Review of the Year 2009: The Middle East

As Israel unleashed its fury on Gaza, peace never stood a chance
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The Independent Online

In the long quest for an end to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, 2009 has been a lost year. Of the three crucial events that dominated it two were already in place before it had even begun. The first was the election of Barack Obama, the first US President since Jimmy Carter to identify a solution to the conflict as a first-term priority. The second was the unprecedentedly fierce military assault on Hamas-controlled Gaza by the Israeli military that began on 27 December. By the time it ended three weeks later, the Palestinian death toll had risen to more than 1,300 – the majority, according to all estimates except the military's own, civilians.

The Gaza offensive began after the breakdown of a ceasefire that Hamas refused to extend without Israeli agreement to lift the siege it had imposed on the territory when the Islamic faction seized full control of it by force in June 2007. Its stated purpose was to stop the rocket fire inflicting misery on the Israeli communities on the Gaza border; but its timing may also have had a lot to do with the Obama transition. Certainly, if Israel calculated that, with one US President on the way out and another likely to be more critical in his support than his predecessor not yet in office, its unprecedentedly aggressive use of firepower would enjoy relative impunity in Washington, it was right.

But Operation Cast Lead was also partly shaped by the third pivotal event of the year: the Israeli election. Its three architects, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a notable hawk on Gaza, and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, were all playing their parts in the long political shadow of Benjamin Netanyahu, the opposition leader who had clamoured for decisive action in Gaza, and whom the polls showed as the most likely winner of elections already scheduled for February.

But the operation, while strongly supported by the Israeli public, did not save them electorally. Mr Olmert, facing indictment on fraud and corruption charges, was finished as premier anyway. Ms Livni did emerge as leader of the (just) biggest single party, the centrist Kadima, but in the face of a resurgence of the Israeli right was unable to form a coalition. And Mr Barak, though he would remain as Defence Minister, saw the party he leads, the once mighty Labour, crash to its lowest ever level of 13 seats. That underlined how far Israeli public opinion had hardened since the previous election: routed in 2006, Mr Netanyahu was now back as Prime Minister.

Which severely complicated Mr Obama's aspirations for a successful peace process. Whether wisely or not, the US President demanded a total freeze on Jewish settlement building as an earnest of good faith in the peace negotiations he made clear he wanted between Israel and the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. This Mr Netanyahu resisted.

In June, he did make his first, heavily circumscribed, commitment to the idea of a Palestinian state. He lifted some key internal West Bank checkpoints, reinforcing, as urged by Middle East envoy Tony Blair, a real but modest improvement in the West Bank economy. By December he had even finally started, to the fury of the settlers themselves, to implement a temporary, and very partial, freeze on construction.

This was not enough to persuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to return to negotiations; the issue was one of trust. Without something more bankable, he was not prepared to stake his already weakened authority on what his own Prime Minister Salam Fayyad had warned could be no more than "a process for the sake of a process".

In Gaza, with the siege remaining in place, rocket attacks were indeed dramatically down from their late 2008 peak, with Hamas showing every sign of enforcing a de facto ceasefire. But Hamas remained as firmly in control of Gaza as ever. And the November Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha in November, and the December Jewish holiday of Hanukkah both passed without the freeing of the captured Israeli sergeant Gilad Shalit in exchange for Hamas prisoners, despite an apparently more determined effort in indirect negotiations – through highly professional German mediators – with Hamas by Mr Netanyahu.

By mid-December there were tentative signs that the US might early in the New Year seek to persuade Mr Netanyahu to impose a more rigid, if undeclared, freeze on settlement building in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And that this in turn would bring Mr Abbas back to the negotiating table.

But such a move would require a greater determination by Mr Netanyahu than he has shown so far to stand up to his own Right wing. And it would need the US President, despite grave demands on his attention elsewhere, to recover the momentum he lost in 2009.