Another casualty of 8-day battle: Peace process

  • Article by: JODI RUDOREN and ISABEL KERSHNER , New York Times
  • Updated: November 24, 2012 - 7:57 PM

ANALYSIS Israel and Hamas are agreed that they don't see a need to compromise, which raises questions about a two-state solution.

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Palestinian schoolchildren walk in debris by a damaged school in Gaza City, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012. Schools in Gaza opened Saturday for the first time since the truce, which calls for an end to Gaza rocket fire on Israel and Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, came after eight days of cross-border fighting, the bloodiest between Israel and Hamas in four years. The school was damaged when Israeli forces struck on a nearby building.

Photo: Bernat Armangue, Associated Press - Ap

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GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP - The eight days of fighting between Hamas and Israel left more than 160 Palestinians and six Israelis dead, but there may be another casualty from the burst of violence: whatever small chance there was for reviving a long-moribund peace process.

Emboldened by landing rockets near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem -- and by the backing of Egypt and other regional powers -- Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, has emerged as the dominant force in a divided Palestinian leadership, its resistance mantra drowning out messages of moderation. The word "peace" has hardly been heard in public here since the shelling stopped, never mind the phrase "two-state solution."

In a sermonlike speech laced with Qur'anic verses, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya promised on Thursday to "establish an independent state on all Palestine land," foreboding words from the leader of an organization whose charter prophesizes Israel's elimination.

And that leaves Israel, which along with the United States and Europe considers Hamas a terrorist organization, with an adversary it has long been unwilling to engage -- which might suit its hawkish leadership just fine. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long insisted that negotiations are stalled because he lacks a willing Palestinian partner for peace, and it will be easier for him to argue against engagement if Hamas is the group he is supposed be sitting across at the bargaining table.

'The losing end'

"Israel and the Palestinians have been far from any deal for some time, and this just makes it farther away," said Nathan Thrall, Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group. "Prospects for a two-state solution are on the losing end," Thrall's group said in a report published Friday.

Hamas' strengthened position might even pave the way for unilateral actions by Israel sought by some on the right -- annexing parts of the West Bank, for example, or shutting off Gaza more completely -- that redraw the political landscape, analysts say.

'A degree of responsibility'

Even the intervention of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi -- an Islamist praised by the Obama administration for his pragmatism in helping stop the fighting -- could reinforce the status quo. He held out the promise of helping to negotiate a long-term cease-fire, and perhaps bring a better standard of living to Gaza by opening borders and easing other restrictions. But Morsi, who shares Hamas' roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, did not talk about a two-state solution, instead giving rhetorical support to Hamas and its ideology.

The Obama administration held out hope that in the future Morsi could be a voice for change, but officials were most intent on the practical prospect of having a partner in maintaining stability in the absence of a real push for peace on the ground.

"Egypt now has a degree of responsibility for preventing violence between two actors over which its control is very, very limited," Daniel Levy, a left-leaning analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a commentary Friday.

In Israel, Netanyahu and his ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, seem to have shifted their approach in response to the redrawn regional map.

While in 2009 they included as part of their coalition agreement a vow to topple Hamas' rule, they are now heading into elections in January on a joint ticket heralding the far more limited achievement of restoring quiet and reducing the enemy's weapons cache.

Dan Meridor, a centrist who sits in Netanyahu's security Cabinet, said the reality is, "Hamas is in control of Gaza -- we may like it or we may not."

Analysts say the leadership lacks a long-term strategy either for dealing with Hamas and Gaza or for re-engaging with the moderate president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

The most promising prospect for any sort of compromise appears to be between the Palestinian factions, rather than with Israel, and comes after four reconciliation agreements in recent years failed to yield results. But there are mixed messages on this front as well.

Ahmed Yousef, an analyst close to the Hamas leaders, said Abbas had spoken frequently in recent days with Khaled Meshal, the political head of the party who brokered the cease-fire, and that "the whole mood has been changed." But Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official, was full of venom for Abbas, blaming him for the Israeli blockade on Gaza and the factional divide, and accusing him of capitulating to Israel and the United States. As for recognizing Israel, he said, "We'll talk about it when we have a Palestinian state."

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