Sunday, September 21, 2014

175.1 - Good News: Searching for hope in the Middle East

Good News: Searching for hope in the Middle East

>We always like to start with some Good News, so we have this, this week - which I don't know if it's good news or not, but I hope it is, I want it to be; but the fact is we have been down this road too many times before to have much hope that it really is the good news I want it to be. But it's true that "little hope" is not the same as "no hope," so hope there is.

The ground in the Middle East appears to be shifting - at least slightly - in the wake of the brutal war over the summer.

One big thing is that last week Musa Abu Marzouk, the second-ranking leader in Hamas, stated that Hamas is willing to talk directly to Israel. Previously, Hamas had rejected the idea of doing so unless Israel first totally lifted its economic embargo against the Gaza strip and opened all border crossings and even then there was no guarantee it would happen.

Musa Abu Marzouk
But now, Marzouk says that "Just as you negotiate with weapons you can also negotiate by talk. Up till now our policy was no negotiation with (Israel), but others should be aware that this issue is not taboo."

Okay, to go from here you  need a little context.

Back in 2007, in the wake of elections in the West Bank and Gaza, the two big Palestinian parties, Hamas and Fatah, worked out a coalition government after some months of painful negotiations. The US and Israel refused to recognize or even deal with this government, even though it arose out of the very elections they demanded take place.

The result of that intransigence is that the unity government fractured, leading to civil war among the Palestinians. The result of that war was that Fatah, in the form of the Palestinian  Authority, remained in control of the West Bank while Hamas had the lead in Gaza.

Okay. In April of this year, the two reached a new unity agreement so that a new Palestinian government, composed mostly of technocrats, took office on June 2.

Now, wasn't it just two weeks ago that I said that a coalition government would by the nature of the political realities involved push Hamas to moderate its positions? I say that's what we're seeing happening here.

Still, there was a quick reaction from the Hamas press office, saying that direct talks with "the Zionist enemy" are "not even under consideration." Those conflicting statements can be seen as in line with reports from media sources with contacts inside Hamas which say that the party's leadership is divided on the question of direct talks. Even that, however, is a shift, if only in that, as those contacts revealed, the idea has come up before but has never before been broached publicly.

Which means, even if you want to dismiss this as not representing formal Hamas policy, you would in that case still have to regard it as a trial balloon, as throwing the suggestion out there to see what the reaction is.

Which means the real issue for the moment is how Israel will react. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke off talks with the Palestinian Authority after it reached the reconciliation deal with Hamas, saying he - Netanyahu - would not return unless Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas broke off all contacts with Hamas. And Israel does have a history of responding to any signs of moderation among Palestinian radicals with some kind of provocative action - for example, as I mentioned two weeks ago, marking the end of the summer war by engaging in the biggest ever illegal seizure of Palestinian land in the West Bank.

So which path will Israel take? It could say something like, in appropriately vague diplomatese "Well, if Hamas is serious about that, we certainly would be open to the idea."

Remember, that's how the first significant peace agreement between Israel and an Arab state - Egypt - came about: Anwar Sadat said in a speech that he would go anywhere, "even Jerusalem," to discuss peace. In response, the Israeli government of Menachem Begin said that if Israel thought that Sadat would accept an invitation, Israel would invite him, to which Sadat said, in effect, "Thanks for the invitation! When can you have me there?" The ultimate result was the Camp David Accords of 1978.

But unfortunately, Israel's history of the past few decades points in a different direction, points to it rejecting the possibility of moderation on the part of Hamas, points to it grabbing on to the reference from the Hamas press office about "the Zionist enemy" to dismiss Marzouk's statement out of hand except, possibly, as representing an effort to "distract the world from Hamas's terrorism," slamming the door shut rather than seeing - just seeing - if it will open wider.

In fact, Israel has consistently said it will not talk directly to Hamas until the group recognizes Israel's right to exist and renounces violence. Which seem like conditions laid down in the full knowledge that they could never be accepted because what does Hamas have to offer in negotiations other than recognition and security guarantees? What Israel is demanding is that Hamas come to the table not as an enemy with who you make peace or even as an opponent or even as a "negotiating partner," but as a supplicant. So for Israel to take advantage of the open Marzouk provided would be a real change in policy.

Still, still, just maybe, that outright rejection is not what will happen. That may be false hope, but sometimes false hope is better than no hope so while this may be false hope, I'll take it.

That false hope lies in the fact that AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a lobbying group so totally pro-Israel that they should just drop the word "American" from the name and register as a group lobbying for a foreign government, appears to have shifted its position about the new unity Palestinian government.

In the wake of the agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, AIPAC pushed Congress to enact sanctions against the Palestinian Authority for daring to reach that agreement.

But now AIPAC has signed on to a letter circulating among Senators which while claiming Hamas "has no interest in peace," nonetheless drops the demand for the sanctions that were intended to undermine the new unity agreement.

This is significant because AIPAC generally reflects Israeli government policy, and if it's doing it here, it would be hinting that Israel is softening its own position. And that would also be good news.

On the other hand, the letter itself is not helpful if your interest is actually some measure of peace with some measure of justice rather than in advancing the interests of Israel. The letter is ultimately a call for efforts to enable the Palestinian Authority to exercise real power in Gaza over and above Hamas. That is, it's picking sides in what is still an exceedingly delicate situation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and it will hardly help maintain that still-tenuous unity government if you enable the most militant elements of Hamas to claim that the policy of that unity government is being dictated by AIPAC.

Sometimes it seems to me that the hardest thing about finding peace, about ending a conflict, is not both sides wanting peace but both wanting ii at the same time. I still don't know if that condition exists between Israel and the Palestinians, I just say there is some glimmer of hope. Sometimes that's the best you can do.

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