“Hope” for the Middle East?

Obviously its early days yet but it should be clear to everyone that the US is not the same player it has been traditionally now that we have an Obama administration. What exactly those differences are, whether they are strong enough to actually make a renewed peace process’ viable, the coming weeks and months will decide. Obama’s decision, for instance, to make entreaties on the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya news channel to renew diplomatic relations with the Iranians has been viewed by the wider Arab and Muslim world as a positive step that bodes well for any future negotiations.

Also, Obama’s appointment of George Mitchell as peace envoy. Being an Arabic- speaking son of a Lebanese immigrant with a good track record of listening’ has to be a plus here, along with his role in brokering successful peace talks in Northern Ireland. This, coupled with the fact that he has already headed a commission whose report identified the key difficulty; Israeli settlements in the West Bank. I know it doesn’t take a mastermind to figure that one out but how many times has this been explicitly acknowledged and foregrounded on the American side; apart from Carter.

The question you have to ask yourself is whether Hamas are providing any room for dialogue. Is there anything in what they are saying that provides an entry point for mediating parties? We all know about the fiery rhetoric of their Charter and varied translations do little to dampen it – it belongs to a species of polemics that has one foot in this world, one in the next.

But the fact of the matter is that the Hamas leadership has distanced itself more and more from the Charter – without actually abandoning it – particularly since the 06 elections. Its jihadist authors have already been executed by Israel (the paraplegic Yassin blown to smithereens in his wheelchair along with a dozen innocents outside a Gazan mosque 5yrs ago) and new leader Meshal has confirmed repeatedly his readiness to recognise Israel if the ‘two-state solution’ with pre-67 borders is put on the table. Neither is this the watered-down two-stater proposed by Ehud Barak with separate Jewish cantons and control over water resources which led to the unravelling of the Camp David Accords.

According to Khaled Hroub (author of ‘Hamas: Political Thought and Practice’) the concept of the two-state solution is now the cornerstone of Hamas’ thinking. “I doubt we will see the old Hamas again” he says. Why does he say this? Because Meshal and the other leaders have been saying things like the following for the last four years;

“Our message to the Israelis is this: we do not fight you because you belong to a certain faith or culture. Jews have lived in the Muslim world for 13 centuries in peace and harmony; they are in our religion “the people of the book” who have a covenant from God and His Messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him) to be respected and protected. Our conflict with you is not religious but political” (07)

“We shall never recognise the right of any power to rob us of our land and deny us our national rights. We shall never recognise the legitimacy of a Zionist state created on our soil in order to atone for somebody else’s sins or solve somebody else’s problem. But if you are willing to accept the principle of a long-term truce, we are prepared to negotiate the terms. Hamas is extending a hand of peace to those who are truly interested in a peace based on justice.” (06)

“If Israel withdrew to the 1967 borders and recognised the rights of the Palestinian people – including the right of those in the diaspora to return to their land and to East Jerusalem and to dismantle the settlements – Hamas can then state its position and possibly give a long-term truce with Israel, as Sheikh Yassin said. This is a position that Hamas could take but only after Israel recognises the right of the Palestinians, to show and confirm its willingness to withdraw to the 1967 borders.” (08)

There is more than enough leverage in the above for a dedicated team committed to a workable solution to make real progress. What I see at the moment is the possibility of some sort of renewed alliance between Fatah and Hamas. Egypt are currently hosting talks to try and bring this about and Mahmoud Abbas must be seen to play ball here else he is in danger of being toppled from within. Fatah received a negative backlash from Muslims across the region over their weak responses to the recent Israeli incursion/massacre and will be anxious to clean their bib in the eyes of their peers. He has already been heard recently being critical of last year’s accelerated expansion of Israeli settlements – something that he was loathe to do beforehand for fear of being cut from the loop. Many US and European diplomats have already conceded that Hamas will have to be talked to eventually, for instance James Baker, and the recent events in Gaza, in fact, have been a disaster for the Israeli publicity machine.

Even the Council on Foreign Relations concede that the Hamas majority in the elections was secured because of their perceived lack of corruption and greater commitment to funding for social programmes. What is an absurdity is the continual reality negation over Hamas legitimate claims to be representatives of the Palestinians. Simply wishing they didn’t win it or that their programme of resistance isn’t more popular among ordinary Palestinians than watching what must appear to them to be the fawning obeisance of Fatah preside over the further dismantling of their territory is just the purest self-delusion.

Admittedly, their funders in turn will have to get flexible on Sharia and their claims over East Jerusalem but their position on the Zionist entity’s’ right to exist’ is predicated on Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank – an internationally agreed upon illegal occupation – which to Hamas is justification for any and all hostilities. Remove the forces of occupation along with the settlements and they are ready to conduct dialogue. This is their position and Khaled Mashal has repeated it often enough to make you wonder why the assertion continues to be regurgitated that they are unconditionally committed to the destruction of Israel irrespective of what gestures and concessions it makes. This position only suits hawks of every hue and persuasion including those on the Israeli side who don’t wish to see any dismantling of West Bank settlements.

So the US need no longer be viewed as an obstacle to progress by the Palestinians. If its policy makers instead of continually referring to an increasingly defunct founding document instead focused on what possibilities exist for dialogue then we may be in a position at last to debate the merits of peacekeepers – they have to have a peace to keep first though.


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