in Cairo regarding strengthening “the Lebanese state and its institutions.” It is hard to imagine how Lebanese institutions might be strengthened without getting Hezbollah to concede to non-aggression with Israel, and we can therefore expect that this will be high on Cairo’s agenda.
Still, plenty of questions remain unanswered. How does the rumored poisoning of Hassan Nasrallah – if true – affect Hezbollah’s decision-making (h/t David)? Would this force Hezbollah to recognize its vulnerability and quietly accept a Lebanese-Israeli non-aggression pact? Or, if the report is publicly confirmed, will it cause Nasrallah to make good on his promises following the Mughniyeh assassination to attack Israeli targets? And what about reports that Saudi Arabia is targeting pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon (again, h/t David)? Will this force the Assad regime to draw closer with Iran and strengthen its ties with Hezbollah against pro-western states? Or will it convince the regime to pursue peace with Israel more actively, and thereby push Hezbollah to support an Israel-Lebanese non-aggression pact? (On this question, a recent interview with Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha only adds to the confusion.)
Time will tell. Either way, key Middle Eastern players are suddenly sounding a realistic tone: one that embraces the possibility of stalemate over the fantasy of peace.