Negotiation is the first step towards peace

Yesterday I wondered whether the incoming Obama administration would be able to maintain the realist/Clintonista/Obamanaut coalition of foreign policy operatives on difficult questions like the situation in Gaza. The apparent appointment of Richard Haass as Middle East envoy is the first step towards a more pragmatic, even handed role in the crisis (it could have been Clinton era negotiator Dennis Ross). Haass has had sensible things to say about the US’ role in the Middle East more generally, and I believe he understands the importance of strategic leadership in a post-unipolar world. Of even greater interest to the potential for a solution to the conflict is the possibility of negotiations with Hamas, who must be satisfied for any ceasefire agreement to have lasting effect. According to the Guardian:

The incoming Obama administration is prepared to abandon George Bush’s ­doctrine of isolating Hamas by establishing a channel to the Islamist organisation, sources close to the transition team say.

The move to open contacts with Hamas, which could be initiated through the US intelligence services, would represent a definitive break with the Bush ­presidency’s ostracising of the group. The state department has designated Hamas a terrorist organisation, and in 2006 ­Congress passed a law banning US financial aid to the group.

The article goes on to explain that the administration won’t give Hamas diplomatic status or hold high level talks. But  merely recognizing and engaging with Hamas could eventually prove to be a move towards reconciliation, and is a useful first step in the path towards a lasting peace. The situation in Gaza is in some ways analogous to the financial collapse: the collapse of current policy could provide political cover to finally make the sacrifices to move the world in a more positive long term direction. I hope the Obama administration will start to bring Hamas into the international community, just as was done with the PLO, and give credence to the complaints of the Palestinian people.

In doing so, Obama should embrace and extend the non-military aspects of Bush’s democracy promotion in the Middle East. Bush was committed to democracy in name only, and was not truly willing to accept the will of the people in instances where Islamist governments won free and fair elections. However, the US, and the West more generally, would be making a grave strategic mistake if they fail to accept the inclusion of Islamist parties in government, and will do much more harm than good by seeking to marginalize all Islamist groups. Hamas won a free and fair election to represent the Palestinian people and were immediately opposed by Israel, the US and the international community. This was a mistake from the start, and the Palestinian civil war, and the War on Gaza are the direct result of this decision.

What I am advocating here may sound radically pro-Palestinian, but I actually think of myself as a Zionist who wishes to see the continuation of a majority Jewish state in the Middle East. I believe the only way to reconcile my traditionally liberal political beliefs and my desire for a majority Jewish state is the creation of a stable, viable, Palestinian state that provides the Palestinian people with the autonomy and resources to create a future for themselves. The US must recognize the importance of the creation of a vibrant Palestinian state for the continuation of Israel as a Jewish state. Furthermore, we should recognize that any organization that legitimately represents the Palestinian people will express resistance to what the Palestinians view (as does most of the rest of the world) as a occupation by a foreign power. The current conflict will only solidify Palestinian feelings of injustice and powerlessness, and strengthen groups like Hamas that prey off the anger that ensues.

The US must be tough and fair with the Israelis – but also with the Palestinians. This means recognizing that Hamas is the most legitimate broker of the Palestinian agenda – an agenda that must be reckoned with. However, bringing Hamas to the table doesn’t mean acceding to their demands. The US should overwhelm the potential resistance to a peace deal by offering terms that would make Hamas look foolish for refusing. We could do this by pledging to underwrite a peace keeping force that would be responsible for maintaining preliminary international boundaries, while negotiations for a final agreement were underway. The terms of the final agreement will, for political and policy reasons, look something like the Arab Peace Initiative, and include an agreement with Syria.

Of course, the path I am outlining is a bold one, and will require an extreme amount of care taken towards solidifying Israeli public opinion. There are an incredible number of potential obstacles to this path, not the least of which is domestic American political opposition to the move towards peace by a right wing, Likud affiliated US pro-Israel lobby. However, after eight years of languishing without any hope of movement towards a lasting peace, any change in policy, not matter how slight, could be the first step in a forging a new path in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ah, there it is again: Hope! Change! In these halcyon days of transition from the administration that is the originator of all evils to the administration That Can, we (I?) can project any and all actions as a move towards the ideal policy.

Yes we might!