U.S. diplomats arrived in Israel to jump-start peace talks during September's High Holy Days-The Jewish New Year followed by 10 days of repentance and culminating in Yom Kippur-the one day of the year when radio and TV broadcasts are silenced, planes are grounded, and streets are virtually empty as observant Jews fast and seek forgiveness for transgressions.
Given that the Jewish High Holy Days coincide this year with Ramadan, a month-long Islamic fast ending mid-October, it's easy to see why diplomats might smell peace and reconciliation in the air.
But the headlines across the region paint a different picture. The fresh onslaught of rocket attacks from Islamist-ruled Gaza, waning faith in local leadership, and cryptic scuffles with Syria are a better picture of relations between Israel and her neighbors.
So why has the Bush administration, and in particular Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, picked now to schedule a Mideast peace summit-set to take place next month in the United States- to address one of the most explosive conflicts in the world? Isn't fixing Iraq enough?
Rice toured the region this month with optimism few leaders emulated, and analysts say she'll have to prepare well or her efforts could result in bolstering the credibility of Hamas and its hostile cronies in the region rather than leaders committed to peace.
"One of the worst things would be to raise expectations and have a meeting that would produce nothing," said Dennis Ross, former U.S. envoy to the Middle East under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "That would end up helping Hamas rather than hurting Hamas."
Middle East Peace accords have a history of being derailed, and no one expects the process to be easy. But Ross and others say that political shifts in Palestinian affairs over the past three years have added a treacherous twist to an already long road.
When the Islamist group Hamas entered the political arena in January 2006 by overrunning Fatah and winning a majority of parliamentary seats, a chasm was created that eventually resulted in two separate Palestinian entities-Fatah and Hamas.
After months of fighting between the two rivals, Fatah forces were forced out of Gaza in June, fleeing to the West Bank where Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas abruptly disbanded the government and declared a state of emergency. Hamas now controls the Gaza Strip-an impoverished coastal region from which Israel withdrew in 2005-and is isolated from the international community.
Israeli intelligence sources claim Hamas has begun building underground fortifications similar to those fashioned by Hezbollah and has smuggled 40 tons of explosives into Gaza since its hostile takeover of the coastal strip in June.
Classified as a terrorist organization by several nations-including the United States-Hamas remains unwilling to accept the existence of Israel and has done little to prevent the endless stream of crude rockets sailing out of Gaza into Israel.
A September rocket attack on an army base in southern Israel wounded 70 Israeli soldiers, prompting Israeli leaders to threaten a cutback of power and fuel supplies to Gaza. Israel has already sealed Gaza's borders, allowing only humanitarian aid to enter the fledgling region.
One of the questions facing international peacemakers now is whether Abbas has what it takes to handle Hamas and at the same time lead his people into a lasting peace agreement with Israel. "There's a readiness to support him but not a conviction that he'll entirely do what's necessary," Ross said. "He's never had the status of Arafat, who was an icon."
Arab-Israeli Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, says 30 percent to 35 percent of Palestinians who voted for Hamas in the 2006 elections did so as a vote of protest against the corruption of Fatah. "Immediately after the elections, the international community should have come to Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah and told them they lost the election because they are thieves," Toameh wrote. Now, with the Hamas takeover in Gaza, Abbas is "hesitant and weak and unwilling to carry out serious decisions," said Toameh, "so people no longer relate to the Palestinian Authority in a serious fashion."
Fatah officials, said Toameh, should start over: "Rebuild their institutions, reform themselves, get rid of the corruption, and come up with a new list of candidates. Then run in another free and democratic election and offer the Palestinians a better alternative to Hamas."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hasn't fared much better in public polls since losing credibility over last year's war in Lebanon. "The Israeli public was prepared in Lebanon to grant the government an extensive license. People were prepared to live in shelters for a long time. They just wanted to take care of the problem," Ross told WORLD. The government's stated mission in going to war against Hezbollah in Lebanon was to free its two captured soldiers and destroy the Islamist terror network. Neither was accomplished.
Most recently, in an attempt to shore up support for Abbas against Hamas, the Israeli Cabinet took the unusual step of voting to release 90 Palestinian prisoners in a decision timed to coincide with Ramadan. Hamas leaders accused Fatah of collaborating with Israel (none of the released prisoners were members of Hamas), and a hard reality began to sink in on both sides: Attempts to bolster your allies can inadvertently turn into a public-relations campaign for your enemy.
Longtime broker and current Israeli president Simon Peres recognizes that the stakes are high: "There is a window of opportunity, and I say-smilingly-the window is made of glass and we have to be careful not to break it."
Israel's indefinite borders have plagued the prospects for peace in the region for decades. Ross, who served as the U.S broker in the Middle East under former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, harshly criticized former Palestinian Prime Minister Yassar Arafat for failing to accept the proposals offered during the months following the failed peace summit at Camp David in 2000 and 2001. The plan offered Palestinians 97 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, a capital in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and billions in international aid.
Palestinians had an opportunity to accept a similar proposal in 1947: The UN Partition Plan called for a two-state solution with Palestine encompassing an even greater portion of land than currently proposed (one that would have left Israelis with two disjointed territories rather than the Palestinians).
Israel reluctantly accepted the Partition Plan, while the Arab nations rejected it, calling for the complete destruction of the Jewish state and launching the region into a full-scale war. Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon led the charge, but the Israeli forces gained the advantage, capturing a greater allotment of land and officially establishing the nation of Israel in 1948.
During the Six Day War of 1967, Israeli forces gained control over the West Bank and Gaza, and negotiations since then have focused on returning these territories to the Palestinians. Israelis, wary of compromising national security, have built numerous settlements in the territories (classified as illegal under international law) and have established security fences, checkpoints, and border closings that have added to the ire of the Palestinians.
Although Israel withdrew its settlements and military outposts from Gaza in 2005, many accuse the government of inhibiting full Palestinian autonomy through stringent border patrols.
While President Bush, Rice, Olmert, and Abbas prepare for November's meeting, expectations waver and few are optimistic. Abbas is pushing for final-status agreements on borders, Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees, and Rice is touting a meeting that "advances the cause of a Palestinian state." Israeli leaders are hoping for vague declarations, and Arab leaders-despite a general invitation from the Bush administration to the upcoming conference-are hesitant to get involved in talks if they are "only gimmicks."
Ross says that talks focusing on final-status agreements that no one really believes can be implemented any time soon could actually backfire, boosting the popularity of Hamas. His advice for Rice: "The secretary of state is going to need to make sure that she prepares this meeting very well, and it shouldn't be held until such a time when she knows what the results are going to be," Ross said. "The right thing to do at this point-and this is a measure of how things have changed-is diplomacy when possible."
Toameh says Israel should avoid making bold concessions. "Israel should just sit and wait. Don't repeat the mistake of unilateralism when Israel left Gaza to Hamas and Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda affiliated groups," he said. "The Palestinians need to get their act together and find a way to resolve their problems, and then Israel can talk with them. But under the current circumstances, if I was Israel I wouldn't pull out from one inch of land because there is no strong and reliable partner on the other side."
But even if Israel refrains from difficult concessions during the upcoming peace talks, the problem of handling Hamas still remains. Israel has threatened to cut power and electricity to Gaza in an attempt to curb the onslaught of rocket attacks on southern Israel, garnering criticism for "collective punishment" of Gazans already on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. "What they should do is make this clear: How can we expect to provide electricity and water to people who basically sanction attacks against us on a day-to-day basis?" Ross said.
For now, Israel is hesitant to authorize a full-scale incursion into Gaza, knowing that getting out is much more difficult than going in. And threats from the north and east have diverted some attention away from the crisis. An Israeli air raid into Syria last month led to numerous speculations about the nuclear ambitions of Syria, technically still at war with Israel. The Iranian threat also is magnified now that the deputy commander of Iran's air force claims that plans have been drafted to bomb Israel should the Jewish state strike first.
But Israel and the international community would be wise not to ignore the smoldering ashes in Gaza while waiting for peace talks to work. "The critical thing is to make sure Hamas cannot do in the West Bank what it did in Gaza," Ross said. "We need to be certain that we're not pursuing policies that in the end will inadvertently help Hamas."
To what extent does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feed other conflicts across the Middle East?
Resolving this conflict will not solve all others in the region, but former U.S. envoy Dennis Ross believes there is a connection: al-Qaeda, Hamas, and other terrorist groups use the Palestinian plight to play on a sense of frustration among Muslims at large. "If we want to take away a recruiting tool, it's certainly in our best interest to deal with this issue," he said.
For Muslims in Iran and Iraq, Jerusalem remains important: It's considered the third-holiest city in Islam, and for some Muslims it is the site of a future eschatological drama that will unfold between Isa (Jesus), the Mahdi (a prophesied redeemer), and the anti-Christ.
Yet not all Muslims are on a mission to see Israel destroyed. Both Egypt and Jordan have established lasting peace treaties with Israel. Many Iraqis-fearful of Iran's thirst for domination and the consequences of a U.S. troop withdrawal from their country-see Israel as an ally in the struggle to stand up to Iran's bellicose ways.
Even among the Iranian public there's a general sense of either indifference or sympathy toward Israel. While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has raised alarm for his threats to "wipe Israel off the map," a large segment of the Iranian public is riveted to a television miniseries that tells the story of an Iranian diplomat who helps Jews escape the Holocaust. Airing on state-run television, the series is based on true events and told as a love story.
A small cry from their original numbers but significant nonetheless, about 40,000 Jews-comprising the largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel-still reside in Iran, and one Jewish man is a member of parliament.
The real battle in the Middle East is between Islamic extremists and Muslim moderates. And in Gaza and the West Bank, it's a battle for the identity of the Palestinian people.