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The Peace Process Tooth Fairy

How Morsy, Hamas, and Bibi stole the peace process.

I'd love to believe in the peace process tooth fairy. I really would.

In the wake of the Israeli-Hamas ceasefire in Gaza, I'd love to believe:

That the Egyptian government -- backed by the Turks, the Saudis and the Qataris -- would put its money where its mouth is and press Hamas to give up its deadly and indiscriminate arsenal of unguided rockets.

That Hamas would meet the Middle East Quartet's conditions, including the renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel, and enter into a dialogue with the Israelis.

That Hamas and Fatah would reconcile -- forging one gun, one authority, and one negotiating position. This unified Palestinian national movement would then settle on terms for a deal with Israel that belongs to this world, not some fantasy galaxy.

That Israel would cease settlement construction in the West Bank and understand that its long-term security and its character as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people depends on a meaningful peace with the Palestinians.

But back on planet Earth, this wish list remains as realistic as the tooth fairy's business plan. And instead of progress toward a two-state solution, another more realistic and less transformative trend is underway.

Like Grinches who stole the peace process, the three most important regional actors -- Israel, Egypt, and Hamas -- have indirectly aligned at the expense of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to take the two-state solution in a completely different direction. The members of this informal cabal are pursuing policies that cannot possibly guarantee long-term stability, let alone produce a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. But that may just fine with them, and it may even be all that the peace-process traffic can bear right now. Here's why.

Hamas

It took almost a quarter century for the Palestine Liberation Organization -- the secular manifestation of Palestinian nationalism -- to recognize Israel and to engage in a peace process with Israel. One can only surmise how long it will be before Hamas -- the religious manifestation of Palestinian nationalism -- follows the same path. Hamas officials, such as the organization's head Khaled Meshaal, have flirted with the idea of coming to terms with Israel's existence (for now). But not recognizing Israel, as Arafat and Abbas have done.

But all of this is really beside the point. Hamas has other objectives right now -- consolidating its control over Gaza, ending economic restrictions on the Strip, continuing to spread its influence in the West Bank, and deepening its relations with other Islamists in the Arab world.

None of this is served by a continued fight with Israel, nor by a peace process that forces Hamas to violate its own ideology and split its ranks. Indirect talks with Israel that leading to a long-term truce, or hudna in Arabic, would do nicely.

Egypt

We need to distinguish between President Mohammed Morsy's tactics and his strategic objectives. Like Hamas, he may have radical end goals, but he currently has other priorities -- namely, consolidating power and securing economic aid from the West.

His ownership of the recent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas had less to do with wanting to play a central role in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts than a means to achieve those other ends.

The recent escalation in Gaza threatened to trap Morsy in a no-win situation. If the conflict worsened, it would have placed him in an escalating crisis with Israel and the United States and forced him to respond aggressively against fellow Islamists if the Israelis launched a ground incursion.

Once Israel and Hamas gave him enough room to broker an agreement, he saw an opportunity to cover a move on the domestic side -- his assault on the judiciary -- through the goodwill he'd earned from the Americans and others.

Morsy is not like Egyptian presidents of yesteryear -- Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak --when it comes to the peace process. He has other objectives right now, and reaching out to Israel or pressuring Hamas or Abbas to accept concessions aren't among them. As a Muslim Brother (once a BRO always a BRO), Morsy will have a tough time accepting major concessions on Jerusalem. Indeed, he can barely bring himself to talk about two states. But in the short term, he too benefits by stability in Gaza and a longer-term ceasefire.

Israel

For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Gaza ceasefire offered a lifeline: He demonstrated two months before an election that he has functional relationships with U.S. President Barack Obama and Morsy, avoided a costly incursion into Gaza, and restored quiet to Israel's southern communities -- all without making any major concessions.

The current Israeli government cannot afford a big peace-process effort right now. Barring some event we cannot divine, Netanyahu will be in a position to form the next Israeli government. The ceasefire agreement ensures it.

But Bibi won't want a bold peace-process move next year, either. Moving forward on borders, Jerusalem, and refugees will divide his coalition and confront him with agonizing choices he doesn't want to make. And besides, his major priority in 2013 won't be the peace process, but Iran. It may well be that no Israeli premier would be in a position to make major concessions on a Palestinian state until there's much more clarity on the Iranian nuclear issue. A long-term de facto agreement with Hamas serves his purposes too.

Abbas, America, and the two-state solution

There's no need to belabor the obvious. The current alignment of Egypt, Hamas, and Israel will come at the expense of Abbas and the peace process. And there's little he can do about it. Pushing for observer state status this week at the United Nations may be critical for Abbas -- but it counts for very little given what's happening on the ground.

Abbas will remain relevant because the two-state solution is too important to fail even though it's too complex to implement. And besides, the current Egypt-Hamas-Israel troika won't hold forever. Hamas will rearm and reload, and there are limits to the economic concessions Israel is prepared to make in Gaza. Sooner or later these two will come to blows again, and Morsy will find himself forced to push for more from the Israelis.

Still, if left to its own devices, the current alignment may well conspire to shape the political landscape of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict away from a conflict-ending solution toward a series of provisional outcomes -- some more manageable than others.

One thing is clear. There will be no meaningful peace initiatives coming from Egypt, Hamas, Abbas, or Israel. That leaves the Obama administration -- perhaps the only conceivable peace process actor now -- to contemplate changing this new status quo.

And because this president has either convinced himself or been convinced by others (perhaps rightly) that the two-state solution may well expire on his watch if nothing is done, I suspect he'll try to do something significant -- regardless of the odds against success.

There's no stopping it: Beavers build dams, teenagers talk on the phone, and American presidents and secretaries of state conduct very serious diplomacy on the Arab-Israeli peace process. It's in our DNA. We can't help ourselves -- nor, in the minds of many, should we control ourselves. The peace process and its imagined outcome -- a two-state solution -- has been sainted and canonized in America's foreign policy.

Even so, the holy grail of Middle East peacemaking seems to recede further from our grasp with each passing year. One can only hope that, this time around, the president's foray into the peace process is better considered, better timed, and more thoughtfully conceived than his first.

LISE ASERUD/AFP/Getty Images

Reality Check

How Hamas Won the War

It doesn’t really matter if Israel wins the battle.

Cruel Middle East ironies abound. And here's a doozy for you.

Why is it that Hamas -- purveyor of terror, launcher of Iranian-supplied rockets, and source of "death to the Jews" tropes -- is getting more attention, traction, legitimacy and support than the "good" Palestinian, the reasonable and grandfatherly Mahmoud Abbas, who has foresworn violence in favor of negotiations? Since the crisis began, President Obama seems to have talked to every other Middle Eastern leader except Abbas.

The Israeli operation against Hamas may yet take a large bite out of the Palestinian Islamist organization in Gaza, but the "Hamas trumps Abbas" dynamic has been underway for some time now and is likely to continue. I'd offer four reasons why.

Feckless Fatah

Abbas's party is in disarray. The Islamists' victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, its takeover of Gaza in 2007, Fatah's own sense of political drift, and the absence of a credible peace process created an opening for Hamas -- the religious manifestation of Palestinian nationalism. Had Yasir Arafat still been alive, Hamas would never have come as far as it has.

Arafat's death left a huge leadership vacuum in a political culture where persona, not institutions, figures prominently. Abbas had electoral legitimacy but he lacked the authority, street cred, and elan of the historical struggle. And in a Palestinian national movement without direction and strategy, it didn't take much to create an alternative to a tired, divided, corrupt, and ineffective Fatah.

Hawks Rule the Roost

We don't like to admit it, but Middle East politics is the domain not of the doves but of hard men who can sometimes be pragmatists -- but certainly not in response to sentimental or idealized desires.

Peacemaking on the Israeli side has never been -- and is likely never to be -- owned by the left. From Israeli premiers Menachem Begin to Yitzhak Rabin (breaker of bones during the first Intifada) to Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, the story of the Arab-Israeli negotiations is one of tough guys whose calculations were reshaped by necessity and self-interest, and who could deliver something tangible to the other side while getting away with it politically at home.

Abbas may well be the best Palestinian partner Israel has ever had. But if he can't deliver, well, Houston we have a problem.

Being the darling of the West counts for something. For good reason, Abbas and his reality-based prime minister, Salam Fayyad, emerged as the great hope among the peace-making set: Here were reasonable, moderate men who eschewed violence and were actually interested in state-building. But could they actually deliver what various Israeli governments wanted?

Irony of ironies, it was Hamas that emerged as the object of Israel's real attentions -- the Islamist nationalists, it turned out, had what Israel needed and could deliver it. When Israel wanted a ceasefire, who did it negotiate with? Hamas, not Abbas. When Israel wanted Gilad Shalit back, who did it negotiate with? Hamas, not Abbas. Indeed, the astute Israel journalist Aluf Benn wrote last week that Israel killed the de facto head of Hamas's military wing -- Ahmad al-Jaabari -- because he was no longer willing or able to play the role of Israel's policeman, squelching Hamas and jihadi rocket fire into Israel. In exchange for doing so, Benn posits, Israel shipped in shekels for Gaza's banks and support for Gaza's infrastructure. Jaabari had street cred and delivered for four years -- Abbas has little and couldn't.

Netanyahu's Comfort Zone

Bibi is who he is. Right now, he's a legitimate Israeli leader who may well be the only political figure capable of leading the country. Whether he can lead Israel to real peace with the Palestinians is another matter entirely.

It's politically inconvenient to admit it, but given Bibi's world view -- which is profoundly shaped by suspicion and mistrust of the Arabs and Palestinians -- he's more comfortable in the world of Hamas than of Abbas. This is a world of toughness, of security, and of defending the Jewish state against Hamas rockets, incitement, and anti-Semitism. Hamas's behavior merely validates Netanyahu's view of reality -- and it empowers him to rise to the role of heroic defender of Israel.

Netanyahu didn't seek out a war over Hamas's rockets, which threaten an increasing number of Israeli towns and cities. But he is truly in his element in dealing with it. Sure he'd like to destroy Hamas and negotiate with Abbas -- but on his terms. Indeed, the world of a negotiation over borders, refugees, Jerusalem is a world of great discomfort for Netanyahu, because it will force choices that run against his nature, his politics, and his ideology.

Hamas isn't a cheap excuse conjured up to avoid negotiating with the Palestinians, of course. But the fact that Abbas can't control Hamas and that Arab states, particularly Egypt, now embrace it openly is precisely why Bibi believes he must be cautious in any negotiations. He may intellectually accept the possibility that the absence of meaningful negotiations actually empowers Hamas. But never emotionally. If you see the world through an us vs. them filter, you're rarely responsible for the problem -- it's almost always the other guy's fault.

The Islamist Spring

Even while their publics identified with the Palestinian cause, the Arab states never really trusted the Palestinian national movement and its organizational embodiment, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

With the exception of Egypt, every Arab state bordering Israel had a bloody conflict with the PLO. For these states, Palestinians represented a threat either from refugee populations or from the possibility that the Palestinian armed struggle would drag the Arabs into an unwanted or untimely war.

Tensions and differences still persist. But the Arab -- really Islamist -- Spring has created a major new realignment.

The real diplomatic coup for the Palestinians isn't Abbas's effort toward winning statehood recognition at the United Nations. It's the victories and growing influence of Islamists in Arab politics, which have given Hamas greater respectability and support. Two of Israel's most important Middle East friends -- Turkey and Egypt -- are now running interference for Hamas as their own ties with the Israelis have gotten colder. And these new allies aren't outliers like Iran and Syria. They are friends of the United States and very much in the center of the international community.

Where's Waldo?

It's testament to the weakness of Abbas and the PLO that it is Hamas's rockets, not Abbas's diplomacy, that has placed the Palestinian issue once again on center stage. The Palestinian president is nowhere to be found.

For all the attention paid to Abbas's statehood initiative this month at the U.N. General Assembly, it seems truly irrelevant now. And once again, this is confirmation of the fact that events on the ground determine what's up and down in Israel and Palestine. And Hamas is getting all the attention. Within the last month, the Qatari emir traveled to Gaza bearing gifts and cash, the Egyptian prime minister visited, and an Arab League delegation is planning to arrive soon. Turkey's foreign minister is also talking about a visit of his own.

So where does all of this go? The Middle East is notorious for rapid reversals of fortunes. Hamas is hardly 10 feet tall and a master of strategic planning. It can no more liberate Palestine or turn Gaza into Singapore than Abbas could. And maybe the Israelis will succeed in delivering it a significant blow in the coming days. You have to believe that Abbas hopes so and is feeding them targeting info.

And since so many people have a stake in the idea of the two-state solution, Abbas will continue to play a key role. It would be nice to imagine that somehow, in some way, Fatah and Hamas would unify -- with Abbas in the driver's seat -- producing a national movement that had one gun and one negotiating position, instead of a dysfunctional polity that resembles Noah's Ark, with two of everything. And it is a wonderful thought that the so-called Islamist centrists would lean on Hamas to do precisely that.

But this isn't some parallel universe of truth, brotherhood, and light that offers up clear and decisive Hollywood endings. It's the muddle of the Middle East, where risk-aversion and the need to keep all your options open all too often substitutes for bold, clear-headed thinking -- guaranteeing gray rather than black and white outcomes.

Hamas and Fatah will survive, even as they both remain dysfunctional and divided. Both serve a perverse purpose -- keeping resistance and diplomacy alive, respectively, but not effectively enough to gain statehood. Israel will continue to play its own unhelpful role in this enterprise. And for the time being neither Palestinian movement is likely to give the Israelis any reason to change their minds.

The conundrum is crystal clear: Hamas won't make peace with Israel, and Abbas can't. The way forward is much less so.

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images