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Threads of Hope Glimmer in the Middle East

by Jonathan Goldstein on Dec 22, 2009

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — When the Roman Catholic Patriarch of the Holy Land, Fouad Tual, celebrates Mass in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem this Christmas Eve, events in the town and region over this past year give more and more indication that regional peace may yet be in the cards.

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which abuts Israel, elected an Islamic fundamentalist Hamas government, which a year ago launched daily missile attacks against the farms and villages of central and southern Israel. Israel retaliated in its January 2009 “Cast Lead” incursion into Gaza.
 
But since that three-week-long war, with rare exceptions there has been a de facto cease fire on Hamas’s part while negotiations proceed on an Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange. The conflict with no signs of let-up is not between Israel and Hamas but rather between Hamas and moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his secular Fatah faction. Civil war rages between these Palestinian groups.
 
Israel’s northern frontier with Lebanon has also been remarkably tranquil for months, even though Hezbollah militiamen, heavily armed with Iranian missiles, threaten to rekindle the 34-day proxy war they fought with Israel during the summer of 2006.
 
One should also bear in mind the broader context of regional events:
 
Israel and overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey continue to enjoy the full diplomatic relations they have had since 1949. Although military ties have had their ups and downs, in 2003 more than 300,000 Israeli tourists visited the Turkish resort of Antalya. In 2009 it remains a prime Israeli tourist destination.
 
Syria and Israel enjoy a frontier that has been casualty-free since l973. The Israeli-Syrian Disengagement Agreement, brokered in 1974 by Richard Nixon’s secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, may have set an all-time record for peace between two former Middle Eastern adversaries. It certainly has outlasted numerous peace agreements between Arab states. During this past year, indirect Syrian-Israeli negotiations have been brokered, primarily by Turkey, but also by France.
 
Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty 14 years ago and have quietly settled a long-simmering frontier dispute over an area informally renamed “Peace Island.” El Al Israel Air Lines serves the Jordanian capital of Amman. Jordanian airliners, unlike those of any other Arab country, fly over Israeli air space. Negotiations are under way to export Israeli Dead Sea minerals via the Jordanian port of Aqaba and Jordanian products via Israel’s Mediterranean ports, freeing up Israel’s southern port of Elath for expansion of tourist hotels.
 
Israel has enjoyed only a cold peace with Egypt since President Anwar Sadat’s courageous visit to Jerusalem 30 years ago. Nevertheless, the current treaty-based Israeli-Egyptian relationship is infinitely superior to the incessant warfare that characterized the three decades years before Sadat’s visit.
 
An example of that cold but peaceful relationship is Israel’s reversion of the Taba beach resort, on the Gulf of Elath leading into the Red Sea, to Egyptian sovereignty after difficult negotiations culminating in a case before the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Former Israeli hotels in Taba are once again packed with Israeli sun worshippers.
 
Most important, moderate Palestinian President Abbas remains a negotiating partner of Israel and the West. The fullest expression of this cooperation was Abbas’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with United States President Obama in Washington earlier this year. Abbas will also almost surely make an appearance in the Nativity Church in Bethlehem this Christmas Eve. The symbolic presence of Abbas, a Sunni Muslim, in the church will be a cause for hope among moderates of many faiths.

Dr. Jonathan Goldstein is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton and a writer for the History News Service.