America’s second chance to engage with Hamas

Barack Obama said last month that his election offered “a unique opportunity to reboot America’s image around the world and in the Muslim world in particular”, and that he planned to make a speech in a Muslim capital during his first 100 days in office denouncing terrorism and emphasising shared values. In the wake of the three-week bloodbath Israel has inflicted on Gaza, it should be clear to Mr Obama that he would be wasting his breath.

Hostility towards the US in the Muslim world is not based on a misunderstanding of America’s values: it is based on a clear vision of America’s policies. The bombs and missiles that destroyed Gaza, and the aircraft that delivered them, are American. And Washington blocked ceasefire efforts, in line with Israel’s wishes, to give its military efforts more time.

Seeking the overthrow of Hamas through an economic blockade of Gaza while boosting Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank has been the main thrust of US policy there for the past three years. Gaza has demonstrated the bloody futility of that policy, and Mr Obama will be judged in the Muslim world largely by how he reacts to that failure. Responding in an effective and balanced way requires a decisive break from the policies of his predecessors, which is not something he has shown a great willingness to do And yes, that’s predecessors, plural: a new policy needs to avoid the errors of both the Bush administration and the Clinton one before it. [continued…]

The war as warm-up act for Obama

The diplomatic timing for the war looked lovely. The U.S. president who loved military action was still in power, though fading into the shadows. The new president, dynamic and popular, hadn’t yet entered office. There was no one to interfere, to pressure us to stop.

We don’t know if the Olmert-Livni-Barak triumvirate deliberately picked that window of opportunity. If so, it already looks like another of the war’s mistakes – perhaps the only welcome miscalculation. For instead of preventing American involvement, their decision to go to war on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration may well force him to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian arena and push for a diplomatic solution.

In recent months, foreign-policy experts from Obama’s camp have debated whether there’s any point in a new peace initiative. Robert Malley, known as the most dovish veteran of Bill Clinton’s peace team, has written – surprisingly – that such an effort is hopeless. In an article in the New York Review of Books (written with Hussein Agha), Malley argues that the weakness of Israel’s leadership and the Palestinian political rift will prevent a two-state solution at present. Arguing the opposite, former ambassador Martin Indyk – who is likely to join the Obama administration – writes in Foreign Affairs of the “urgent need for a diplomatic effort.” The Middle East can’t be ignored, say Indyk and co-author Richard Haass. It will “force itself onto the U.S. president’s agenda.”

The Gaza War proves Indyk’s thesis. After the years of neglect under Bush, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has blown up again, on Obama’s doorstep. Grim photos appear in the media. Relations between Israel and Turkey, both American allies, are crumbling. While careful not to conduct foreign relations before the inauguration, Obama promised last week that his team would become “immediately engaged in the Middle East peace process.” At her confirmation hearing for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton spoke of the “tragic humanitarian costs” borne by Gazans and of the incoming administration’s “determination to seek a peace agreement.” [continued…]

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