Reflecting on his torturous time as President Bill Clinton's special envoy for the Northern Ireland peace process, former Sen. George Mitchell summarized what it was like to be stuck in a mediating role for so long. "In a sense," Mitchell said, "in Northern Ireland, we had about 700 days of failure and one day of success." That "one day of success," as Mitchell aptly describes it, resulted in the 1998 Belfast Agreement that created a power-sharing government between armed factions and ended much of the violence that rocked Northern Ireland's cities for decades.
Later in life, the Obama administration sought to tap into Mitchell's talents as a patient and persistent negotiator in the hope that he could resolve an even longer dispute: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Eight hundred and forty-two days after he was appointed by President Barack Obama to solve what has proven to be an unsolvable problem, Mitchell resigned in frustration on May 13, 2011. Since that time, negotiations for a two-state solution -- despite another renewed and dedicated attempt by Secretary of State John Kerry this past spring -- have gone nowhere.
The Mideast peace process, in fact, never seems to go forward. And if by luck it does, it's a one-forward back, two-step back situation, where an Israeli compromise to release Palestinian prisoners to create forward momentum and good-faith (one-step forward) becomes a big problem in Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet -- so much so that he reneges on releasing more prisoners without an assurance from Mahmoud Abbas that he is willing to continue negotiations (two-steps back).
Those who study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and those who live in the middle of it are seeing the one-step forward, two-steps back formula playing out again this week.
After 50 days of continuous conflict between Israel and Hamas, with over 2,100 civilians killed and parts of the Gaza Strip nothing but piles of rubble, all parties have finally reached an understanding that stops the fighting in its tracks. For many Palestinians and Israelis, August 26, 2014 represents a day of peace, when the air strikes, missiles, rockets, and tunnel attacks end and the process of reconstruction and healing begins. Secretary of State John Kerry called the long-term ceasefire "an opportunity" to rebuild the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and provide every person on both sides of the Israel-Gaza border the security, stability, and safety that they each deserve. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon describes the accord as the first step in a journey that will hopefully lead to "a brighter future" for Israelis and Palestinians alike. People in Gaza are on the streets cheering that the bombardment is now over for the time being, while Israelis at the same time are rooting for sustainable peace and quiet -- the objective that Israel's military has tried to attain through its latest Gaza campaign.
The end of the third Israel-Hamas confrontation in six years is unquestionably a 'one-step forward' moment. No one likes to see innocent men, women, and children being killed, and no one likes to see the lives of young soldiers barely out of high school taken away in the field of combat. But only in the Middle East can peace and quiet -- something that most people in the United States and Europe take for granted -- be considered a development worth being jubilant about.
Yet if the halt to the fighting is the optimistic side of the coin, then time represents its ugly, more depressing and foul cousin. It's an astounding diplomatic achievement that Israel and all of Gaza's Palestinian factions decided to embrace de-escalation: a halt to attacks from Gaza towards Israel; a halt to Israeli military activity in Gaza; a loosening of the Israel-Gaza border; and the transfer of Gaza's security to the Palestinian Authority. Each of these terms by itself is helpful in laying a strong foundation to what ultimately must be the formation of a broader resolution to the Gaza problem. When time is introduced into the equation, however, the August 2014 agreement looks a little less groundbreaking and a little more cookie-cutter, as if we have all seen this movie before.
And we have seen the movie before. Twenty-one months ago, in November 2012, Israel and Hamas ended an eight-day cross-border battle by constructing a package that is almost similar to the accord that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian militant groups signed this week. The basic conditions of the two documents are the same: everyone stops firing missiles and rockets; Gaza's borders are gradually loosened to allow for the import of humanitarian relief, construction materials, food, and medicine to the area's population; and fishing restrictions off the Gaza coast are relaxed to accommodate the local economy. The tough issues, like the complete and uncompromising demilitarization of Gaza, the abolishment of the Israel's land and sea blockade of the strip, the construction of an airport and seaport, and the exchange of prisoners are left for another day. The only real difference between the November 2012 and August 2014 agreements is the role of the Palestinian Authority, which this week's pact strengthen by reintroducing PA forces into the Gaza Strip. The scheme clearly didn't work as intended in 2012, and it's still up in the air as whether the same set of conditions will work nearly two years later.
What then, have Israel and Gaza's populations achieved after over a month of death, injury, fear, and utter chaos? The answer based on the latest ceasefire is clear: the status quo ante.