Lest President Barack Obama’s opportunistic silence when Israel began the Gaza offensive that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians (more than 400 of them children) be misinterpreted, his aides pointed reporters to comments made six months earlier in the Israeli town of Sderot. "If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that," Obama had said in reference to the missiles Hamas was firing from Gaza. "I would expect Israelis to do the same thing."
Residents of Gaza might have wondered what Obama would have done had he been unfortunate enough to be a resident of, say, Jabaliya refugee camp. What if, like the vast majority of Gazans, his grandfather had been driven from his home in what is now Israel, and barred by virtue of his ethnicity from ever returning? What if, like the majority of the residents of this refugee ghetto-by-the-sea, he had voted for Hamas, which had vowed to fight for his rights and was not corrupt like the Fatah strongmen with whom the Israelis and Americans liked to deal?
And what if, as a result of that vote, he had found himself under an economic siege, whose explicit purpose was to inflict deprivation in order to force him to reverse his democratic choice? What might a Gazan Obama have made of the statement, soon after that election, by Dov Weissglass, a top aide to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, that Israel’s blockade would put him and his family "on [a] diet"?
"The Palestinians will get a lot thinner," Weissglass had chortled, "but [they] won’t die."
Starting last June, the Sderot Obama would have noticed that, as a result of a truce brokered by Egypt, the rocket fire from Gaza had largely ceased. For the Jabaliya Obama, however, the "Weissglass Diet" remained in place. Even before Israel’s recent offensive, the Red Cross had reported that almost half the children under two in Gaza were anemic due to their parents’ inability to feed them properly.
Who knows what the Jabaliya Obama would have made of the Hamas rockets that, in November, once again began flying overhead toward Israel, as Hamas sought to break the siege by creating a crisis that would lead to a new ceasefire under better terms. He might well have had misgivings, but he would also have had plenty of reason to hope for the success of the Hamas strategy.
Ever committed to regime change in Gaza, Israel, however, showed no interest in a new ceasefire. As Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Fox News, "Expecting us to have a ceasefire with Hamas is like expecting you to have a ceasefire with al-Qaeda." (Barak apparently assumed Americans would overlook the fact that he had, indeed, been party to just such a ceasefire since June 2008, and looks set to be party to another now that the Gaza operation is over.)
A canny Sderot Obama would have been all too aware that Israel’s leaders need his vote in next month’s elections and hope to win it by showing how tough they can be on the Gazans. Then again, a Sderot Obama might not have been thinking much beyond his immediate anger and fear — and would certainly have been unlikely to try to see the regional picture through the eyes of the Jabaliya Obama.
Nonetheless, not all Israelis were as sanguine about the Israeli offensive as the Sderot Obama appears to have been. "What luck my parents are dead," wrote the Israeli journalist Amira Hass in Haaretz. Survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, her mother and father had long hated the Orwellian twists of language in which Israeli authorities couched their military actions against Palestinians.
"My parents despised all their everyday activities — stirring sugar into coffee, washing the dishes, standing at a crosswalk — when in their mind’s eye they saw, based on their personal experience, the terror in the eyes of children, the desperation of mothers who could not protect their young ones, the moment when a huge explosion dropped a house on top of its inhabitants and a smart bomb struck down entire families…
"Because of my parents’ history they knew what it meant to close people behind barbed-wire fences in a small area…. How lucky it is that they are not alive to see how these incarcerated people are bombarded with all the glorious military technology of Israel and the United States… My parents’ personal history led them to despise the relaxed way the news anchors reported on a curfew. How lucky they are not here and cannot hear the crowd roaring in the coliseum."
The passions of the crowd may have been satisfied. Or not. Certainly, Israel’s three-week-long military operation appears to have done little more than reestablish the country’s "deterrent" — quantified in the 100-1 ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths.
Hamas remains intact, as does the bulk of its fighting force. And if, as appears likely, a new truce provides for a lifting, however partial, of the economic siege of Gaza, and also for the reintegration of Hamas into the Palestinian Authority — which would be a blunt repudiation of three years of U.S. and Israeli efforts — the organization will claim victory, even if the Obamas of Jabaliya refugee camp, now possibly without homes, wonder at what cost.
If President Barack Obama is to have any positive impact on this morbid cycle of destruction and death, he must be able to understand the experience of Jabaliya just as much as he does the experience of Sderot. Curiously enough, he might be helped in that endeavor by none other than the man who directed Israel’s latest operation, Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Asked by a journalist during his successful 1999 campaign for prime minister what he’d have done if he’d been born Palestinian, Barak answered simply and bluntly: "I’d have joined a terrorist organization."
Obama’s Gaza Opportunity
The catastrophe in Gaza has, counterintuitively enough, presented President Barack Obama with an opportunity to restart the peace process — precisely because it has demonstrated the catastrophic failure of the approach adopted by the Bush Administration. Unfortunately, the raft of domestic and economic challenges facing the 44th President may tempt Obama to keep many Bush foreign policies on autopilot for now.
The plan brokered by the Bush administration in its last months for an American withdrawal from Iraq will, for instance, probably remain largely in effect; Obama will actually double the troop commitment to Afghanistan; and on Iran, Obama’s idea of direct talks may not prove that radical a departure from the most recent version of the Bush approach — at least if the purpose of such talks is simply to have U.S. diplomats present a warmed over version of the carrot-and-stick ultimatums on uranium enrichment that have been on offer, via the Europeans, for the past three years.
As Gaza has clearly demonstrated, however, continuing the Bush policy on Israel and the Palestinians is untenable. The Bush administration may have talked of a Palestinian state, but it had limited itself to orchestrating a series of cozy chats between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, aimed at creating the illusion of a "process."
There was no real process, not in the sense that the term is commonly understood, anyway — reciprocal steps by the combatant parties to disengage and move towards a settlement that changes political boundaries and power arrangements. But the illusion of progress was a necessary part of the administration’s policy of dividing the Middle East on Cold War-type lines in a supposedly epic struggle between "moderates" and "radicals."
The "moderates" included Israel, Abbas, and the regimes of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and some of the Gulf States. The radicals were Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah, intractable enemies of peace, democracy, and stability.
Democracy?! Yes, the chutzpah of Bush and his people was legendary — after all, Hamas and Hizballah had been democratically elected, which is more than you could say for the Arab "moderates" they championed. Even Iran holds elections more competitive than any in Egypt.
Adding to the irony, Abbas’s term of office as president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has now expired, but you can bet your Obama inauguration souvenir program that he won’t be required by Washington to seek a new mandate from the voters; indeed, it’s doubtful that the Israelis would allow another Palestinian election in the West Bank, which they essentially control.
Ongoing peace talks with Palestinian "moderates," no matter how fruitless, provided important cover for Arab regimes who wanted to stand with the U.S. and Israel on the question of Iran’s growing power and influence. But there could, of course, be no talks with the "radicals," even if those radicals were more representative than the "moderates." (Sure, Egypt’s Mubarak stands with Israel against Hamas, but that’s because Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which might well trounce Mubarak if Egypt held free and fair elections.)
Thus, Washington chose to ignore the opportunity that Hamas’s historic 2006 decision to contest the Palestinian Authority legislative election offered. The organization had previously boycotted the institutions of the PA as the illegitimate progeny of the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which they had rejected. Caught off-guard when the Palestinian electorate then repudiated Washington’s chosen "moderate" regime, the U.S. responded by imposing sanctions on the new Palestinian government, while pressuring the Europeans and Arab regimes on whose funding the PA depended to do the same. These sanctions eventually grew into a siege of Gaza.
The financial blockade would continue, the U.S. and its allies insisted, until Hamas renounced violence, recognized Israel, and bound itself to previous agreements. Exactly the same three preconditions for engaging Hamas were recently reiterated by incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at her confirmation hearings.
A Failed Doctrine
The Gaza debacle has made one thing perfectly clear: any peace process that seeks to marginalize, not integrate, Hamas is doomed to fail — and with catastrophic consequences. That’s why the position outlined by Obama’s Secretary of State-designate is dysfunctional at birth, because it repeats the mistake of trying to marginalize Hamas. For its part, Hamas officials have sent a number of signals in recent years indicating the organization’s willingness to move in a pragmatic direction. Its leaders wouldn’t bother to regularly explain their views in the op-ed pages of American newspapers if they did not believe a different relationship with the U.S. — and so Israel — was possible.
For the new Obama administration reinforcing and, as they say in Washington, incentivizing the pragmatic track in Hamas is the key to reviving the region’s prospects for peace.
Hamas has demonstrated beyond doubt that it speaks for at least half of the Palestinian electorate. Many observers believe that, were new elections to be held tomorrow, the Islamists would probably not only win Gaza again, but take the West Bank as well. Demanding what Hamas would deem a symbolic surrender before any diplomatic conversation even begins is not an approach that will yield positive results. Renouncing violence was never a precondition for talks between South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s ANC, or Britain and the Irish Republican Army. Indeed, Israel’s talks with the PLO began long before it had publicly renounced violence.
"Recognizing" Israel is difficult for Palestinians because, in doing so, they are also being asked to renounce the claims of refugee families to the land and homes they were forced out of in 1948 and were barred from recovering by one of the founding acts of the State of Israel. For an organization such as Hamas, such recognition could never be a precondition to negotiations, only the result of them (and then with some reciprocal recognition of the rights of the refugees).
Hamas’s decision to engage the election process created by Oslo was, in fact, a pragmatic decision opposed by hardliners in its own ranks. Doing so bound it to engage with the Israelis and also to observe agreements under which those electoral institutions were established (as Hamas mayors on the West Bank had already learned). In fact, Hamas made clear that it was committed to good governance and consensus, and recognized Abbas as president, which also meant explicitly recognizing his right to continue negotiating with the Israelis.
Hamas agreed to abide by any accord approved by the Palestinians in a democratic referendum. By 2007, key leaders of the organization had even begun talking of accepting a Palestinian state based on a return to 1967 borders in a swap for a generational truce with Israel.
Hamas’s move onto the electoral track had, in fact, presented a great opportunity for any American administration inclined towards grown-up diplomacy, rather than the infantile fantasy of reengineering the region’s politics in favor of chosen "moderates." So, in 2006, the U.S. immediately slapped sanctions on the new government, seeking to reverse the results of the Palestinian election through collective punishment of the electorate. The U.S. also blocked Saudi efforts to broker a Palestinian government of national unity by warning that Abbas would be shunned by the U.S. and Israel if he opted for rapprochement with the majority party in his legislature. Washington appears to have even backed a coup attempt by U.S.-trained, Fatah-controlled militia in Gaza, which resulted in Fatah’s bloody expulsion from there in the summer of 2007.
The failed U.S.-Israeli strategy of trying to depose Hamas reached its nadir in the pre-inauguration bloodbath in Gaza, which not only reinforced Hamas politically, but actually weakened those anointed as "moderates" as part of a counterinsurgency strategy against Hamas and its support base.
It is in America’s interest, and Israel’s, and the Palestinians’ that Obama intervene quickly in the Middle East, but that he do so on a dramatically different basis than that of his two immediate predecessors.
Peace is made between the combatants of any conflict; "peace" with only chosen "moderates" is an exercise in redundancy and pointlessness. The challenge in the region is to promote moderation and pragmatism among the political forces that speak for all sides, especially the representative radicals.
And speaking of radicals and extremists, there’s palpable denial, bordering on amnesia, when it comes to Israel’s rejectionists. Ariel Sharon explicitly rejected the Oslo peace process, declaring it null and void shortly after assuming power. Instead, he negotiated only with Washington over unilateral Israeli moves.
Ever since, Israeli politics has been moving steadily rightward, with the winner in next month’s elections expected to be the hawkish Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. If so, he will govern in a coalition with far-right rejectionists and advocates of "ethnic cleansing." Netanyahu even rejected Ariel Sharon’s 2005 Gaza pullout plan, and he has made it abundantly clear that he has no interest in sustaining the illusion of talks over a "final status" agreement, even with Washington’s chosen "moderates."
Israelis, by all accounts, have generally given up on the idea of pursuing a peace agreement with the Palestinians any time soon, and for the foreseeable future, no Israeli government will willingly undertake the large-scale evacuation of the West Bank settlers, essential to any two-state solution but likely to provoke an Israeli civil war.
This political situation should serve as a warning to Obama and his people to avoid the pitfalls of the Clinton administration’s approach to brokering Middle East peace. Clinton’s basic guideline was that the pace and content of the peace process should be decided by Israel’s leaders, and that nothing should ever be put on the negotiating table that had not first been approved by them. Restricting the peace process to proposals that fall within the comfort zone only of the Israeli government is the diplomatic equivalent of allowing investment banks to regulate themselves — and we all know where that landed us.
It is fanciful, today, to believe that, left to their own devices, Israel and the Palestinians will agree on where to set the border between them, on how to share Jerusalem, or on the fate of Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlements. A two-state solution, if one is to be achieved, will have to be imposed by the international community, based on a consensus that already exists in international law (UN Resolutions 242 and 338), the Arab League peace proposals, and the Taba non-paper that documented the last formal final-status talks between the two sides in January 2001.
Had Barack Obama taken office in a moment of relative tranquility in the fraught Israeli-Palestinian relationship, he might have had the luxury of putting it on the backburner. Indeed, any move to change the Bush approach might have been challenged as unnecessarily risky and disruptive.
In Gaza in the last few weeks, however, the Bush approach imploded, leaving Obama no choice but to initiate a new policy of his own. Hopefully, it will be one rooted in the pragmatism for which the new President is renowned.
Tony Karon is a senior editor at TIME.com where he analyzes the Middle East and other international conflicts. He also runs his own website, Rootless Cosmopolitan.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture, and editor of The World According to Tomdispatch: America in the New Age of Empire.]