One of the endlessly fascinating and frustrating aspects of the convergence of American politics with Middle Eastern realities is evident again this season: the application of special rules of conduct to Israel that are not applied to the United States itself. One of the most common themes heard in discussions of US policy in the Middle East these days is that Washington should be speaking to the key players in the region – like Syria, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah – instead of boycotting them.
Even former Secretary of State James Baker has said something to this effect, which is significant because he heads a team looking into policy options on Iraq for the Bush administration. Yet when it comes to Israel speaking with Hamas in Palestine, the same rational suggestions are not heard. Israel remains a state that enjoys unique standards of behavior in the world, both in terms of what it should and should not do.
It is not held accountable for its vicious policies in Palestine and Lebanon, where its war crimes-like behavior is often noted, but never prosecuted.
Impunity continues to define its relationship to global norms of morality and law. In the same manner, it is generally not urged to engage with Hamas and the wider Palestinian political system as a means of resolving its conflict with them. Rather, Israel is told – and the Quartet’s support for its policy of boycotting Hamas is ample proof of this – that it can unilaterally set requirements and rules of the game that Palestinians and everyone else in the world must adhere to.
This is a shame, because the policies Israel has pursued in this respect are not working very well. Israel’s physical security as a state may be intact, but its acceptance in the region is as precarious as it always has been. In fact its prospects of being accepted as a good neighbor in the Arab region may be deteriorating, in view of its continued savagery in Palestine and Lebanon and its role in threatening Iran. Most of the Arab world cheered Hezbollah as it rained thousands of rockets on northern Israel last July and August.
While Israel refuses to talk to Hamas, other countries act differently. The US and UK engage the Irish Republican Army via Sinn Fein; the US and Europe talk to Iran directly or indirectly; the US looks for contact points with the insurgents in Iraq; and the US itself also once negotiated with the Viet Cong when the two were at war in the early 1970s. Israel similarly should find a face-saving way to engage with Hamas now, before the Palestinian situation completely collapses and no diplomatic partner is available for negotiations.
The Hamas leadership in the past year has clearly softened and clarified its diplomatic position on relations with Israel. It will not recognize Israel as a legitimate state, but it is now prepared to have a long-term truce with it, and to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel should jump on this offer and make a counter-offer of equal magnitude. If I were an Israeli leader, I would find it attractive to ensure a long-term truce and a cessation of hostilities, coupled with negotiations to implement the terms of coexistence without mutual recognition.
Three reasons in particular make this an attractive, even a compelling, proposition. The first is that ending mutual violence is a good thing in itself, even without a permanent, comprehensive settlement. Israelis and Palestinians alike deserve the opportunity to live in some normalcy and non-violence for years on end.
The second reason is that a truce would give the Palestinians the opportunity to develop their society with some security and predictability, especially their economy. Hamas may or may not remain at the head of the elected government, but promoting economic growth and stability is a critical factor for the well-being of the Palestinians and the Israelis alike.
Third, a long-term truce would definitely promote an evolution among Palestinian political sentiments. Given a chance to live in peace and quiet and to develop their society, the mainstream Palestinian majority that already affirms its will for a negotiated comprehensive peace with Israel would surely push its government to move quickly to permanent status negotiations.
Having experienced the pain and probable futility of current trends, the Palestinian people would clearly not want to return to this situation of being starved, besieged and savagely attacked.
Hamas is the only party now in Palestine that has the legitimacy and the capacity to enforce a truce with Israel. Such a truce would likely generate strong pressures from its Palestinian constituency to keep moving in the direction of a permanent peace agreement. If a majority of Palestinians democratically express this wish, Hamas would have to comply, or else step aside and let others govern.
The world should be telling Israel to engage Hamas on the basis of the currently available terms, not supporting its decision to try and force Hamas out of office and starve the Palestinians into submission.
Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.