Communities "bordering the Gaza Strip" is a homey expression, suggesting warmth and caring for the towns in the western Negev that continue to suffer Qassam barrages and sniper fire. It deserves to be dropped in favor of the more direct concept of "communities on the southern front" to describe their position accurately.
It is a front. There is a war taking place there, one that has been going on for far too long, and Israel is not winning.
Israel is not winning because it is trying out military-diplomatic alchemy that doesn't work. Israel still insists on viewing Hamas as a kind of terrorist cell that can be brought down by assassinations or tank shelling, and at most as a "terrorist infrastructure" with which no negotiations should be conducted. As if Israel hasn't noticed that this organization is carrying out political and diplomatic maneuvers that influence not only the communities "bordering the Gaza Strip," but also the Palestinian Authority; is causing all sorts of headaches for Egypt and caused a near crisis in the relations between Cairo and Jerusalem; and is linking Iran to the territories and is developing its own diplomatic reality.
That same Israel heaved a sigh of relief last week when it learned that the Qassam rockets landing on the communities "bordering the Gaza Strip" were not those of Hamas but of Islamic Jihad or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. We are now told that Hamas - almost as a sign of respect for this "responsible" organization - is still preserving that very cease-fire that Israel maintains it did not negotiate with the Islamist group.
At best, Israel's descriptions of the negotiations are strange. It may not be negotiating with the Palestinian groups, but it has a street gang-style dialogue with Hamas. "You will not attack me in the communities 'bordering the Gaza Strip,' and I will not attack you in the Gaza Strip." This message was made clear through Egypt to the Hamas leadership. But Hamas is not the only gang on this street; there is Islamic Jihad and the families of the Martyrs' Brigades. They are all armed, and none of them are bound by Hamas' orders. Thus, that same "there-is-no-negotiation" Israel will have to conduct talks with each component of the "terrorist infrastructure" if it wants to bring calm to the communities "bordering the Gaza Strip."
This is the situation that Israel will face if it chooses to copy in the Gaza Strip the cease-fire understandings from the 1996 Grapes of Wrath operation in Lebanon. But there is another way, a serious diplomatic way of the kind that is conducted between enemy states when they recognize that violent groups may strip them of their monopoly on policy making.
Syria is a necessary and possible partner for such negotiations. It is necessary because the leadership of the Palestinian factions shooting the rockets from Gaza are hosted in its territory. Syria has known how to convince the leaders of these factions to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority (see the Mecca Conference 2007) and hold their fire or curtail their opposition to the Annapolis Conference, when it believed this would serve Syrian interests. Syria is a potential partner because negotiations with Israel may restore the Golan Heights to it and loosen the American chokehold it feels and maybe even remove international pressure over Lebanon. Presumably if Syria were given the opportunity to choose between catering to the Palestinian organizations and control in Lebanon, it would opt for the second. Now Damascus is not even asked to choose. It rules over the groups and also navigates Lebanese politics. In short, Syria is a country conducting itself according to its interests, and this is the kind of partner Israel is looking for.
But Israel is finding it difficult to distinguish between interests and dreams. Israel is demanding that Syria cut its ties with Iran, with Hezbollah, with Hamas and the rest of the groups as a precondition for negotiations. This is a dream. The interest is allowing negotiations with Syria to bring about strategic change, instead of conditioning negotiations on change. We will see, for example, what Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas will say when negotiations between Israel and Syria start. Will Iran break ties with Syria or will it also emerge as yet another pragmatic state that knows it needs Syria no less than Syria needs it? Will Hamas or Hezbollah go to war with Syria, or do they also recognize where their supply line lies? To answer these questions does not require courage. Just the opening of personal diaries and setting a date for a first meeting. Meanwhile, it is apparently easier to hold "no negotiations" with Hamas and count Qassams than to conduct a policy.
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