Middle East reality check

Posted in Broader Middle East | 09-Mar-09 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks with Palestinian students of the English Access Microscholarship Program in the West Bank city of Ramallah March 4, 2009.

NEW YORK: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton grabbed headlines with an invitation to Iran to attend a conference on Afghanistan, but the significant Middle Eastern news last week came from Britain. It has "reconsidered" its position on Hezbollah and will open a direct channel to the militant group in Lebanon.

Like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah has long been treated by the United States as a proscribed terrorist group. This narrow view has ignored the fact that both organizations are now entrenched political and social movements without whose involvement regional peace is impossible.

Britain had aligned itself with the U.S. position on Hezbollah, but has now seen its error. Bill Marston, a Foreign Office spokesman, told Al Jazeera: "Hezbollah is a political phenomenon and part and parcel of the national fabric in Lebanon. We have to admit this."

Hallelujah. Precisely the same thing could be said of Hamas in Gaza. It is a political phenomenon and part and parcel of the national fabric there.

One difference is that Hezbollah is in the Lebanese national unity government, whereas Hamas won the free and fair January 2006 elections to the Legislative Council of the Palestinian Authority, only to discover Middle Eastern democracy is only democracy if it produces the right result.

The United States should follow the British example. It should initiate diplomatic contacts with the political wing of Hezbollah. The Obama administration should also look carefully at how to reach moderate Hamas elements and engineer a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation.

A rapprochement between the two wings of the Palestinian movement was briefly achieved at Mecca in 2007. The best form of payback from America's expensive and authoritarian allies - Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan - would be help in reconciling Gaza Palestinians loyal to Hamas with West Bank Palestinians loyal to the more moderate Fatah of Mahmoud Abbas.

It won't be easy. Resolve is not the most conspicuous characteristic of those three allies. But it's not impossible. As long as Palestinians are divided, peace efforts will flounder.

With respect to Hamas, the West is bound to three conditions for any contact: Hamas must recognize Israel, forswear terrorism and accept previous Palestinian commitments. This was reiterated by Clinton on her first Mideast swing.

The 1988 Hamas Charter is vile but I think it's wrong to get hung up on the prior recognition of Israel issue. Perhaps Hamas is sincere in its calls for Israel's disappearance - although it has offered a decades-long truce - but then it's also possible that Israel in reality has no desire to see a Palestinian state.

One view of Israel's continued expansion of settlements, Gaza blockade, West Bank walling-in and wanton recourse to high-tech force would be that it's all designed precisely to bludgeon, undermine and humiliate the Palestinian people until their dreams of statehood and dignity evaporate.

The argument over recognition is in the end a form of evasion designed to perpetuate the conflict.

Israel, from the time of Ben-Gurion, built its state by creating facts on the ground, not through metaphysics. Many of its leaders, including Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, have been on wondrous political odysseys from absolutist rejection of division of the land to acceptance of a two-state solution. Yet they try to paint Hamas as irrevocably absolutist. Why should Arabs be any less pragmatic than Jews?

Of course it's desirable that Hamas recognize Israel before negotiations. But is it essential? No.

What is essential is that it renounce violence, in tandem with Israel, and the inculcation of hatred that feeds the violence.

Speaking of violence, it's worth recalling what Israel did in Gaza in response to sporadic Hamas rockets. It killed upward of 1,300 people, many of them women and children; caused damage estimated at $1.9 billion; destroyed thousands of Gaza homes and 80 percent of crops. It continues a radicalizing blockade on 1.5 million people squeezed into a narrow strip of land.

At this vast human, material and moral price, Israel has achieved almost nothing, beyond damage to its image throughout the world.

Israel has the right to hit back when attacked, but any response should be proportional and governed by sober political calculation, not violence for its own sake. The Gaza war was a travesty; I have never previously felt so shamed by Israel's actions.

No wonder Hamas and Hezbollah are seen throughout the Arab world as legitimate resistance movements.

It's time to look at them again and adopt the new British view that contact can encourage Hezbollah "to move away from violence and play a constructive, democratic and peaceful role."

The British step could be a game-changer. By contrast, Clinton's invitation to Iran is of little significance. There are two schools within the Obama administration on Iran: the incremental and the bold. The former favors little steps like inviting Iran to help with Afghanistan; the latter realizes that nothing will change until Obama convinces Tehran he's changing strategy rather than tactics.

That requires Obama to tell Iran, as a start, that he does not seek regime change and recognizes the country's critical role as a regional power. Carrots and sticks - the current approach - will lead to the same dead end as Hamas and Hezbollah denial.