I wrote this piece few days ago and it is published today in The Telegraph
I think the upheaval in Syria and the attack in Bulgaria reinforce my argument. So please read and let me know what do you think.
Throughout its history, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been shaped by two alternating approaches: a radical approach, wherein one or more parties attempt to resolve the conflict through war or peace, and a less radical approach aimed at sustaining the conflict without serious attempt to resolve it (mainly in the form of Arab resistance versus Israeli deterrence). During the last few years, however, the conflict has entered a new phase of complete paralysis in which no peace, no war, and no resistance exists.
The Arab Spring undoubtedly will affect this century-old conflict. Yet although its influence is unknown and difficult to predict, this “spring” is not likely to yield any blossoming dynamics that will help bring the conflict to an end for several reasons. First, the Arab countries are preoccupied with their self-determination and nation building. Crumbling dictatorships pose serious long-term challenges for countries like Egypt and Syria, and the region is full of jaded politicians and novice leaders struggling to come to terms with the new evolving reality. A second issue is impotent resistance: despite reports of increased arms smuggling to Gaza and South Lebanon, neither Hizbollah nor Hamas in Gaza is in any position to escalate their attacks against Israel. Both groups have ignored the basic rule for any paramilitary resistance: “Big is bad.”
In Gaza, Hamas is paying the price for its reckless takeover of the impoverished strip. Its members have learned the hard way that they simply cannot exist as a ruling party and a militant group simultaneously. Hamas also cannot survive on its own, which is precisely why it ends up accepting a ceasefire (or rather, lull) following every escalation of hostilities. Meanwhile, Hizbollah is facing daunting challenges: the rise of Salafists in Lebanon and the potential fall of Assad in Syria. These have refocused Hizbollah’s effort, Israel is no longer the number-one priority – at least for now.
This stalemate may not sound like a bad alternative; after all, the status quo can result in “stability” and prevent further bloodshed. However, history has repeatedly challenged this theory. In fact, every stalemate period within a conflict has ended with a nasty confrontation.
Several possibilities can help bring the current stalemate to an end. One is a third intifada, which has already been predicted by many (for example, Nathan Thrall in the New York Times) for countless reasons. Regardless of how and why, it is clear that Palestinian President Abbas’ leadership is in its twilight. Hamas and the new Islamist leadership in Egypt might not have a solution for the Gaza conundrum, but they agree (though not publicly) on the grounds of their antipathy toward Abbas. Sooner or later, the Palestinian Authority will fail in providing the security measures that have maintained calm within the territories. At that point, it will only be a matter of time before the next intifada. Hamas (and others) will be waiting in the wings.
A second possibility is the introduction of new players: this conflict has consistently produced new militant groups. Indeed, prior to 1967, Fatah was just a small group; before the invasion of Lebanon, Hizbollah did not exist. As the future of Syria remains unknown, the possibility of a failed state should not be discounted. Israel might end up facing a reverse Lebanon scenario, with calm in south Lebanon but escalation from new players based in the Golan Heights. This may not be a strong possibility, but it is not at all farfetched.
A final possibility is Sinai. Thus far, the battle between the Islamists and the generals in Egypt has been limited to street demonstrations and legal disputes. However, the longer the battle rages on, the greater the chance that the Sinai front will be used to garner public support. I doubt that President Morsi has a clear plan regarding the Gaza-Sinai conundrum, though in the future the “no plan” may actually become a plan, and any escalation could be a blessing in disguise. On one hand, it could be used against the generals to label them as weak and incompetent; on the other, it could be used as justification to cancel the peace treaty with the expectation that the international community will jump in to prevent a full-scale war.
I could be wrong. Perhaps none of these predictions will materialise, and the region may continue surviving in the current status quo. However, after years of observing the conflict as it unfolds, I have learned that our reality could be more dramatic than the product of our wildest imagination. I have also realised that the longer the conflict continues, the more it becomes like a Gordian knot: impossible to untie.
The Arab-Israeli conflict has become part of the norm in the Middle East. For years, the main players have continued to dodge opportunities for peace, and the resulting paralysis has become somehow desirable. We have also lowered our expectations, happily accepting a draw as a victory and defiance as success. Even more obscene is the way we have dealt with our leaders who sought peace and compromise. They have faced a more tragic fate than any of the warlords who brought about bloodshed and misery.
Many parties on both sides privately admit that the conflict will never be solved by war, yet they prefer to accept the stalemate rather than make serious compromises to achieve peace. Such an approach is a tragedy in itself; if compromises are humiliating, defeat and stalemate are not dignifying. It is time for all players to revisit their war and peace strategies and to work for a new approach to the conflict before it is too late.