Political initiatives in the Middle East are cursed with a failure rate so high that it is understandable for analysts sometimes to use the odds as a substitute for craft. After Anwar Sadat's spectacular trip to Jerusalem in November of 1977, the press, mistaking cynicism for wisdom, was skeptical. After all, in the first 25 years of its existence, Israel had had to fight Egypt four times. But the past was no guide to the future, for in the 34 years since, the peace of Begin and Sadat has been unbroken.
At the time, educated opinion was attentive to the vicissitudes of negotiation rather than to the structural imperatives that would eventually prevail. Nearly bankrupt, its population swelling, divorced from the Soviets, irrelevant to the Third World, and having reclaimed its honor by partial success in the October War, Egypt was predictable, as were its rivals, a front of radical Arab states and the Palestinians. Knowing their interests and set upon their course, Israel and Egypt formed, as it were, the innermost of three concentric circles. Surrounding them was a second circle, the rejectionists, who were divided, militarily weak, geographically separated, and economically impotent. Except for the Soviet Bloc, which did not have the agility to make up for its lack of position, the major powers that formed the outer circle were overwhelmingly in favor of rapprochement, and used their weight to break the rejectionists upon the anvil formed by the principals. A similar metaphysics has now emerged.
The United States has fought the war in Iraq as if history, strategy, maneuver, preparation, foresight, and common sense did not exist. Nonetheless, the impact of the war has been to shatter the politics of the region and create new opportunities, one of which is the potential for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Some quarters of government, burnt by the predictable failure of the current administration to transform the political culture of the Middle East into that of a Vermont town meeting, are pessimistic by analogy. But the analogy is invalid. The conditions are not the same, the task is different, and, unlike the United States, Israel has no timetable for withdrawal from the region—as its enemies well know.
As America blunts its sword in Iraq it has relieved Iran of much anxiety in regard to its own vulnerabilities, set up a predominantly Shiite state in Baghdad, and made the Arab world more receptive to Iranian views. The Shia ascendancy comprises a resurgent though weak Iran, a Shiite Iraqi state in critical condition, a Shiite rump in Lebanon chastened by the war it "won" a year ago (with such a victory, defeat is unnecessary), and the alignment with Iran of Syria and Sunni radicals such as Hamas.
Contrary to the received wisdom, last summer Hezbollah overplayed its hand. Israel emerged shaken but with few casualties and an economy that actually grew during hostilities. The vaunted Hezbollah Katyushas had a 1% kill rate, with not one launched in the year thereafter. Israel showed that upon provocation it could and would destroy anything in its path, thus creating a Lebanese awakening that has split the country and kept Hezbollah fully absorbed. Though Hezbollah is rearming, it remains shy of Israel.
Hamas, too, has overplayed its hand, providing the opening from which a Palestinian-Israeli peace may emerge. For the first time since 1948, a fundamental division among the Palestinians presents conditions in which the less absolutist view may shelter and take hold. Mahmoud Abbas is weak in many ways, but he has decisively isolated the radical tendencies. Hamas loyalists in the West Bank (according to the latest polling, less than 25%) face a different demographic in a different economy that can be richly watered if Israel is wise enough to do so. Surrounded and interpenetrated by the Israeli army and Palestinian Authority forces now strengthened by Israel and the West, Hamas is not what it once was.
In economically besieged Gaza, Hamas is corralled by Israel, Egypt, and the sea, its apparent strength exaggerated by the fact that Abbas did not choose to fight on this battlefield but rather to profit by its loss, much as did King Hussein in regard to the West Bank. The starving and oppressed Palestinians who watch Hamas fire rockets the chief effect of which is to summon Israeli tanks, may soon see a prosperous West Bank at the brink of statehood and at peace with its neighbors and the world. The quarantine of Gaza will cast a bright light upon the normalization of the West Bank. And although Hamas portrays Abbas as a collaborator, it is they who may be held to account for keeping more than a million of their own people hostage to a gratuitous preference for struggle over success.
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The sudden and intense commonality of interest between the Palestinian Authority and Israel is the equivalent of the Israeli-Egyptian "anvil" of 1977. But unlike 1977, the Arabs, in the second circle, have largely reversed position. Fearful of Iran, they are rushing to bend the rejectionists against the anvil. They have so much to contend with at home and in the east that they cannot afford an active front in their midst, and are therefore forming ranks against Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
We are at the potential beginnings of a rare alignment of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the leading Arab nations, and the major powers. Though it is true that one of Russia's chief interests is to keep the Middle East roiled so as to preserve the high oil prices that are now Russia's life blood, when the region moved from Soviet to Western arms Moscow was relegated to the periphery. Though Europe is militarily paralyzed it wields great economic incentives, and though the United States has not done very well of late, its powers remain preeminent and its will constructive.
The principals, the important Arab states, and the international community are arrayed against a radical terrorist front that, unlike in Iraq, is geographically fractured, relatively contained, terribly poor, and very much outnumbered. Anything for the worse can happen in the Arab-Israeli conflict and usually does, but now the chief pillars of rejectionist policy lie flat, and the spectrum of positions is such that each constructively engaged party can accommodate the others.
In the heat of a failing war, historical processes have unfrozen. If the principals pursue a strategy of limited aims, concentrating on bilateral agreements rather than a single work of fallible grandeur, they may accomplish something on the scale of Sadat's extraordinary démarche of 30 years ago. The odds are perhaps the best they have been since then, and responsible governments should recognize them as the spur for appropriate action and risk.