Zvi Barel
July 15, 2008 - 3:18pm

A miracle happened. Egypt--not the United States, a European state or an international organization, let alone the Arab League--weaved a negotiated agreement between Israel and Hamas.

What has changed?

In January 2008, thousands of Palestinians toppled the border wall that separates Gaza from Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of Gaza Strip inhabitants crossed the border to Egypt in search of basic supplies. Egypt was alarmed, fearing that the flood of people, among them members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and armed gangs, could reach Cairo. Egypt could no longer afford to stick to its routine call for restraint or merely to reprimand Israel for its policies. Egypt found itself at war with the Palestinians and with its own public (and the Arab media) that criticized the Egyptian president for cooperating with Israel in implementing its sanctions policy.

Egypt had to respond swiftly. It pulled together two threads, mediating between Hamas and Israel over the exchange of Palestinian prisoners for the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and formulating together with Hamas and Israel the "tahdiyeh" (ceasefire) agreement. Thus Egypt became a partner in a solution rather than just a sponsor.

The chaotic political arena in Israel recently made room for another "private" mediator. Turkey has always been keen to play a role in mitigating Middle East conflicts. Although a strategic partner of Israel and a friendly neighbor of Syria (and Iran), Turkey was never awarded the status of mediator or facilitator and was pushed aside by the parties in the region when it came to peace negotiations. Suddenly, Turkey is recovering lost glory. When the Israeli prime minister is urgently searching for a political achievement to save him from political disaster and when Syria is trying to regain its political status in the Arab world and reestablish its connections with the United States, even Turkey is a good channel.

These are not the only examples of regionally initiated mediations. Recently, direct talks between Arabs states and the Iraqi government have brought Arab leaders to reconsider their stand toward Baghdad.

Two months ago in Lebanon, more than 80 people died nationwide and over 200 were wounded after Hizballah militants and their allies overran streets in the capital Beirut and clashed with government supporters. The country was on the verge of civil war. Almost two years of political stalemate, failed negotiations between the Hizballah-led opposition and the paralyzed government and fruitless mediation attempts by France, the Arab League and enthusiastic Arab leaders paved the road to the abyss. But like in Gaza, chaos at last ushered in negotiations.

Qatar, a close friend of Syria and a renewed friend of Saudi Arabia, a small state that practices independent policies in the Middle East, offered its services. With the blessings of Syrian President Bashar Assad--who wishes to control Lebanese politics but understands that a civil war in Lebanon could backfire on Syria and badly affect its economy--an acceptable agreement was drafted in Doha. Lebanon has a new president and a new government. So far, civil war has been averted.

Interestingly, in all three cases of locally initiated negotiations the US was not a partner; indeed, it was generally antagonistic. President George W. Bush does not like Israeli-Syrian negotiations and does not understand why there should be talks with a terror organization called Hamas. In spite of his administration's praise for the Doha agreement, Washington cannot be happy with what appear to be Hizballah and Syrian gains in Lebanon.

Yet even without US support or participation, local initiatives by regional players are no longer looked upon as empty gestures. In fact, regional states that have a vested interest in solving a conflict or are directly intimidated by the absence of a solution can be useful and efficient negotiators or mediators. It is not so much that these players are wiser or better equipped to mediate than in the past. Rather, it is probably the understanding that big powers in general and the US in particular, while having the ability to launch war, have limited clout when it comes to solving conflicts. Secondly, small scale, locally confined conflicts are perceived now to be more dangerous than the big conflict between Israel and the Arab states. Yet in spite of their potential danger, these limited conflicts are viewed as "internal" problems that do not demand international intervention.

A case in point is the effort being made by Egypt and Syria to generate talks between Hamas and Fateh. The lethal clash between the two organizations is pivotal not only in preventing the formation of a unity government that can run Palestinian affairs; it is also a major obstacle to the peace process. Indeed, one cannot imagine two separate solutions, one for Gaza and the other for the West Bank and Jerusalem. Yet this conflict does not appear on either the Israeli or the American radar. Only Arab leaders and the Palestinian rivals themselves comprehend the scope of the danger projected by that "internal conflict" and probably only they are able to solve it.

Thus the Arab states appear to be changing course and are no longer clinging to their traditional bystander position. Rather, they are now undertaking to try and solve conflicts that were considered unsolvable without a non-Arab, mainly American, mediator. Israel and its Arab and Palestinian counterparts should take advantage of this.


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