Compromise Loses Ground in Arab Spring

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There is not the slightest chance of a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute any time soon. Western politicians who address the issue ever more urgently are not only mistaken analytically, but may well be making things worse.

The whole world, including the Israelis and the Palestinians, knows the kind of territorial compromise that will ultimately be necessary for a peace deal. In a sense the precise detail of what territory the Palestinians ultimately get for their state is not the most important question.

I have been spending a week in Israel, and visiting some of the Palestinian territories, under the auspices of the Australia Israel United Kingdom Leadership Dialogue. This quite unique private organization is the creation of Melbourne businessman Albert Dadon. Remarkably, the Dialogue met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad and former British prime minister Tony Blair, although all those meetings were off the record.

Spending time in Israel is dangerous because it is impossible to reconcile the evidence of your eyes with the accepted international narrative about Israel. In the international media, Israel is presented as militarist, right-wing, oppressive. In fact it is the only pluralist democracy in the Middle East, the only nation where women's rights -- and gay rights -- are protected. It has a vibrant Left wing, a cacophonous democracy and an innovative economy.

The vast majority of Israelis would love to be rid of the Palestinians and their territories if they could be confident they would get peace and security in return.

What makes me especially pessimistic about a peace deal at the moment is the interaction of two related dynamics -- the unfolding of the Arab Spring and the confused mess of Palestinian politics. The Arab Spring so far has yielded bitter fruit. Across much of North Africa, elections have been held and they have shown us again that elections alone do not make democracy.

Nonetheless, elections have results and these ones have greatly strengthened Islamists and Islamist extremists. In Egypt the biggest vote went to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was backed by some of the small but rich Persian Gulf oil states. Not very far behind the Brotherhood in Egypt was the even more extreme Salafists, who were strongly backed by Saudi Arabia. The Salafists' electoral success was extraordinary. Five minutes ago it didn't exist as a political movement, yet it won near enough to a quarter of the votes.

But overall, all across the Middle East, the big winner is the Muslim Brotherhood. Partly as a result, the Brotherhood is in great flux internally. But on one thing the Brotherhood is absolutely clear, its constant and comprehensive demonizing and delegitimizing of Israel. These newly empowered forces would denounce and fatally undermine any serious Palestinian compromise with Israel.

The Arab Spring has had many other consequences, none of which is helpful to an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Libya is in chaos. The whole contents of weapons and munitions factories have disappeared and some of these are bound to turn up in terrorist atrocities.

At the same time the security forces of the North African states are falling apart. That is not wholly, perhaps not mainly, a bad thing as these security forces have been instruments of oppression. But every state, perhaps especially a new democracy, needs a security service.

There are other complications, and other countervailing factors. The Egyptian economy is collapsing, as is the Syrian and some other regional economies. This is inherently destabilizing, but it does give these governments an incentive to maintain terms of at least some amity with the U.S. and the rest of the Western world. This is particularly important at a time of diminishing American influence in the Middle East.

This all plays into the exceedingly dysfunctional state of Palestinian politics. The Palestinian Authority, dominated by Fatah, rules in the West Bank. Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, rules Gaza. Naturally Hamas is fantastically empowered by the way the Arab Spring is unfolding. Islamism has shown itself to be the most powerful ideological and political force in the Middle East.

Hamas is a terrorist organization which rejects Israel's right to exist and is pledged to its destruction. It is inevitable Hamas will find the new Egyptian government more sympathetic and helpful in every practical way than was the old Egyptian government.

In some ways, as one analyst put it to me, Gaza has invaded the Egyptian part of the Sinai Desert, which borders Israel.

The whole Western strategy towards the Palestinian over the past few years has been to try to improve life in the West Bank, because the leaders there seem willing to compromise, in contrast to life under the extremist Hamas in Gaza.

But Hamas has had its share of victories. It kidnapped an Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit, and kept him cruelly isolated for five years. Eventually, Hamas won the release of 1000 Palestinians, many of them murderous terrorists, in exchange for Schalit. This gave Hamas great kudos and seemed to demonstrate that violence and terrorism work.

Meanwhile, with all the aid the PA gets, it delivers very little and can barely meet its payroll.

Hamas is in the midst of a fierce internal debate over whether it should temporarily abandon armed struggle. Its Damascus-based leadership reportedly favors this while its Gaza-based leadership wants to continue the tactics that have brought it success so far. It certainly wants to maintain its monopoly of power in Gaza. For all that, Hamas is not carrying out serious violence at the moment. This is partly because of the prospect of Palestinian elections this year.

There have been talks this week between the Israelis and the Palestinians in Jordan. But it is impossible to believe these talks will lead to a peace agreement. Almost more fraught than these talks are the internal Palestinian negotiations between Hamas and Fatah. Having some years ago fought a deadly civil war, the two groups recently announced a reconciliation. Yet this week Hamas would not allow Fatah's representatives to travel to Gaza. In truth, the two groups hate each other.

So how can there be a Palestinian state when the two parts of it have recently been killing each other and cannot even travel in each others' territories? Palestinian friends tell me that Hamas would be likely to win a Palestinian election held now. Neither Fatah nor Hamas is remotely democratic. Fatah is also increasingly sclerotic. All its leaders are aged, all figures from the past in office for decades. There is no youth or vitality about it.

Further, Israel quite reasonably says it won't negotiate with an organization formally pledged to its destruction. So if Hamas and Fatah do reconcile, and Hamas enters a Palestinian government, that too rules out a peace agreement for a long time.

Ultimately, Israel won't make a peace deal unless it believes a Palestinian government can govern its territory effectively, provide law and order there and prevent attacks on Israel from Palestinian territory. That is inconceivable today and all the trends of the Arab Spring make it ever more unlikely.

That is not to say it is worthless to have a peace process. The two sides need to be talking. Not only that, I have become convinced it is vital for the Palestinians to have a political horizon, a political road, an acknowledgment that everyone accepts that they should have a state eventually.

So having peace talks is a good development. But don't expect a deal any time soon. To pretend otherwise raises unreal expectations and that alone can have dangerous consequences.

Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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