The Middle East is adrift as never in my lifetime. There is no political framework that anyone takes seriously, no "Middle East peace process", "Arab Peace Initiative", nor "Road Map", no serious role by a superpower, and no regional "architecture".
Simultaneously, it also appears that no one wants a war. Neither Barak, nor Olmert, nor certainly Ashkenazi, nor Syria, Iran or Hizballah. Not even Hamas want the situation to get out of hand. They all have too much to lose.
Strangely enough, there is an implicit acceptance of a strange kind of conflict management that also ironically involves the creation of minor kinds of conflict that then require - managing. It’s a way for everyone with a gun, a militia or an army to assert themselves, to show that they are relevant, and then back off when matters get too hot.
This scenario also avoids serious compromises and sacrifices, never mind new political direction, because, well, you just can’t really trust those neighbours.
This situation suits some in the region quite fine. One could make the case that low grade conflict and conflict management are indeed quite suitable for the ambitions of parties such as Hizballah, Hamas and Syria, who can grow with it over the long term. This includes certain political dynamics in Israel that use this context to maintain the status quo, including the situation of settlements - the least cost scenario, politically, for Israel in the short term.
Some might even argue that this situation may also inevitably lead to unexpected positive developments:
- Israel cuts a deal with Hamas that effectively leaves the latter running Gaza, and yet still somehow a partner with Abu Mazen in the West Bank.
- Hizballah finally cuts a deal with March 14 over the Cabinet and Presidency under Syrian tutelage.
- The Islamists are effectively introduced into governance - Syria proceeds towards some kind of peace arrangements with Israel because its players are in place in Lebanon and Gaza, and Iran keeps going towards its nuclear goal and with its strategic assets now also in place.
There results a kind of peace and calm that slowly but surely marks the beginning of understanding - no one wants to spoil what they have gained. We can foresee a strange hybrid situation in the West Bank and Jerusalem (Israel, P.A., Hamas, Jordan and internationals all working together to manage the situation?), and even in Gaza (Hamas and Egypt together and quietly, through Egypt, with Israel).
What is wrong with this scenario? Is this not as good as it gets for the current reality? Conflict management followed by practical initiatives may have their virtues. The lessons of the summer war of 2006 appear to have been absorbed.
Or have they?
Can a region adrift avoid the risk that any violent act will not thread the needle (whether it is Hizballah’s revenge for Mughniyeh, or Hamas’s rockets on Sderot, or Israeli attacks in Gaza) and create, once again, the spiral towards all-out war?
No political direction, no clear framework means, at the end of the day, that violent actions can spill over non-existent boundaries into endless horizons and dreams, a world without limits, where the enemy exists no more, that lurks just below this conflict-management in the minds of many Middle Easterners…
All text in this post copyright John Bell and John Zada 2008