Yossi Alpher
June 23, 2008 - 3:12pm

From the standpoint of the Israeli security community as well as PM Ehud Olmert, the Gaza ceasefire that began last week is essentially a tactical move. By and large, they continue to assess that eventually there will be a major Israeli military offensive into the Gaza Strip, aimed at destroying or seriously weakening Hamas. Hence the ceasefire reflects primarily short-term calculations such as ways to free Gilad Shalit, Egyptian pressures, the outcry from the bombarded residents of the Gaza periphery region and Olmert's own political needs.

But there is a strategic context as well--one we ignore at our peril. It begins with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli-Palestinian peace track that he and Olmert represent. If, as appears apparent, the Gaza ceasefire strengthens Hamas and thereby weakens Abbas, this may reflect an assessment on Olmert's part that the peace track is in any case dead. Accordingly, it could have far-reaching consequences for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. It could signal the beginning of the end of the perception that the PLO/Fateh is a viable partner for a two-state solution.

Unless, of course, Olmert, drawing on the confidence of having silenced the Gaza front, now intends to offer Abbas a series of far-reaching concessions to bolster the PLO leader's status and strengthen the peace process. Either way, the Gaza ceasefire may well be remembered as a critical turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

A second aspect of the strategic context of the Gaza ceasefire is the fact that it is but one of an astonishing series of overt conflict resolution initiatives that Olmert is juggling, that also comprises talks with Syria, a prisoner exchange deal with Hizballah, an offer to open peace talks with Lebanon and resolve the Shebaa farms issue and of course both peace and confidence-building tracks with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. It is easy to dismiss some or all of these initiatives as the desperate gambit of a politically threatened prime minister seeking to appear indispensable to an Israeli public that has ceased to trust him. After all, far stronger Israeli leaders had difficulty, over the past 17 years since the Madrid conference, in managing even two simultaneous peace processes.

Nevertheless, Olmert's parallel initiatives do project an Israel actively seeking peace and accommodation with all its neighbors, without exception. This is an image we should not take lightly. Even if we are not on the verge of a wave of peace deals, the enhancement of the regional atmosphere could render it easier for Israel to deal forthrightly with more distant and existential problems, like Iran.

In parallel, there is an important military strategic dimension, whereby the ceasefire represents a pause that could facilitate Israel's drive to counter the new kind of warfare imposed on it by Hamas and Hizballah--non-state actors relying on rocket terror tactics. If, in six months, anti-rocket weapons currently in the R&D stage begin to make their appearance, the current pause will have been worthwhile militarily.

Finally, there is the question of Israel's future relationship with Hamas. Alongside the anticipation on both sides of violence, certain new facts on the ground have been created. Despite both sides' denials, they are actively "negotiating", first over a ceasefire, now over a prisoner exchange and their economic relationship. And the advent of a ceasefire more or less constitutes Hamas' compliance with one of the three Quartet conditions for contact with that movement, concerning a cessation of violence. Already we encounter statements of readiness on the part of some Quartet members to initiate contact with Hamas.

Is an expanding Israel-Hamas dialogue now possible, one that touches on more substantive issues such as recognition and modes of coexistence? The odds are against it. But it is certainly more possible today than a week ago. A lot depends on the Hamas leaders: will they continue to preach Israel's destruction, or will they now begin to respond positively to third party initiatives to sit them down with prominent Israelis who are prepared to explore a long-term modus vivendi with Hamas?


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