Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Fishy Ceasefire

Anyone familiar with the decades old conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis is also familiar with the concept of a ceasefire. A ceasefire is a cessation of hostilities that guarantees more hostilities in the future. War is the last resort of conflict resolution. It is used when all other avenues of conflict resolution fail. Beyond war, there are no other options. Consequently, if the war fails to resolve the conflict and ends in a ceasefire, rest assured the conflict which caused the war was not resolved and there will be war again.

When I was a grade schooler, people used the catch phrase "peace in the Middle East" if they were put in a position between two people in an argument. It was catchy because it rhymed, but it also signified something else. It was funny, because it assumed that the peace would be temporary, and the person saying it just wanted the argument to stop so they weren't required to listen to it anymore. In other words, when someone came into the middle of someone else's argument and said, "Peace in the Middle East", it was primarily something that everyone except the two combatants wanted. It meant, "People are getting annoyed that they have to watch you do this." It meant, "Take it somewhere else where we don't have to watch." It meant the majority of people around were imposing their will on two opposing interests because they wanted peace and quiet, not because any resolution of the conflict occurred. Of course, it was also meant ironically. Even fifteen years ago everyone old enough to attend school without crying for their mommy knew that peace in the Middle East was a pipe dream.

The recent ceasefire between the Palestinians and Israelis belongs to a long line of such ceasefires and uneasy truces. However, to this practiced observer of the conflict, this particular ceasefire smells funny. The only reason I can think of as to why it smells funny is that it happened much too quickly. In past conflicts, the Palestinians have had no reason to cease fighting. They really do not care too much about dying. In Islam, death in war against the infidel is honorable and desirable. On the other side, the entire world hurls its "peace in the Middle East" diatribe at Israel uselessly, because in most cases Israel did not start anything, and the conflict continues until the Palestinians run out of rockets and human shields. This time however, Hamas in the Gaza strip stopped willingly. To me this represents the introduction of an outside force influencing Hamas in the same way the United States influences Israel. They have an ally now, and this trusted ally asked them to stop for a reason.

The new ally is Egypt, which is now controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas' parent organization. Mubarak, a dictator who kept the peace Egypt had formed with Israel in the 70s and considered a puppet of the United States, is no longer in charge. As long as the Muslim Brotherhood is in charge of Egypt, and trust me when I say they will never relinquish power without a civil war, they must be considered a staunch ally of the Palestinians. The new Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi negotiated the ceasefire between the two combatants.

So great right? Now that the Palestinians have an ally they can trust who will tell them to stop fighting we can have peace in the Middle East? Well, there's just one problem: the original conflict has not been resolved.

The Israelis want to live in peace. They have no patience with a world that has been killing and oppressing them for thousands of years since the Diaspora and before. They will do whatever they feel is necessary to enhance their security.

The Palestinians want all the Jews dead and/or gone and of secondary concern is possession of their land and statehood.

These two aims are fundamentally incompatible, and there will be violence until one or the other is satisfied. Period.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood need time to consolidate their power in Egypt and turn it into an Islamic theocracy. The only way they could have convinced Hamas to cease hostilities, and to convince themselves, is to reassure Hamas that once Egypt is firmly in their grasp they will be in a far better position with respect to Israel and also the United States. Probably the most important thing to understand about Egyptian politics is the country's dependence on foreign aid, including $1.3 billion a year from the U.S. Obama threatened to remove this aid to convince Mubarak to step down. Whenever the United States wants something from Egypt, they dangle that aid and threaten to snatch it away. $1.3 billion is a lot of money in Egypt, enough to keep a group of people in power who have little or no popular support. However, if a group with majority popular support was in clear command of Egypt, they could act with impunity. And if this group was anti-U.S., removal of U.S. aid could actually help them politically. They could then blame even more of their problems on the United States, just as they have been blaming their multiple crushing losses to Israel on the United States. A few years of clear control and a few billion U.S. dollars could be all they need to start another war or round of wars with Israel. At the very least Morsi could pretend to negotiate with Hamas, claim he failed, and secretly give them the go ahead to do all the damage they can with the full backing of the newly Islamist Egyptian state and military.

So there are two ways to see the ceasefire:

1) Peace in the Middle East.

2) The calm before the storm.

If history and the logic of war is any indication, the second is far more likely.

Now that's whack.