Multiple Arab Diplomatic Offensives

Multiple Arab Diplomatic Offensives

Marc Lynch blogged recently about the multi-faceted efforts at Arab reconciliation diplomacy we”ve been witnessing lately. His post provides an excellent overview and by following his links one can fill in much of the background, but I thought I”d add a few comments of my own.

On the Hamas-Israel front, a snag seems to have emerged in the past day or two. Many press reports had suggested that today (Wednesday) would be the day a prisoner exchange/ceasefire deal was announced. So far as one can tell from press reports, the Egyptians thought they had a deal in place, but the Israeli security cabinet was insisting on some linkages that weren”t part of the deal as negotiated. It is of course clear that Hamas” primary goal is a ceasefire to stop continuing Israeli air strikes, and a lifting of the siege of Gaza; it”s just as clear that Israel”s goal is an enforeceable end to the rocket fire and the release of Gilad Shalit. But these deals are often hostage to last-minute conditions, and for whatever reason the Israelis seem to want to avoid linking the prisoner exchange with lifting the siege. Of course, there”s the obvious fact that Israel is in political limbo; the incumbent Olmert government is negotiating the deal; the Foreign Minister is one of the candidates for Prime Minister; the opposition wants to lead the next government; and the Defense Minister has just seen his party drop to fourth place. Not an ideal moment for critical compromises. The fact that the Israelis are negotiating with Hamas (via Egypt) while everyone insists they are not negotiating with Hamas adds an Alice-through-the-looking-glass aspect to it as well.

On the other key Palestinian issue the Egyptians are trying to broker, some sort of deal between Hamas and Fatah seems more necessary than ever, since any remediation of Gaza”s predicament would seem to need an interlocutor with which the outside world is willing to deal, and that means Fatah, though given Hamas” popular strength, a unity government that includes Hamas is necessary. There are still a lot of obstacles to this and, like the Hamas-Israel deal, it can easily come unraveled.

This, I think, is where the Saudi and Arab League openings to Syria are key. Syria”s alignment with Iran has been a theme running through so many regional issues: Hamas versus Fatah, the Lebanese political situation, Saudi and Egyptian geopolitical concerns about Iran”s nuclear program and regional meddling. Syria, which historically boasted of being “the beating heart of Arabism,” has been aligned with Iran against much of the Arab world, but that has in part been because it was excluded by its fellow Arabs.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two big Arab players, both have shrewd diplomats with geopolitical savvy, and they seem to be committed to bringing Syria back into the Arab fold. And for all the uncertain signals coming out of the Obama Administration so far, the opening to Syria seems to be the least unambiguous. John Kerry is going to Damascus and Bashar al-Asad is sending very positive signals. Not only has Asad continued to express a willingness to cut a peace deal with Israel (albeit on terms the Israeli right may reject), but he continued to express such willingness right through the Gaza campaign, when much of the rest of the Arab world was expressing outrage. How”s that for an unclenched fist?

A whole lot can go wrong with all this. The Hariri assassination commission starts meeting in the Hague March 1, and Syria could find itself being asked to hand over senior officials and find itself ostracized again just as it is trying to build bridges. Any real progress on an Israel-Syria deal will be hard if Netanyahu forms a hard-right government. The fact that the Shalit-ceasefire exchange deal seems to be hanging fire is a reminder that breakthroughs are not easy in such a longstanding and complex conflict. But a lot does seem to be happening,m a sort of diplomatic offensive tous azimuts, and thus perhaps a moment of opportunity, not to concentrate on a comprehensive peace but to move towards amerlioration of the situation on the ground in Gaza and a ceasefire that might hold for a finite time.