The latest developments in what is still euphemistically called the Middle East peace process all fall under the heading of virtual reality. The unrest in North Africa and the Middle East has apparently led some important decisionmakers to conclude that if things were changing in so many places nearby they might be just as likely to change in the neuralgic sore of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. True, that conflict has had different causes and different dynamics from the social uprisings in many Arab countries, but it is conceivable that the uprisings would interact with it and affect it. For some, the presence of the unresolved conflict at the vortex of the Arab maelstrom represents a genuine opportunity for change, for others a pretext, and for others still a welcome distraction. Unfortunately, unlike in the countries of the Arab Spring, there seems to be fairly little prospect of a genuine change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the foreseeable future.
The push for peace, as evidenced in the latest speeches of President Obama, may soon end up being a virtual push, falling victim to the exigencies of an electoral year. The reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, for all the ceremony and hoopla, is a virtual reconciliation, not accompanied by any discernible progress on the ground so far. Hamas will not change its ideology or disband its militias. Should the reconciliation be carried through, things would likely take the same direction as they did in Lebanon. Like Hezbollah, Hamas would maintain its own state within a state under the flag of “resistance” until it was ready to take over the whole thing. Likewise, the Palestinian state, which is likely to be solemnly recognized during the fall meeting of the UN General Assembly, will be a virtual state. Its borders, “based on” 1967 “borders,” which were never really Palestinian borders but rather an armistice line after the war between Israel and five Arab countries in 1948, will be virtual borders.
Likewise, the “painful” concessions that Prime Minister Netanyahu, addressing to the US Congress, offered in exchange for peace with the Palestinians sound more virtual than painful. The prime minister left the contours of the future settlement and of the future Palestinian state rather vague, no doubt deliberately. Netanyahu insists that “Peace cannot be imposed. It must be negotiated,” in the safe knowledge that the Palestinians will refuse to negotiate on his terms. But the inescapable fact is that the only non-virtual change in the conflict over the last decade was Ariel Sharon’s evacuation of Gaza and of several small settlements in the West Bank in 2005. This, it should be remembered, was not really a part of the “process” or a result of negotiations.
The problem with virtual politics like this, however, is that it provides virtual relief, which in time can lead to a very real conflict with very real casualties.