A year ago, the prospects for peace in Israel-Palestine appeared more promising than at any other time after Bill Clinton’s failed Camp David initiative in 2000.  Arafat’s death in November 2004 had removed a major cause of Palestinian corruption and incoherence, as well as the justification for Israel’s refusal to accept direct talks.  Mahmoud Abbas’ victory in the Palestinian Authority (PA) election on January 9, 2005, on a platform of a nonviolent quest for peace, was widely seen as an important step toward bringing democratic reform to Palestinian society, ending terrorism, and facilitating negotiations.  A day later, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon formed a new, centrist coalition, which brought the Labor Party into government and supposedly reflected the growing sense in Jerusalem that the Jewish state could not sustain an open-ended status quo.

The international environment also seemed favorable, with President Bush and his European partners apparently keen to make a joint push for peace that would help them overcome the unpleasantness surrounding Iraq.  “The calm which will prevail in our lands starting from today is the beginning of a new era,” Mr. Abbas declared at a summit meeting with Sharon in Sharm-el-Sheikh in February 2005.  Mr. Sharon replied by saying that an opportunity existed “to disengage from the path of blood and start on a new path.”  As I noted in these pages last March, there was finally “a glimmer of hope in the Holy Land.”

That glimmer has dimmed to almost nothing.  We are currently witnessing simultaneous political turmoil in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, coupled with rising tensions throughout the region.  At the same time, President George W. Bush’s grimly unflinching preoccupation with Iraq has placed his Road Map on the back burner.  Washington’s loss of zeal coincides with the European Union’s diminishing capacity to articulate and pursue a coherent common policy on any major world issue.  In short, after yet another promise of a new dawn, the saga of Israel-Palestine is back to normal.

In Israel, the ouster of Labor’s veteran leader Shimon Peres last November by Amir Peretz, a trade unionist with a populist touch, heralded the end of the coalition government.  Peretz is a leftist class warrior on social and economic questions and a peacenik on the one issue that counts more than any other.  For both reasons, he had pledged to take Labor out of the coalition government, if elected.  He did not accept Sharon’s view that the peace process must be made contingent on the end of all terrorist violence, arguing that any such precondition would give Arab opponents of a negotiated deal a strong incentive to plot new bombing attacks.  He also rejected Sharon’s notion that there should be some correlation between the pace of PA reform and the peace process and contended that it was in Israel’s interest to negotiate immediately and unconditionally.  In brief, while he would stand firm on denying “the right of return” and keeping East Jerusalem, he is, on everything else, the best interlocutor Abbas can hope for.

As soon as the victory of Peretz was announced, Sharon asked Israeli President Moshe Katsav to call an early general election.  The latter made the announcement on November 21, and the date was set for March 28.

At the same time, Sharon faced a growing challenge from within his own party.  The Likud was badly split over his decision to withdraw from Gaza.  Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who had resigned his ministerial post over the Gaza decision—was not as popular as Sharon with the electorate at large, but his following within the party was so strong that Sharon could no longer hope to unite the ranks behind him.  In September, Sharon narrowly avoided defeat, garnering 52 percent of the vote to “Bibi’s” 48, on Likud’s 3,000-member central committee.  Faced with the new crisis following the election of Peretz, Sharon reacted with a bold but not altogether unexpected move.  He declared that “the Likud in its current format is unable to lead Israel to its national goals” and left the party—of which he was one of the founders back in 1973—amidst a blaze of publicity.  He subsequently announced the formation of a new “liberal movement” that would “lay the foundations for a peace settlement in which the state’s permanent borders will be set with the terrorist organizations being dismantled.”

The emergence of Ariel Sharon as a liberal, centrist peacemaker must be one of the most remarkable political transformations since Churchill became a Tory and Mosley, a fascist.  It heralded an unlikely final act in the career of the 77-year-old veteran of Israel’s four wars against her Arab neighbors.  In 1982, as defense minister, he planned Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, which culminated with the Sabra and Shatila massacre that cost him his job.  For the rest of the decade, as government minister, Sharon spearheaded the construction of dozens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  In September 2000, he visited the disputed Temple Mount to stress Israel’s claim to sovereignty, triggering widespread violence and a political crisis that forced Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s resignation.  Such solid hard-line credentials won Sharon a landslide victory over Barak in February 2001.

Announcing the creation of his “National Responsibility Party” (Kadima), Sharon pledged his support for the two-state solution, with a “secure Israel” living side-by-side with a Palestinian state.  His calculus was sound: The winning formula would include moderate Israelis, the majority of the electorate, and the plurality of more than one million Russian immigrants who had supported Sharon in the past but would not vote for the Likud without him at the helm.  They dislike the Orthodox Jews and the settlers who will dominate the party after Sharon but also oppose Labor, having experienced the blessings of socialism back in the former Soviet Union.

The plan was sound, but it suffered a blow with Sharon’s supposedly mild stroke on December 18.  He was released from the hospital two days later, but the episode focused attention on his advanced age and his health.  (He is grossly overweight.)  It also reminded voters of the fact that the new party does not exist without Sharon.  While 90 percent of his supporters say that his health will not sway them, the effect on the undecided fifth of the electorate may be more serious.

Both Labor and Likud claim that they stand to gain from any drop of confidence in Sharon’s ability to lead, but the outcome of the March 28 election is likely to produce a more or less even three-way-split between the key contenders, with many smaller parties hoping for a piece of action.  On current form, a coalition between Sharon and Peretz seems more likely than any combination involving Netanyahu, but the post-election horse-trading will take time.  The only certainty for now is that Israel is effectively out of the “peace process” and will remain so for months to come.

If Sharon thinks he has problems, he should take comfort from the predicament of Mahmoud Abbas.  His Fatah Party, the pliant tool of Arafat’s will while he was alive, split on December 14, after a power struggle between the old and young cadres that has been simmering for a long time.  Rebels joined ranks to run on a competing ticket in the PA parliamentary election scheduled for January 25, triggering the gravest crisis in the movement in decades.  The dissidents’ list is headed by Marwan Barghouthi, a radical who has been jailed by Israel for terrorist murders, and it heralds a determined push by the “Young Guard” to take over the party.

Abbas is stuck between a rock and a hard place.  If he tries to make a deal with the dissidents, their price will be a set of demands no Israeli interlocutor could accept, Peretz included: the right of return; the dismantling of all settlements in the West Bank; the return of East Jerusalem.  If he resists them, the winner will be Hamas.  The Islamic militant movement scored a landslide election victory in major West Bank towns on December 16 and appeared ready to present a major challenge to Fatah regardless of its internal split.  Thousands of Hamas supporters joined victory marches, chanting, “To Jerusalem we march, martyrs by the millions!” and waving copies of the Koran.  “We didn’t think for a moment that Hamas would win so many votes,” admitted Issam Abu Baker, head of Fatah in the Nablus region.  “The earth shook under our feet, and this will have an effect on the parliament.”

If Hamas emerges victorious on January 25, the peace process will be effectively over for a long time.  It is a movement that blends the nationalist slogans of the struggle against Israel with principles derived from the doctrines and values of Islam.  In line with Islamic teaching, Hamas holds that the infidels can never legitimately usurp any previously Muslim-ruled land, such as Palestine.  Whenever that happens, jihad becomes compulsory for all Muslims.  According to the Hamas Charter, the land of Palestine has been consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day: “It, or any part of it, should not be squandered; it, or any part of it, should not be given up . . . Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.”  This is a standard, orthodox Muslim position.  It is derived from the Koran, from the political tradition and social outlook harking back to Muhammad.  Relinquishing any part of Palestine at the negotiating table is a disobedient act of blasphemy against Allah.  The struggle against Israel, for Hamas, is more than a “war of national liberation”: It is an act of worship for which Allah rewards a struggler in the form of victory in this life and everlasting life in the hereafter.

A Hamas victory would bring to the helm of the Palestinian Authority the group that believes no permanent peace is possible because it would be against Allah’s will to grant any piece of land once controlled by the faithful to the Jews.  Its leaders would probably express readiness to “negotiate,” to keep the “peace process” going, but they would never be able to accept in good faith Israel’s legitimacy as a permanent feature of the Middle Eastern political landscape.  The same spirit of intransigence was in evidence when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and immediately raised his standing all over the Muslim world.  Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, praised the Iranian leader at a press conference in Tehran.  “It seems that the president’s words did not find favor with regional and international leaders,” he said, “but despite this, the Muslim public supported Iran on this issue in the past and will also support it in the future.  The Iranian government’s position on Palestine fills Muslim hearts with pride.”

There should be no doubt that Ahmadinejad’s words reflect the feeling in the “street.”  The roots of Muslim hatred of Jews are deep, and they antedate the problem of Israel-Palestine by some 13 centuries.  The Iranian leader’s histrionics remind us of the need to be aware of the historical record of political Islam and to harbor no illusions about its ultimate ambitions today.  Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was on to something real when he declared, in December 1992, that his country’s “struggle against murderous Islamic terror is also meant to awaken the world, which is lying in slumber.”  We should be no less aware, however, that a common problem of global jihad is sometimes used by the government of Israel as a cover for policies that facilitate its growth.

The brief upswing of a year ago in the manic-depressive cycle of Arab-Israeli affairs is over for now.  Another may come soon, or not so soon, but, in the interim, the United States would be well advised to stay away and allow the situation to become clearer.  It is in the American interest to help resolve the festering sore of Israel-Palestine, but not to do so when the major players are not ready or willing to play along.  It is in the American interest for us to follow the example of the Lords, from William Gilbert’s memorable refrain:

When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,

As every child can tell,

The House of Peers, throughout the war,

Did nothing in particular,

And did it very well . . .