The seven-and-a-half-year vacuum in Arab- Israeli peacemaking under George W Bush ends next January. Bush refused to play ball, but he wouldn't let anyone else on the field: not the UN, not Russia, not the European Union. The only legacies he leaves his successor to build upon are secret, deniable talks among intelligence agencies and the familiar engagement of violence.
Israel's public posture has always been that it would never speak with those who did not recognise its "right to exist". Putting aside the obvious fact that "right to exist" is meaningless in international law, Israel has talked for years with those who did not recognise it. It had contacts with King Hussein of Jordan, and it warned the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Sudan of plots in 1977 to overthrow their regimes. It sold arms to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and it talked to the PLO for years before Yitzhak Rabin met Yasser Arafat at the White House. It has spoken through mediators to Hamas and Hezbollah. It is now talking to Syria, through Turkey and various independent peacemakers, though Syria assists Hezbollah and Hamas. Nothing will come of this, as the Syrian president now admits, without US involvement. And Washington does not want to get involved.
In Gaza, Israel and Hamas are setting the terms of discussion. "What kind of dialogue is being established?" asks Geoffrey Aronson, an American working to bridge differences between Syria and Israel through Swiss mediation. "The parties are engaged by fighting in Gaza. They learn from each other. They establish their limits and red lines. It's a sophisticated process. Both sides learn what will produce an explosion." Behind the scenes, Egyptian intelligence officers speak to Hamas and Israel about Hamas activists in Israeli prisons, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas, and the opening of a door to Gaza, through Egypt or Israel, that would permit the people of Gaza to receive food, medicine and other necessities.
The discussions are on two levels: exchanges of prisoners and, since the Gazans opened the wall to Egypt at Rafah last June, on a ceasefire and border agreements. For Hamas, as one Pal estinian put it: "A ceasefire must include new border arrangements." A fortnight ago, Hamas and 11 small resistance groups met in Cairo to discuss what the Palestinians would accept on the border. The Egyptian intelligence chief, General Omar Suleiman, presented proposals he had reason to believe Israel could accept. Hamas responded with a few minor amendments, which Suleiman was due to take to the Israelis for their response. Most observers believe that, if Israel rejects the plan, Egypt will have no choice - out of concern for the opinions of its own domestic Islamists - but to open the border with Gaza.
In the meantime, Hamas and the Israelis have to talk about basics such as water supplies to any West Bank town with a Hamas mayor, or the mere survival of a million people in Gaza. "Co-operation on an operational basis on the provision of goods into Gaza could not proceed without co-operation between the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] and Hamas," says Aronson. Left for another day, or another American president, are the big questions: mutual recognition by the Israeli and Pal estinian states, acceptance of the Palestinians' democratic election of a Hamas government, the "security wall" that has robbed the West Bank of much of its best land, Jerusalem and, well, peace.
Hezbollah is the only other guerrilla organisation with which Israel is at war. Israel assassinates its leaders almost as often as it murders those of Hamas, but it talks to Hezbollah as well. There have been prisoner exchanges in the past, and Israel wants back two Israeli soldiers captured in July 2006. It also wants information on Ron Arad, the reservist captured in Lebanon in 1986 by Shia Amal militia. There have been secret discussions, through Germany, that have yet to yield anything: Israel is refusing to release all of the prisoners demanded by Hez bollah, and Hezbollah says it will hold on to the two Israelis until that changes. If Israel wants the men back and a quiet border in the north, it must speak either to Hezbollah or to Syria.
It has, for the time being, chosen Syria. The last time the Syrians and Israelis met face to face, at least publicly, was in January 2000 in Shepherds town, West Virginia. When the two countries were only a few yards from peace - that is, a difference of a few dozen yards of land around the Sea of Tiberias - Bill Clinton dropped the ball at his final meeting in Geneva with the then Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, in March 2000. Bush did not bother to pick it up. Since April 2007, the Turkish foreign ministry has been ferrying "ideas" between Damascus and Jerusalem. "Maybe with the next US administration, we can talk about negotiations," the new Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, told the Kuwaiti daily al-Watan.
The issue between Syria and Israel is the Syrian land occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Syria seems as willing to give full recognition to Israel, in exchange for a return to the 4 June 1967 borders, as Anwar Sadat of Egypt was to get back all of the Sinai in 1979. The Syrians asked Jimmy Carter, when he visited Damascus last month, to take a message to the White House, asking the Israelis to let Syrian farmers in the occupied Golan Heights dig water wells - as Israeli settlers do to water their vineyards. (They probably didn't realise that Bush's White House doors don't open for Carter.) But, for Israel, Syrian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza complicates matters. Would Bashar al-Assad sell out Hezbollah and Hamas for the Golan Heights? The Turks are trying to find out, but so far Syria prefers to use the Palestinian and Leb anese Islamists to put pressure on Israel. If Israel makes peace with Syria, he won't need them.
This is what happens when nothing is happening: secret discussions on prisoner exchan ges, temporary ceasefires, border opening hours and goodwill gestures. For the past year and a half, Condoleezza Rice has made almost monthly trips to Israel. Why? Patrick Seale, one of the best-informed Middle East analysts, wrote for Agence Global on 7 May that Rice "has virtually nothing to show for it. Her diplomacy has been an exercise in futility."
Doing nothing permits Israel to colonise the West Bank, terrorise Gaza and linger on the Golan Heights. Was futility the policy? "Meanwhile, Israel stepped up its programmes of annexation, dismemberment and imprisonment of shrinking Palestinian cantons in the West Bank," Noam Chomsky told Palestine Today in July 2007, "always with the decisive US backing despite occasional minor complaints, accompanied by the wink of an eye and munificent funding." Moreover, Washington's paralysis allows Israel to choose which Arab leaders to talk to, knowing they will sell each other out. What's the downside for Bush?
© Charles Glass 2008. Charles Glass is the author of "The Tribes Triumphant" (HarperCollins) and "The Northern Front: A Wartime Diary" (Saqi)