Aug 23rd 2018
DIPLOMATS often lament that the Israelis and Palestinians are not talking. You wouldn’t know it from the crowd of diplomats and spies parading around the region this summer. They shuttle between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza, and Arab capitals from Cairo to the Gulf, for three tracks of negotiations. One is meant to avert a war between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist group that runs Gaza. A second aims to reconcile Hamas with its rival, Fatah, which governs the West Bank. And then there is Donald Trump’s pursuit of “the ultimate deal” between the Israelis and Palestinians. Yet when all the gabbing is done, the result will probably look much like the status quo.
The truce talks involving Israel and Hamas are the most urgent. The two sides are closer to war than at any time since their last conflict in 2014. Tensions started to rise in March, when activists in Gaza organised protests over the decade-long blockade of the strip by Israel and Egypt. At their peak, tens of thousands of people took part. Israeli troops killed more than 50 of them on a single day in May. Hamas stopped encouraging the protests, fearing they would get out of hand.
The crowds ebbed, but instead of the mostly peaceful rallies there is now escalating violence. Young Gazans have set fire to thousands of acres in Israel by flying burning kites and balloons across the border. Some used condoms as incendiary devices. Militant groups have fired hundreds of rockets at Israel, and Israel has dropped hundreds of bombs on Gaza. Each time the violence flares up diplomats scramble to broker a ceasefire. Their luck will not hold forever.
So Israel and Hamas are talking indirectly about a longer-term deal. Hamas will stop the pyrotechnic prophylactics in exchange for freer movement of goods and people. The leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, told Gazans that “we are on the path to ending the blockade.” They will probably be disappointed. Israel and Egypt have already relaxed restrictions at the borders since May about 33,000 Palestinians have used the Rafah crossing with Egypt, a nearly tenfold increase compared to the same period last year. Traffic at the Erez border with Israel is up 58%. This is a marked improvement, but hardly free movement for 2m people. Nor will Gaza’s shattered economy be reopened to the world (indeed, commercial traffic is down this summer).
Even this narrow truce is a political liability for the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who may call a snap election by spring (see article). His right-wing supporters are furious that Israel is negotiating under duress. A recent poll found that just 28% of voters in his Likud party support a deal with Hamas; 41% oppose it. The group holds the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed during the war of 2014. Israel wants them back. (It also has two living Israeli prisoners, a Bedouin and an Ethiopian Jew, whose plight gets less attention.) Hamas views them as leverage.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is also unhappy. His aides have been meeting Hamas officials in Cairo to discuss a deal that would see Hamas relinquish its control of Gaza. They signed a similar agreement in October. It was never implemented. Hamas gave up the bureaucracy, handing Fatah the thankless task of providing public services in Gaza. But it refused to disarm its militias. Last year Mr Abbas slapped his own sanctions on Gaza to exert pressure on Hamas. Strange as it may seem, Israel is now urging him to lift the measures, fearing they will complicate its own efforts to make a deal with the group.
Ailing and 82 years old, Mr Abbas has kept the West Bank mostly quiet for a decade. His security forces work closely with their Israeli counterparts. He accepts the two-state solution. Yet he has nothing to show for it—not even the appearance of a peace process, let alone an actual deal. Israel spends more time negotiating (albeit indirectly) with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group.
Mr Abbas takes little comfort from the Trump administration’s fanciful efforts. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his special envoy, Jason Greenblatt, have spent 18 months touring the region. Their long-promised peace plan is still shrouded in mystery. No one knows when (or if) it will be released. Mr Trump has already moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and cut funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which helps Palestinian refugees. In a speech on August 21st, Mr Trump said the Palestinians would “get something very good” as compensation. To say they are sceptical would be an understatement.
Veteran negotiators often treat the conflict as a problem of communication. If the parties would only come back to the table, they could make a deal. But those parties have talked for decades. Any Israeli or Palestinian can recite the details of a two-state solution. Hamas and Fatah have produced many reconciliation agreements. The issue is not a lack of talking. It is a lack of trust.
A deal between Israel and Hamas might bring quiet to the border. It will also leave Mr Abbas weaker, and Hamas less inclined to a real reconciliation. Mr Trump has squandered whatever goodwill he had among the Palestinians. Even allied Arab states like Jordan are angry with him. If he does unveil a peace plan, it will enjoy little support. A poll published on August 13th found that just 43% of Palestinians and Israeli Jews back a two-state solution, the lowest figure in nearly two decades (see chart). Twenty-five years after the Oslo accords, which were meant to end the conflict, it is a struggle just to stop things getting worse.