In his New York Times essay, Forced to Get Along
, Mark Helprin tells us the obvious: Why the Palestinian authority and Israel are cooperating. His assessment of the chances for peace show, however, that he is not overly burdened by an understanding of the Middle East:
The principals, the important Arab states and the leading powers of the West are arrayed against a radical terrorist front that, unlike the one 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 Israel and the Palestinian Authority can 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, and responsible governments should recognize them as the spur for appropriate action and risk.
Helprin seems to lack a realistic appraisal of the balance of powers in the Palestinian authority and the Middle East. On the one side are Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, all determined, and all able to claim success from any military operation they initiate, provided only that they are not wiped out to the last man. On the other side are Israel and the Palestinian authority and the United States. The United States is hemhorraging badly from its war in Iraq. Mahmud Abbas and his allies barely control the West Bank, and they have made it clear, over and over, that their commitment to impossible goals vis-a-vis Israel - right of return of the refugees and all of East Jerusalem, is unshakable. Within Abbas's organization there are the Fatah Al-Aqsa brigades, whose commitment to any peace agreement would be shaky at best.
In Gaza, the Hamas proved that Abbas has no army except on paper. In the West Bank there is a large contingent of Iranian-financed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as numerous Hamas supporters. They can easily disrupt any peace process with a few well placed bombs. They have done so in the past, and there is no doubt they will do it again.
The Israeli government of Ehud Olmert is not sure what it is and what it wants, except that it certainly wants to stay in office. Taking risks for peace in the Middle East is a bad idea if you want to stay in office - an axiom that applies to both Olmert and Abbas. More than that, it can be bad for your personal health.
In order for peace, or even limited bilateral agreements to happen, the very weak government of Ehud Olmert has to make very unpopular and risky concessions. The concessions would be especially unpopular while the bad taste of the Gaza disengagement is still in the mouth of the Israeli public. A few Islamic Jihad bombs would make such concessions entirely out of the question. The very weak government of Mahmoud Abbas has to abandon its unrealistic, but very popular, key demands, and that may be a fatal move for Abbas. Neither side ever implemented the limited bilateral agreements that were made in the past. Israel did not allow free passage between Gaza and the West Bank, Abbas did not disarm the terror groups. Israel promised to reduce the number of checkpoints with great fanfare, but that promise was not fulfilled. There are no checkpoints that can be eliminated without endangering security. A few bombs would then mean the end of the Olmert government.
As for the Arab governments, it would be entirely illusory to count them on the side of the angels. They all sense the impending debacle of the US in Iraq. The rats are leaving the ship, as rats will do. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia urged Abbas to seek "unity" with the Hamas, which is like a lamb uniting with a lion. All the Arab governments and most of the media continue a relentless campaign against the European boycott of the Hamas.