Sunday, January 25, 2009

Why Israel fears Mitchell, a true honest broker

Perhaps it was anxiety that prompted Abe Foxman to be so unfortunately blunt in his assessment of President Barack Obama’s new Middle East envoy. “George Mitchell is fair,” said Mr Foxman, president of America’s Anti-Defamation League and doyen of the Israel lobby.

“He’s been meticulously even-handed. But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn’t been even-handed. It has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical US support. So I’m concerned. I’m not sure the situation requires that kind of approach.”

Mr Foxman’s complaint should be cause for cautious optimism among those who seek a fair solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The appointment of a seasoned diplomatic troubleshooter on Day 2 of the Obama administration is certainly not what Israel had in mind.

George Mitchell is the man you send when you want to broker peace between intractable enemies: his signature achievement was the Good Friday Agreement that laid the foundation for ending decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. But since 2001, that is what Israel has sought to avoid. It doesn’t want to be treated as one party to an unresolved political dispute: it wants to be treated as a western ally facing a foreign terror threat, demanding unqualified US support for its efforts to blast the Palestinians into quiescence.

Mr Mitchell’s appointment signals that President Obama is serious about jump-starting peace efforts, and that he is not necessarily prepared to restrict himself to Israel’s priorities and prescriptions in doing so. The senator, remember, has been here before: he was appointed by President Clinton to make recommendations on restoring the Oslo peace process amid the violence that broke out after the failed Camp David summit in 2000. His return, as Mr Foxman so perceptively observes, signals an approach that treats Israel and the Palestinians as two parties to a conflict that urgently needs solving.

“From my experience in Northern Ireland I formed the conviction that there is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended,” Mr Mitchell said on Thursday. “Conflicts are created and conducted by human beings. They can be ended by human beings.”

The envoy will be limited or enabled by the brief provided by his bosses, and his efforts will be hobbled unless the new administration reverses two key flaws of the Bush policy: seeking to marginalise and destroy Hamas, and the refusal to restrain and reverse Israel’s occupation activities.

That President Obama continues to say there can be no talks with Hamas until it symbolically renounces violence, recognises Israel and adopts past agreements is worrying, because Mr Mitchell has made clear that you can’t solve an armed conflict without engaging the combatants. The idea that Gaza can be rebuilt by a Palestinian Authority that remains – with questionable legal and political basis – the exclusive preserve of President Mahmoud Abbas is a recipe for failure and further violence. It is an open question as to who can more legitimately claim to lead the PA: Mr Abbas’s presidential term expired on January 9, and Hamas remains the ruling party in the Legislative Council.
That is why most of the international community is now urging the formation of a Palestinian unity government. Even Mr Abbas has echoed that call, although not necessarily with much conviction since he knows it would expedite his own passing into political oblivion: Hamas will almost certainly win the next round of Palestinian elections. But if the reality is that Hamas is more representative of the Palestinians than Mr Abbas is, then any reality-based approach to resolving the conflict will have to engage Hamas.
To enable progress, the US need not actually talk to Hamas: it simply has to reverse the Bush policy of actively resisting and sabotaging efforts to bring Abbas and Hamas into a unity government. Hamas’s decision to contest the elections three years ago signalled a pragmatic decision to operate the machinery of Palestinian governance created by Oslo (and the recognitions and treaties that define it), and even then it immediately sought a unity government with Mr Abbas, in which he would be allowed to continue negotiating with the Israelis.

Its leaders have repeatedly signalled their desire for engagement, and hinted at movement towards an ambiguous embrace of the two-state concept. Hamas leaders wouldn’t bother to exhort the US to talk to them if they didn’t have anything interesting to say. Integrating Hamas into the Palestinian Authority and a wider peace process will be difficult, but neither the Palestinians themselves nor outside stakeholders in solving the conflict can afford not to do so. Finding the formula for bringing them into a pragmatic peace dynamic will be one of Mr Mitchell’s primary challenges, and he will face resistance not only in Israel, and perhaps in Ramallah, but also in Washington, where pro-Israel hawks will continue to wield considerable influence.

The second challenge will be to pick up where he left off in 2001 in pressing for Israel to freeze settlement activity and reverse the other trappings of occupation (including the blockade of Gaza). Allowing Israel to expand its grip on territory that would form part of a Palestinian State actually diminishes the chances of reviving peace talks. And Mr Mitchell’s challenge here will be made more difficult by the probability that, within three weeks, Israel’s new prime minister will be Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made clear he has no intention of ceding any territory to the Palestinians and rejects the very idea of “final status” talks.
Pressuring Israel remains exceedingly unpopular in America, but it cannot be avoided if a viable two-state solution is Washington’s goal. And if Mr Obama were not serious about reviving peace efforts, he would not have appointed an honest broker. Hopefully, advocates of the status quo such as Abe Foxman have good reason to concerned.

Tony Karon is a New York-based editor and analyst who blogs at Rootless Cosmopolitan:

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