Peace Fills a Vacuum
Peace Fills a Vacuum
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Peace Fills a Vacuum

In the last few weeks, three long-frozen conflicts in the Middle East have displayed early signs of thawing. Israel and Hamas may be inching toward a cease-fire that would end attacks by both sides and, perhaps, loosen the siege imposed on the impoverished Gaza Strip. The factions in Lebanon, after a long period of institutional paralysis and a near civil war, have reached a tentative political agreement. And eight years after their last negotiations, Israel and Syria have announced the resumption of indirect peace talks.

The Gaza deal is being brokered by Egypt. Qatar mediated the Lebanese accord. Turkey is shepherding the Israeli-Syrian contacts. All three countries are close allies of the United States. Under normal circumstances, they would be loath to act on vital regional matters without America’s consent.

Yet in these cases they seem to have ignored Washington’s preferences. The negotiations either involved parties with whom the United States refuses to talk, initiated a process the United States opposes or produced an outcome harmful to its preferred local allies.

The region is in a mess, and Washington’s allies know it. They privately blame the United States and have given up waiting for the Bush administration to offer them a way out.

By acting as they did, Egypt, Qatar and Turkey gave the true measure of America’s dwindling credibility and leverage after American debacles in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. They are willing to take matters into their own hands and overlook American ambivalence about their doing so.

Intent on isolating its foes, the United States has instead ended up marginalizing itself. In one case after another, the Bush administration has wagered on the losing party or on a lost cause.

Israel wants to deal with Hamas because it — not America’s Palestinian partners — possesses what Israel most wants: the ability to end the violence and to release Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas. Israel has come around to dealing with Syria because Damascus — not America’s so-called moderate Arab allies — holds the crucial cards: Syria has a clear strategy of alliance with Iran; it supports the more powerful forces on the ground in Lebanon; and it provides refuge to opposition and Islamist forces in Palestine.

Likewise, America’s Lebanese friends had to give in to Hezbollah’s demands once it became clear that the support of the United States could not undo their country’s balance of power. Meanwhile, the process President Bush seems to care about most — that elusive Israeli-Palestinian track — is also the least likely to go anywhere.

The United States has cut itself off from the region on the dubious assumption that it can somehow maximize pressure on its foes by withholding contact, choosing to flaunt its might in the most primitive and costly of ways. It has pushed its local allies toward civil wars — arming Fatah against Hamas; financing some Lebanese forces against Hezbollah — they could not and did not win. And it has failed to understand that its partners could achieve more in alliance than in conflict with their opposition.

How much more powerful would Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and leader of Fatah, have been if, at the head of a national unity coalition, he could deliver a truce and Corporal Shalit to Israel while simultaneously broadening the support he needs to sell a peace agreement? How much stronger would Prime Minister Fouad Siniora of Lebanon and his colleagues have been had they agreed two years ago to the very power-sharing accord they were forced to swallow last month?

Many questions surround these three still-incomplete deals. They could collapse or move in unintended directions. They may end up serving a quite different purpose, like constraining Syria’s, Hezbollah’s or Hamas’s ability to retaliate in the event of an American or Israeli attack against Iran. On all this there is understandable uncertainty.

But for now at least, there’s no great mystery about where the United States stands. At a critical time in a critical region, it is quite simply missing in action.

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