The Holy Land’s long, hot summer started with a spate of rocket attacks by Palestinian militants based in Gaza on the Israeli border town of Sderot.  Over 100 homemade Kassems had been fired by the last week of June, resulting in civilian casualties and calls for the return of Israeli troops to the Gaza Strip—a mere ten months after it was evacuated by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.  Israel responded with a series of “targeted killings” of militants in Gaza, but the air strikes also took their usual toll in civilian lives and prompted international protests.

Then, on June 25, the military wing of Hamas—the ruling party in the Palestinian Authority (PA)—launched an attack on a military outpost at the Israeli town of Kerem Shalom, just south of the Gaza Strip.  The militiamen killed two soldiers and abducted one, demanding the release of all Palestinian women and teenagers in Israeli jails in return for his freedom.  The following day, an 18-year-old Jewish settler was kidnapped and killed in the West Bank.  The Israeli response came two days later.  In the course of a simultaneous military incursion into Gaza and the West Bank, dozens of prominent Hamas members were arrested, including several PA government ministers and members of the National Assembly.

The political and financial crisis within the Palestinian Authority has been brewing ever since the landslide victory of Hamas, a fundamentalist Islamic movement officially dedicated to the destruction of Israel, in the general election last January.  The refusal of Hamas to change its position on “the Zionist entity” prompted the United States and the European Union to impose crippling financial sanctions on the PA and brought the already moribund “peace process” to a complete standstill.  The crisis also led to rising tensions and even open fighting between Hamas’s militia and the PA security forces.  The latter, nominally 70,000 strong, are controlled by the late Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party and are presumably loyal to the beleaguered PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, but that relationship has been weakened by Abbas’s indecisiveness and by the fact that the troops are not being paid.  The attack at Kerem Shalom was a challenge to Israel, but it also sent a clear message to Fatah that it has lost control and has no means to stop other factions from acting as they see fit.

Abbas still favors the two-state solution, which means a de facto recognition of Israel, and fears that the posture of Hamas is detrimental to Palestinian interests because it plays into the hands of Israeli hard-liners who deny that any long-term deal with the Palestinians is possible.  In a bold gamble that smacked of desperation, Abbas, last May, called for a referendum to decide the issue.  His initiative was immediately rejected by Hamas, which claimed that he was causing further divisions within Palestinian ranks.  It also caused nervousness among his own supporters, who feared that, if the referendum were held under present circumstances, most Palestinians would support the hard-liners.  A compromise formula was drafted by several prominent Palestinian activists held in Israeli jails, but the vagueness of its wording appeared calculated to paper over the internal Palestinian differences rather than resolve them.

The Israeli-military action may provide a temporary resolution by rekindling the sense of Palestinian unity in the face of adversity, but here, too, there is less than meets the eye.  Pro-Fatah Palestinians will not say so openly, but they are well aware that the Israeli arrests are a crippling blow to Hamas that will diminish its ability to exercise influence in the Palestinian Authority.  The scales are at least potentially tipped back in Fatah’s favor, but if so, the beneficiaries are sure to be reluctant to gloat.

The ability of Abbas to reinforce his own position in the aftermath of Israeli action is open to doubt.  He was ridiculed by the Palestinian public for hugging Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the Petra summit in Jordan on June 22, while the Israeli air force was continuing its “targeted killings” in Gaza.  Israel’s subsequent announcement that she has agreed to transfer Jordanian-supplied arms to Abbas’s Presidential Guards also raised questions about Israeli purposes: Against whom, exactly, was Abbas expected to use his newly acquired firepower?  His inability to secure the release of the abducted Israeli soldier in Gaza through the political pressure of his friends in Cairo and Amman, coupled with his unwillingness to unleash open warfare against pro-Hamas militants (because that could escalate into a civil war), shows the extent to which Abbas is caught between a rock and a hard place.

The return of Israeli forces to Gaza cast doubt upon Prime Minister Olmert’s controversial plan to complete a similar withdrawal from large parts of the West Bank later this year.  That plan would leave 90 percent of the West Bank to the PA, redraw the border close to the Green Line and along the antiterror fence, and relocate some 70,000 Jewish settlers who currently reside east of Israel’s pre-1967 border.  Olmert’s claim that this “realignment” would improve Israel’s security and reduce tensions with the Palestinians is now ridiculed by his opponents on the right.  They say that no further withdrawal should be contemplated as long as the PA is beset by anarchy and dominated by men of violence.

It is unlikely that Olmert can devise a plan to prop up Abbas, declaw Hamas, continue disengagement from the territories, and maintain the unity of his government coalition.  His former aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, have explained to me that, in his instincts as well as in his modus operandi, he is a politician who will do whatever is necessary in the short term to maintain his position, regardless of the big picture.  He will seek to please as many domestic constituencies as possible, but the net effect will not amount to a strategic vision for the future of the region.

The “Oslo Process,” as conceived by those who initiated it, has come to an end.  This is a diagnosis, not an opinion.  The political principle of Oslo was an ongoing trade-off of various items in bilateral negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians working jointly toward a final, permanent peace agreement.  In the summer of 2006, this principle has broken down completely.  Amid the rising spiral of violence, there can be no negotiations on final status, or even on interim agreements, and there is no cooperation and coordination on security-related issues.  The process has collapsed, and each party has chosen to go its own way.  The Palestinian Authority is sinking into anarchy; Israel is taking unilateral ad hoc steps; and neither side has a strategic vision or a workable long-term plan. The outside world, including the United States, is less interested in mediating than at any time since the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991.

The tragedy of the Israeli-Arab conflict is that a problem that may have been amenable, a few decades ago, to the conventional conflict-resolution approach has morphed into a civilizational and religious dispute beyond politics.  Most of the principal actors perceive it as a zero-sum game, and, in the Middle East, perception is still the only reality.