As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Strong Steps Backwards and Forwards On The Middle East

The Israeli assault on Gaza has ended. 50,000 Gazans are homeless and 21,000 buildings are destroyed. And at least 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis are dead. And for what? Nobody seems to know, other than killing for killing's sake.

Elad Katzir, a potato farmer, was nervous as he drove through the lush fields, agreeing to stop the car only behind clumps of trees or bushes as cover in case of sniper fire. By one thicket, nestled among wildflowers, was a memorial to a soldier who was shot dead here while on patrol seven years ago.

“I do not feel any victory,” Mr. Katzir said. “I still do not feel safe.” [...]

“So they changed the security situation for the next six months, bravo,” said another potato farmer, Eyal Barad. He added, “They should have gone on longer and finished the job.”

After such a tremendous show of force, many Israelis were hoping to see a more definitive picture of victory, like a scene of Hamas leaders coming out of their bunkers and raising a white flag. At the very least, several said, Israel should not have left Gaza without Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal who was captured in a cross-border raid and taken into the Palestinian enclave in 2006 and has been held hostage by Hamas ever since.

There was no job to finish. The strategic interests in the assault were obscure. Hamas was never going to be destroyed because their destruction would have required a mass annihilation of the entire area. So they are predictably holding victory rallies and restoring order to the community. Meanwhile, the more moderate Fatah has been significantly weakened by the events, making more remote the possibility of their partnership in a peaceful solution.

Israel's 22-day assault on Hamas-ruled Gaza made the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority look ineffective and marginalized, unable to stop the carnage. Popular support for its peace talks with Israel, already declining, now seems weaker than ever.

And a tentative cease-fire that left Hamas still in charge of Gaza threatens to reinforce the rift between the Palestinian territories, further setting back hopes for a settlement of the decades-old Middle East conflict.

At an Arab summit in Kuwait on Monday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pleaded for a revival of the power-sharing arrangement that broke apart in 2007 when Hamas, an armed Islamist movement, ousted his secular Fatah forces from Gaza in a ruthless factional fight.

He called for immediate talks between the two factions to form a "unity government" to rebuild the war-devastated territory, organize elections and negotiate peace with Israel [...]

But the authority has no means to reassert its presence in Gaza without the consent of Hamas. And although Hamas said it was open to a new power-sharing deal, it seemed in no hurry to strike one with Abbas, whom one Hamas official dismissed as "a full partner" in the Israeli assault.

"Hamas will be much less powerful militarily against Israel but significantly stronger against Fatah," said Ghassan Khatib, an independent Palestinian analyst in Ramallah. "No one will challenge its control of Gaza. It is in much less need of a unity government."

All of this is really bad news, and the outcome of 1,300 dead Gazans will not be overcome in a day or a week or maybe a year. But the Obama Administration is starting to move in the right direction. President Obama called leaders in the Middle East today, including Mahmoud Abbas, to "communicate his commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term, and to express his hope for their continued cooperation and leadership." He talked about a major rebuilding effort in Gaza, taken hand-in-hand with Fatah, which I think would be smart. While the Saudis have pledged $1bn in aid much more is needed, as well as the open flow of supplies and medicine into the Strip. The US could gain lots of goodwill among Palestinian citizens by being a part of this effort.

(UPDATE: Also, this could backfire heavily. As noted above, the Palestinian Authority is viewed with deep suspicion in Gaza, and if they enter with the US to help rebuild, this could confirm the suspicions that the PA are colluders, and ruin their long-term credibility. Still, I don't know how that can get much worse at this point, so they might as well try to use some carrots. This is how Hamas got the people on their side, after all - by attending to their needs.)

In addition, there are rumors that George Mitchell will be the US envoy to the Middle East, and he is the model of an honest broker with a proven record of bringing warring factions together in the interest of peace. Not to mention he has studied the region and has some good ideas for steps forward.

Mr. Mitchell, 75, was appointed in 2000, in the waning days of the Clinton administration, to lead an international commission to investigate the causes of violence in the Middle East. He released a report in the spring of 2001, during the early days of the Bush administration, that called for a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism.

Other Middle East specialists said Sunday that if Mr. Mitchell was named to the job, he would be seen by both sides as a tougher but more balanced negotiator than recent envoys, which could make some Israelis nervous. Mr. Mitchell has Lebanese as well as Irish roots: his father, Joseph Kilroy, was an orphan adopted by a Lebanese family whose Arabic name had been anglicized to Mitchell, and Mr. Mitchell was raised a Maronite Catholic by his Lebanese mother.

The appointment of Mr. Mitchell would be a strong suggestion “that Obama is going to free himself of the exclusive relationship that we’ve had with the Israelis,” said Aaron David Miller, a public policy analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.

“This is the clearest indication to me that they’re trying to inject more balance into the Israeli-U.S. relationship,” he said.

Freezing the settlements is needed urgently, it's a major obstacle to peace right now in my view. Mitchell would signal all that is said above, but also an aggressiveness to pursue peace right from the beginning.

On a non-Obama-related note, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the ban on Arab parties from participating in elections, which removes what would be a nasty bit of discrimination inside Israel. They are facing pressure from both inside and outside now to reject the knee-jerk reactionary stances of the past and press for peace. However, the February elections, with Benjamin Netanyahu lurking as a possible victor, will be crucial.

...Shorter Abe Foxman: George Mitchell would be bad for the Middle East because he's too fair and even-handed. Wait, that's not "shorter," that's exactly what he said. Abe, um, you said that out loud.

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