Respite on the Road to Nowhere?

An informal truce between Israel and Hamas went into effect early Thursday morning, temporarily suspending a year of fighting that has left more than 600 Palestinians – many of them civilians – and 18 Israelis dead.

The guns fell silent at 6 a.m. amid skepticism that the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire will actually hold. The next 48 hours will determine whether both sides halt their cross-border fighting in exchange for a partial and gradual easing of Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza.

While welcomed by Washington, the fragile truce marks yet another failure for the George W. Bush administration’s "transformative diplomacy" policy in the Middle East. In the current climate, the Bush administration’s tacit support for the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire underscores its need to salvage the withering Annapolis process.

"Anything that helps maintain security for Israeli citizens, that helps end the kind of violence that has been fairly constant along the border with Gaza is something that’s positive," State Department spokesperson Tom Casey told reporters Thursday.

"I think the one caveat we have always said is that we don’t think that any other track or any other negotiating path ought to be a substitute or a distraction from the primary set of discussions and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians," he said, referring to US-led peace talks that have yet to result in substantive progress.

The White House has publicly ruled out direct negotiations with Hamas until it renounces violence and accepts Israel’s right to exist, but the group’s ability to exploit the consequences of its isolation over the last year forced Washington to soften its stance. As in Lebanon, the move appears to have strengthened the political standing of a group that Washington still considers a terrorist organization.

Beyond easing the immediate hardship to Gazans and stopping rocket fire into Israel, analysts here say the ceasefire will not lead to a substantive shift in peace talks.

"The ceasefire in Gaza will be a welcome respite, but a fundamental road to nowhere," said Aaron David Miller, an advisor to six US secretaries of state, during a panel on Capitol Hill last Wednesday.

"A ceasefire means more than stopping fire," said former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy. "For Palestinians, it means actually being able to breathe and opening up the economy."

The Israeli siege was meant to apply economic pressure on the population of 1.5 million Palestinians in the hopes that they would turn against the Islamist group, but that goal has backfired. The crisis has, instead, caused the Palestinian polity to split further.

Despite military and economic pressure, Hamas has consolidated its power in Gaza.

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that the notion of the territory as a separate entity is "solidifying, making it less likely that Palestinians might agree even among themselves on peace with Israel."

Hamas seized control of Gaza last June after the national unity government with Fatah leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas collapsed. Abbas has since governed the West Bank from the city of Ramallah.

Israel and Washington’s embrace of Abbas has considerably weakened the Fatah leader, as he struggles to govern a divided polity while simultaneously pursuing Annapolis peace talks. But with Bush’s term near its end, and with no discernible progress on the ground, there is a growing realization that no such deal will take place.

"Any effective truce will further enhance the sense of the futility of [US-led] negotiations even though an improved security environment will create a more promising backdrop to those talks," said Daniel Levy.

In this new tenuous security environment, it appears that bridging the political divide between Palestinians remains the highest priority.

"Palestinian Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall and has cracked, and how can it be reassembled?" said Miller. "A unified Palestinian power is the only chance for any kind of agreement to be implemented."

"We are living our worst nightmare since 1967," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat while visiting Washington last month.

In Israel, right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the truce agreement, saying it only gave Hamas more time to rearm for future confrontations.

"I would like to know, what did we achieve here exactly? Hamas will not stop rearming – (Hamas politburo chief) Khaled Mashaal said they wouldn’t and the defense establishment already said the truce will be fragile."

"We didn’t get Gilad back. We got nothing. The government is allowing Hamas to go about rearming before the next round of terror attacks," he said, referring to the Israeli solider captured by Hamas militants in a cross border raid in June 2006.

While both sides welcomed the truce, recent history suggests that it could be short-lived.

Israel has made the reopening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt conditional on progress towards the release of Shalit. Its phased approach to easing economic restrictions on Gaza reflects doubt that the ceasefire will last, and the army has already been instructed to prepare for a large-scale offensive operation if it collapses.

Tel Aviv also succeeded in getting Hamas to drop its longstanding demand that any ceasefire apply to the West Bank, in addition to Gaza.