Israel's Painful Path to Cease-Fire

Early last week, I visited friends in Haifa, Israel's third largest city. Their apartment is at the top of the Carmel, a mountain that leads to the University of Haifa. From their living room I looked out over Haifa's port to the mountains of Lebanon and thought about the beauty of that area along the border. By week's end, Haifa was struck by Katushya rockets from southern Lebanon. Israelis in that border area are now being ordered to stay inside and sleep in bomb shelters, as Lebanese are subjected to heavy bombardment by the Israeli army.

On Friday morning, my cousin called me from a suburb of Nahariya to tell me that everyone is OK; her kids had a slumber party with neighbors the previous night -- in a bomb shelter. Nahariya, a quiet, quaint Mediterranean town, is experiencing the worst of the Katushyas. One resident has already been killed.

I am now in Tel Aviv, where the tourist hotels are full and people spent their weekend at the beach. But, unlike the situation just a few weeks ago, when Israel began its incursions into Gaza and much of the country was still tuned out, the military escalation on both fronts -- in the north and south -- has gotten Israelis' full attention. A brewing sexual harassment scandal between Israeli President Moshe Katsav and a former employee grabbed headlines and offered a brief respite, but now, all Israelis are again focused on a war scenario they didn't expect.

They should have expected it. The status quo that was limping along here, with Hamas and Hezbollah armed and angry on both sides of Israel and no national authority among the Palestinians or in Lebanon that could take charge, was a recipe for disaster.

Yet, even as the military situation escalates, it seems clear that there is no military solution. Somehow, and with someone, Israel must negotiate a cease-fire; most likely it will have to be accompanied by international intervention and involve forces that Israel finds objectionable. As long as the escalation continues, the stakes only rise regarding the question of exactly which objectionable enemy Israel may have to talk to.

After elections in the Palestinian Authority toppled Fatah in favor of Hamas, Israel, backed by the United States and the European Union, refused to talk to the Hamas government. But the first lesson of the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit more than two weeks ago on the Israeli side of the Gaza border was that the Hamas government, based in Gaza under the leadership of Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, was not in charge anyway. The abduction was a byproduct of factional fighting between Haniya's government -- which has wished to focus primarily on a domestic agenda that has been frustrated by diplomatic and financial isolation -- and Hamas' political and military wing, which is led by Khaled Meshal from his protected perch in Damascus.

Meshal has been quoted in Israeli papers reasserting himself as the sole Palestinian address for discussion and negotiation. Meanwhile, when Hezbollah leader Sheikh Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah decided to seize the moment to strut his stuff, complementing the Qassams hitting Israel in the south with Katushyas shot from inside southern Lebanon and raining deep into Israel's north, it further underscored the degree to which established governments lack control over some of the major actors involved.

When Israel withdrew from Gaza last August, it had every right to expect that its internationally recognized southern border would be peaceful -- that the Palestinians would not terrorize Israeli citizens by lobbing Qassam rockets into Israeli towns. But unilateral disengagement was always a flawed premise for peace, and Israel is now bearing its consequences. The need to withdraw from nearly all of the occupied territories is urgent and immediate -- but it was a doomed proposition to begin the process without any negotiated security arrangements and without the Palestinians having secured the ability to forge a different political, economic, and civil scenario for themselves.

As the well-respected Israeli journalist Avi Shavit recently wrote in Haaretz, the experiment of unilateral disengagement succeeded in confirming both that a majority of Israelis desire to end the occupation and that the republic is capable of acting on that majorities' desire; but for the Palestinians and other Muslim populations in the area, the disengagement failed.

"It strengthened the extremists among them, and weakened the moderates," wrote Shavit. "It bolstered the ethos of an armed struggle, and brought Hamas to power; it undermined Israel's deterrence, and prompted Hezbollah to attack." There are still voices of moderation in the region -- but they are not as moderate as Israel would like, nor as moderate as they once were. And they are in unlikely places.

Just as the situation in Gaza was escalating, many Palestinians were voicing support for a joint document, negotiated between factions of prisoners representing Hamas and Fatah, calling for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, set by the pre-1967 borders. The Fatah leader involved in the proposal is Marwan Barghouti, who was sentenced to five life terms for his role in the 2nd Intifada. These days, his name is on the tongues of many politicians, observers, and journalists, Israeli and Palestinian alike.

There is hope that he may be someone with the capability to control the street while opening a political horizon for the Palestinians. Many are suggesting that the most useful prisoner exchange Israel could make would be one that frees Barghouti. One Palestinian businessman, close to the Fatah faction around Barghouti, told me that he thought the reason that actors in Syria -- and now Lebanon and perhaps Iran -- currently felt emboldened to strike was precisely because of the complete political vacuum in the Palestinian territories.

The dream of peace achieved unilaterally is clearly dead. Israel -- with international support -- must seek out voices in the region with which to engage, even ones that can't quite accurately be described as "moderate," and that discomfort Israelis. After all, an escalation of the current situation in the absence of such engagement -- with Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and Iran all involved in the mix -- offers an array of possible scenarios that are considerably worse than discomforting.

Copyright © 2006 by The American Prospect, Inc. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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