Elias Harfoush
Dar Al Hayat (Opinion)
June 24, 2008 - 4:34pm

"Indirect" is so far the status of current contacts established between the three defiant sides in the region, namely Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, with Israel. Despite their indirect nature, such contacts seem to bear promising results regarding issues where positive developments had until recently been difficult to imagine.

Calm prevails on the battlefront between Gaza and Israel, on the basis of agreements requiring the cessation of resistance activities. Such activities have lately been restricted to rockets which merely prove Hamas's presence, and whose harm by far surpasses their benefits. This is the activity which the factions in Gaza proudly refer to as what distinguishes them from "those who have surrendered" in Ramallah. Nevertheless, we now find among the leaders of Hamas some who consider this truce a "victory" for the Movement's conduct, having forced the enemy to acknowledge and deal with it, rather than recognize the true benefactor: Egypt. Indeed, it was Egypt which initiated the mediation to save Gaza from the miserable state it has reached "thanks" to the chaotic behavior of those who plan such attacks, leading to brutal Israeli strikes, sealed border crossings and depriving the Strip's inhabitants of the most basic requirements of life.

On the other "battlefront" in Lebanon, there are the defiant within Hezbollah whose indirect contacts with Israel have led to the possibility of releasing Lebanese prisoners held by Israel, in return for the two Israeli soldiers whose capture by Hezbollah ignited the July War in 2006. Such an exchange had been announced by Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah in a recent speech, where he considered it yet another "victory" for Hezbollah's firmness regarding the issue of prisoner exchange, which it had demanded ever since the famous operation that led to the capture of the two soldiers, in addition to the death of others. Later on, in a courageous bout of self-criticism, Nasrallah said that if he had been aware of the mission's consequences, he would not have gone through with it.

Here too Hezbollah boasts its ability to force Israel to acknowledge it as an essential side in the Lebanese formula, and to negotiate with it, even if indirectly, over an issue where the only negotiator should have been the Lebanese government (of which Hezbollah is a member and in which it is expected to be represented when a new cabinet is formed). The prisoners are after all Lebanese citizens and the Israeli soldiers are, or so it is believed, detained on Lebanese soil. However, Hezbollah does not look kindly on the possibility of negotiations between its country's government and Israel (or any other side) over pending issues such as for instance the Shebaa Farms. We have heard the negative comments by Hezbollah officials regarding the Lebanese and international proposals to resolve this issue, which has become the universal pretext for all kinds of displays of patriotism.

The third, and perhaps most important, center of indirect contact with Israel is that of Syria. Despite the scarcity of available information on the progress of these negotiations, with the exception of positive Turkish impressions, President Bashar Assad's positive evaluation of recent developments is noteworthy, as it expressed "optimism" for the future of the region, in view of the atmosphere brought about by the Syrian-Israeli negotiations and the results of the Doha Accord over Lebanon. Damascus believes that opening channels of communication with Israel will counter the isolation being imposed on Syria and embarrass the Bush administration. Indeed, Washington refuses to "accommodate" the Syrian regime, whom the neoconservatives accuse of sponsoring current opposition to American interests in the region. Applying the same logic to Hamas and Hezbollah, Syrian officials believe that the policy of holding on to regional assets has proven its effectiveness and forced Israel to negotiate with a regime that can play an influential role in calming things down if it wished to do so, on both the Lebanese and Palestinian fronts.

The most notable discrepancy is that the policy of negotiating, acceptable with Israel, does not apply, for the defiant Arabs, to domestic or regional Arab rivals. This is best illustrated by the relationship between Fatah and Hamas despite the calm in Gaza, which was supposed to bring the two movements closer together in their evaluation of the Palestinian situation. The same applies to Hezbollah in Lebanon, where the calmer rhetoric towards Israel during the prisoner exchange is not accompanied by a calmer domestic rhetoric, of the kind that would relieve sectarian sensitivities and help support the establishment of the state.

On the Syrian front, President Bashar Assad's optimism regarding the future of the region is surprising, as he bases such optimism on a series of contacts with Israel through Istanbul, whereas his ties with leading Arab states continue to suffer great damage, despite all direct or indirect attempts at reconciliation. In that case, does it mean that "indirect contact" with Israel will act as a substitute for "direct contact" with the Arab states?


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