EDITORIAL & VIEWS: Is the US ready to become even-handed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

A new peace process demands new language

If almost 1,000 Israelis had just been killed and another 3,000 wounded, Israel as a nation would take justifiable offense at anyone who suggested to them that now was the time to return to the negotiating table. To approach ones enemy in such a moment is the ultimate expression of defeat.

For Palestinians in this moment, with no state, with no practical support from their vocal allies, a refusal to accept defeat is the thread upon which hangs their dignity and their hopes for a self-determined national identity.

If the Obama administration wants to grasp the political opportunity created by the current crisis, a clear and meaningful starting point can come through adopting new language for framing the issues.

“Choosing talks over terror” (see Richard Haass’ commentary below) is a repudiation of the Bush paradigm that has consistently devalued negotiation yet it reaffirms the language of the war on terrorism.

For over two weeks, a 1.5 million Palestinians have been terrorized. It would be absurd to claim otherwise. At any other time in any other location, if a state was raining down missiles and bombs on a population that was being encouraged to flee even while it was simultaneously being caged in, such a state would be accused of mercilessly terrorizing that population.

The choice that Palestinians — and Israelis — need to be persuaded to make is between negotiation and armed confrontation.

Only when our language refrains from taking sides can we begin to be seen as even-handed.

Secondly, if the US wants to grade the region’s actors in a meaningful way, it’s time to toss out another key element in the Bush paradigm: the idea that the Middle East is divided between “moderates” and “extremists.”

Instead of flattering US allies by calling them moderates, we should be paying attention to which countries and populations have a greater appetite for democracy and which regimes are nurturing or supressing that appetite. While none of America’s friends count well on that score, as the global Democracy Index indicates the most fertile ground for democratic development in the Middle East is among Palestinians.

When the seeds of Palestinian democracy started to take root in 2006, it was the US, Israel and Europe who were intent on aborting the birth of democracy (see the Christian Science Monitor commentary below for an excellent account of the US-sponsored sabotage of Palestinian democracy). The mistrust this democratic betrayal has engendered has created a huge obstacle that can only be removed by a new and tangible demonstration by the so-called facilitators of peace that they are now pursuing this goal in good faith. So far, the only clear message that has gone out across the region is that Israel enjoys unequivocal Western support however it chooses to act. That message provides no basis for a peace process.

An inside story of how the US magnified Palestinian suffering

Hamas never called for the elections that put them in power. That was the brainstorm of Secretary Rice and her staff, who had apparently decided they could steer Palestinians into supporting the more-compliant Mahmoud Abbas (the current president of the Palestinian authority) and his Fatah Party through a marketing campaign that was to counter Hamas’s growing popularity – all while ignoring continued Israeli settlement construction, land confiscation, and cantonization of the West Bank.

State Department staffers helped finance and supervise the Fatah campaign, down to the choice of backdrop color for the podium where Mr. Abbas was to proclaim victory. An adviser working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) explained to incredulous staffers at the Embassy in Tel Aviv how he would finance and direct elements of the campaign, leaving no US fingerprints. USAID teams, meanwhile, struggled to implement projects for which Abbas could claim credit. Once the covert political program cemented Fatah in place, the militia Washington was building for Fatah warlord-wannabee Mohammed Dahlan would destroy Hamas militarily.

Their collective confidence was unbounded. But the Palestinians didn’t get the memo. Rice was reportedly blindsided when she heard the news of Hamas’s victory during her 5 a.m. treadmill workout. But that did not prevent a swift response.

She immediately insisted that the Quartet (the US, European Union, United Nations, and Russia) ban all contact with Hamas and support Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza. The results of her request were mixed, but Palestinian suffering manifestly intensified. The isolation was supposed to turn angry Palestinians against an ineffective Hamas. As if such blockades had not been tried before.

Simultaneously, the US military team expanded its efforts to build the Mohammed Dahlan-led militia. President Bush considered Dahlan “our guy.” But Dahlan’s thugs moved too soon. They roamed Gaza, demanding protection money from businesses and individuals, erecting checkpoints to extort bribes, terrorizing Dahlan’s opponents within Fatah, and attacking Hamas members.

Finally, in mid-2007, faced with increasing chaos and the widely known implementation of a US-backed militia, Hamas – the lawfully elected government – struck first. They routed the Fatah gangs, securing control of the entire Gaza Strip, and established civil order. [continued…]

Bring in the diplomats

Every crisis holds within it the seeds of opportunity, and this one is no exception. But to take advantage of it, Washington must give Palestinians a reason for choosing talks over terror. The only way to do this is to demonstrate that talking—negotiating—will deliver more than fighting.

Sooner rather than later the new president should publicly articulate the contours of what the United States believes would constitute a just settlement of the Middle East conflict. This means calling for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state based on 1967 lines, with territorial compensation for those borders altered to take into account Israel’s large settlement blocs and legitimate security requirements. Palestinian refugees would receive financial compensation and the right to settle in the new country of Palestine but, with few exceptions, not in Israel. Palestinians would enjoy some foothold in Greater Jerusalem (so that they could claim it as their capital) and authority over Muslim holy places.

Aid and investment can also strengthen the hands of moderates, although it needs to be complemented by easing the movement of goods and people in and out of the West Bank and Gaza. It is essential to rein in Israeli settlement activity lest Palestinians conclude their state will never be viable. And it’s worth trying to drive a wedge between Hamas and Syria. The United States should join with Turkey in mediating between Syria and Israel. A deal ought to be possible in which Israel returns all of the Golan Heights (which are then demilitarized for a set period of time) in exchange for peace and a halt to Syrian support for Hizbullah and Hamas. The United States would then ease economic sanctions against Damascus.

We have learned in Iraq and elsewhere that political and economic progress cannot take place without security. This means we should continue to build up Palestinian police and military forces. It could also mean creating an international force, possibly one drawn from Arab and Islamic countries, to maintain calm in Gaza. The alternative is to depend on Israeli deterrence and Hamas’s restraint, which as recent events demonstrate are prone to breaking down.

It is too soon to know whether the moderates would win out over the radicals or, as happened in Northern Ireland, many of the radicals would evolve and become more moderate. This should be encouraged; over time, elements of Hamas might conclude that their only hope of realizing a Palestinian state is by trading in their guns. Those willing to embrace this approach could become part of a Palestinian coalition government. [continued…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

6 thoughts on “EDITORIAL & VIEWS: Is the US ready to become even-handed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

  1. Yigal Arens

    I read Richard Haass’ column and nearly fell asleep. This is “change”? I could have read — and did read — the exact same words countless times before, going back 10 or 20 years.

    One of the geniuses over there in Washington needs to figure out why nothing is actually moving on the ground. Israel continues to do what it wants, Palestinians continue to be deprived of more and more of their rights, property and lives, the “peace process” grinds on interminably, and US politicians continue to propose solutions that basically take Israeli demands as given — and don’t even reflect on why they can’t get those implemented.

    (Or what they still *think* are Israeli demands. Even Olmert has stated that the Palestinians should get more than a “foothold” in Jerusalem.)

    If all we’re going to hear are more words like Haass’, I will bet you anything you want that when Obama’s term comes to an end, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be resolved, and the situation will be even worse than today. It has been worsening continuously over the years, and there’s no reason to believe this will stop now.

  2. Paul Woodward

    It gladdens my heart that these straightforward observations come from an Israeli. And here’s the terrible irony when it comes to citing Richard Haass. Yes, there’s little in what he says that amounts to a bold new departure in America’s approach to Israel but if Haass has more say in the matter than does Dennis Ross then this will be a significant “advance.”

    If Obama wanted to do something really radical, maybe instead of surrounding himself with Israel-friendly advisers, he should hire some radical Israelis. How about Ilan Pappe for Middle East envoy?

    Sometimes it’s necessary to indulge in an idle fantasy just to avoid succumbing to despair!

  3. Matt

    Step 1. Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, etc…all recognize Israel and exchange ambassabors. If they can’t do that, there will be no peace.

  4. Paul Woodward

    Matt – what you are describing here is the conclusion of a diplomatic process, not the beginning. The same applies to the idea that a peace process that begins with the renunciation of violence. If that was possible, conflict resolution would be incredibly easy. In an instant, violence could transition into peace. But the reason this never happens is that violence invariably springs out of a constellation of political grievances – grievances that went unaddressed prior to the outbreak of violence. Unless the underlying grievances are addressed, the foundation for violence cannot be removed. Currently, Israel effectively holds 4 million Palestinians in prison — this is the real issue; not Qassam rockets falling on Israel.

    Imagine if the United States had absolute military control over Mexico. Economic control through which the population was being starved, control of the airspace along strict control over who could enter or leave the territory. For the United States to imagine that it could control the lives of 100 million people in this way would be both preposterous and utterly unrealistic. If in these circumstances a few rebellious Mexicans decided to start lobbing tiny missiles into Texas and California, that would be the least of our worries.

  5. Aaron HaLevi

    Why not refer to Sir William of Occham (Occham’s Razor), reduce the mental masterbation, get to the simple fact that Hamas is a terrorist organization, refuses theologically to agree to Israel’s existance, and support Israel’s right to defend herself. Maimonides supported the notion that one life lost is equvalent to one million lost. This notion of disproportionality is a myth and you know it. Look at what the Brits did in WW2 or what we did tio Japan to end that war. Cut the BS and keep it simple. Call Hamas and her collaborators what they are and do what is necessary. As far as I am concerned, Israel had the right to be far more agressive so as to protect their troops and be more precient from the air! Israel’s world opinion is already shot thanks to MSM shops like CNN and reporters that want to make a name by swimming upstream. Frankly Paul, I find your points soft and sympathizing with the horrific regimes that plague the ME. I am surprisd at you and Sanger, considering your backgrounds. You appear shameful and undeserving of so-called awards in journalism!

  6. Paul Woodward

    Well Aaron, I’m flattered that you imagine I’m a recipient of journalism awards (perhaps you confuse me with a better known Woodward), but you make some excellent points.

    It must be frustrating to see that Israel clearly missed a golden opportunity on December 14.

    300,000 supporters of Hamas gathered in Gaza City to celebrate the organization’s 21st anniversary. One 15,000lb Daisy Cutter could have taken care of the Hamas problem in a single stroke. In one instant, Israel could have delivered the final solution to its Hamas problem and sent a bold signal across the Middle East.

    Is this the kind of thing you have in mind Aaron when you use that wonderfully comprehensive phrase, “do what is necessary”?

Comments are closed.