Still stalled in the Middle East

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — “Twenty-four hours a day of rolling news to fill,” lamented the senior producer of an all-news radio station recently, “and only two hours of actual news to fill it.” But his problem is minor compared to that of people condemned to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where there is now almost nothing new to report at all.

There are plenty of incidents, of course. More than two hundred rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip against nearby Israeli towns in one week recently. Some were a new, longer-range version that reached Ashkelon, a large town that had never been hit before. One Israeli died, and several were injured.

Israel retaliated with massive raids on the northern Gaza Strip by land and air. Two Israeli soldiers were killed, and about 120 Palestinians. Israel says 90 percent of the Palestinian casualties were fighters; Palestinian sources say half were civilians, including 22 children. Given the crowded living conditions of the Gaza Strip, the latter estimate is more plausible, although it would make no sense for Israeli forces to target civilians deliberately.

Then, on March 6, a Palestinian walked into Merkaz Harav religious school in Jerusalem and killed eight young Israelis before being shot down himself. All of these events were extensively covered in the rolling news, but in what sense was there anything new about them?

It was also the same old stories on the diplomatic level.

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, whose influence only extends to those parts of the West Bank not directly controlled by Israeli soldiers or settlers, declared that he would not take part in further “peace talks” with the Israelis until they agreed to a ceasefire that included the Gaza Strip.

The shaky coalition that governs Israel was undismayed by this, since any concessions to Palestinians in the peace talks, should they occur, would ignite internal quarrels that would bring down Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government. But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in the region as part of her untiring quest to create a legacy for the Bush administration, insisted that both Olmert and Abbas show willingness.

So Olmert said that the Merkaz Harav killings would not make him break off talks with Abbas, and the latter said that he would resume talks — until Rice left town, after which he reverted to saying that there could be none until there was a ceasefire in Gaza. But Abbas has no control over Gaza. Hamas, which does, said nothing but smiled quietly.

This is all so familiar that the media would not report it in any detail if there were something more exciting to hold the ads apart. Apart from the fact that the Palestinians are now split between a Fatah government in the West Bank and a Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip, it could be a week of stories from the first intifada in the early 1990s, or from the second intifada at the beginning of this decade.

The Palestinian-Israeli quarrel has re-entered one of those lengthy phases when neither side can agree on what terms it would be willing to offer the other for a peace settlement. In Israel, the split is embodied in the government itself, with various coalition parties drawing “red lines” about which concession or gesture would cause them to quit. Among the Palestinians, it is now incarnated in a formal division of territory between Fatah and Hamas.

From Washington, it is possible to conjure up some flimsy optimism about the situation — “Ten months is a long time. There’s plenty of time to get a deal done,” said U.S. President George W. Bush recently — but no deal is going to happen while Bush is still in office. Whether it might happen under another administration is another question, but not one that is likely to have a happier answer.

Imagine that at this time next year President Obama, or President McCain, or President Clinton decides to spend some political capital in the Middle East. Could it achieve anything?

Unless there has been some a political earthquake in the meantime, there will still be two rival Palestinian governments, one of which is formally committed to waging relentless war against Israel (even if the reality is a little more negotiable). Israelis will have every right to claim that there is nobody to negotiate with.

The two Palestinian authorities will still be struggling to gain the upper hand in the internecine power struggle, which means that neither party can afford to make significant concessions to the Israelis. So nothing can happen until Fatah re-establishes control over the Gaza Strip (unlikely), or until Hamas dominates a reunified Palestinian authority that includes the West Bank.

Even if that happened, Hamas would still have to decide that it really wanted to negotiate with Israel, and the Israelis would then have to decide that they were willing to talk to Hamas. Not only that, but to offer Hamas serious territorial concessions in return for a ceasefire or peace treaty.

None of that is at all likely. There will be no substantive peace talks this year, and there will be none next year either. It’s all just diplomatic posturing punctuated by killing. Both sides hate the phrase “cycle of violence,” because it implies that both sides are responsible for it. But it is the correct phrase, and “cycles” aren’t news.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book, “After Iraq,” has just been published in London by Yale University Press.