The deafening sounds of war – roar, whine, boom – have finally subsided, and all is queit on the Gaza front. The vocabulary of battle has receded from news studios and the daily press. People hooked up to social media have begun to turn to other subjects for thrills. All parties have resumed the interests they had been pursuing closer to home before the Gaza conflict overshadowed them.
Talk of a “historic victory” of one sort of another foreshadowed the return to normal. The narrative was what counted, not the number of dead or wounded or the amount of destruction. Overlooked, too, were chronic contradictions, the resurgence of historic causes that some had thought were dead and buried, and the fact that coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israeli cities is a fiction when grounded in inequality and the perpetuation of a historic injustice. There were no investigatory committees, no process of accountability whatsoever, no reflection on the course of the war. No one even asked whether it could have been avoided or whether, as long as it happened, it created an opportunity to search for a new peace.
In the history of conflict in this region, some wars proved a portal to a peace process. The October 1973 War is a prime example. This also applies to the war to liberate Kuwait. Even though the latter had no bearing whatsoever on the Arab-Israeli conflict, it gave rise to the Madrid Conference which led to the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, the Oslo accords between the PLO and Israel and the creation of the first Palestinian National Authority on Palestinian land. Unfortunately, all that started to crumble when the Camp David talks collapsed and the second Intifada erupted (in militant form this time).
From then on, it was a series of skirmishes and wars with no sense of the cost, no window for talks and no awareness that the only sensible option is to explore the possibilities of peace. There were three wars in Gaza before the last one. In the wake of each, some tried to search for a way forward after the ceasefire. Their attempts were futile.
As it did in the previous wars, Egypt brokered a ceasefire and then worked to secure it. This time, however, with support from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, it initiated a long journey in search of a solution that would end the seemingly inescapable vicious cycle of war, rebuilding a place only to see it being torn down again.
The new factor that entered the equation was that the Arab world, which experienced an alleged Arab Spring that ushered in gales of Muslim Brotherhood fanaticism, Islamist terrorism and civil warfare, realised that the first steps needed to steer the region to the shores of safety, stability and prosperity began with a profound domestic reform and modernisation process.
The nation state was the prerequisite polity, developing diverse homegrown capacities was an essential key, and inclusiveness of all citizens regardless of race or creed was an indispensable principle.
Ambitious national sustainable development projects bearing titles such as “Vision 2030” or “Vision 2035” were launched in this framework. The timeframe was mainly to serve as a benchmark, a means to compare the before and after, and to measure progress in terms of that achieved by other countries that preceded us down this path. The details are important and should be discussed elsewhere. What concerns us here is that broaching the “post-Gaza” period from the perspective of reconstruction is not just a developmental but also a geopolitical approach.
Some weeks after taking office, US President Joe Biden sent a team to the region to test its pulse. They returned home with the conclusion that the capitals they visited, which included Cairo and Riyadh, were fully engaged in processes of domestic construction. This, I believe, helps explain his appreciation for and faith in the role the Arab states played during the recent fighting in Gaza.
If it is true that foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy, then Arab behaviour during the war illustrated that. Their actions proceeded, firstly, from the premise that this war had to be the last one and, secondly, that reconstructing Gaza requires peace to be sustainable. Egypt brings long experience and extensive expertise to the process of peacemaking, but it also knows that an essential prerequisite for the negotiating process is that both sides of the conflict need to have a single address to turn to.
The trouble with all previous Gaza wars was that the “Palestinian factions” started rebuilding with a house divided into two political entities, one in the West Bank, the other in Gaza. One new factor this time round was that Israel too is becoming divided into “Israeli factions.” These have barely managed to cobble themselves together in name so as to form a new government for which peace is clearly not a key concept. True, Netanyahu was far from pro-peace, but at least he provided a single address from which to receive acceptance or rejection of a peace offer.
Now there are multiple addresses. Most are on the far right, though some are on the left and, for the first time in that country’s history, one address is to be found among the Arab Israelis: the United Arab List party, headed by Mansour Abbas. Untangling all this is as complicated as it could be short of falling apart first, or unless there are genuine elections in Palestine and a fifth round in Israel, despite all the divisions and tensions that creates.
This said, there is no getting around the peacemaking mission. This is not just because regional stability is integral to domestic development but also because the region can not afford more wars. Fortunately, there is a regional drive to restore calm and to search for new instruments for diplomatic interaction to that end. It took people to point the way to such new instruments in order for the Libyan crisis to shift from conflict mode to political roadmap. In the process, that crisis proved a way to reduce tensions between Egypt and Turkey and, indeed, to avert a looming conflict.
The Al-Ula Agreement which brought calm to Qatar’s various fronts has generated various forms of cooperation. Iraq’s recent efforts to forge a path out of its geographic predicament should open horizons for regional understandings that free this region from remaining vulnerable to whether the US stays or leaves. Unfortunately, the Palestinian question and the Israeli one are unlike the others.
What makes them more complicated are the ways they began to be mixed up with radical Islamism, as epitomised by the Muslim Brotherhood and the relations between Hamas and Iran, a dimension that engendered new regional and international alignments. With all due respect to the surge of sympathy for the Palestinians including that of the Democratic Party in the US Congress, the German and Austrian positions on these matters could not help but be informed by the terrorism Europe has experienced in the past decade.
This complexity makes it all the more necessary to persist in the drive that combines peace, reform and regional security in a single package. The opportunities that arise in the aftermath of war do not come solely to the peoples, states or entities that were party to the war, but also to the region in which they live. The fourth Gaza war should not be just another number in a growing series of wars. It should become an important incentive to turn the aftermath of war into an avenue to peace. The only question is how.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly