OBAMA, ISRAEL & TALKING TO ENEMIES
From Eyal Press
Did the war in Gaza accomplish anything? Not according to the residents of Nir Oz, a kibbutz in southern Israel profiled in yesterday's Times. "So they changed the security situation for the next six months, bravo," a potato farmer said. "They should have gone on longer and finished the job."
I heard similar sentiments when I was in Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War: the problem was not that Israel struck back at Hezbollah with excessive force, many people felt, but that the response was too meek. "Tsa-ha-reech leem-chok otam" - "[we] need to wipe them out," a resident of Haifa told me.
Given a certain framework of assumptions, such feelings are both predictable and understandable. You're told your enemies will attack you regardless of what your government does. You're told there's no point in talking to them. And you want to be able to work your plot of land without fear of being hit by a missile. Inevitably, some will embrace the 'wipe-them-out' view, despite the fact that even hard-line military strategists acknowledge that obliterating a broad-based, popular movement like Hamas is impossible.
What's the alternative? How about, well, talking to them. In the case of Hamas, the response is often that Israel cannot talk to a terrorist organization that denies its right to exist. One thing worth recalling is that the same argument was made, for years, about another organization, the PLO - until Israel started talking to its members. But Hamas is not the PLO - its worldview is more messianic and unyielding. Certainly so, but Hamas is not a monolith, and plenty of people with few illusions and little sympathy for its ideology still favor negotiating with its leaders. One of them is Efraim Halevy, the former chief of the Mossad. Another is Seymour D. Reich, President of the Israel Policy Forum, who, in an op-ed last year coauthored with Geoffrey Lewis, a member of the group's executive committee, wrote:
Hamas is the governing authority in Gaza, a reality we can no longer ignore... No progress can be made with a divided Palestinian polity. Israel cannot reach a binding agreement with the Palestinian Authority while at war with Hamas.
Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to talk not only to our allies but also to our enemies. He is apparently planning to appoint George J. Mitchell as a special envoy to the Middle East, an excellent negotiator widely admired for his role in helping to settle another intractable conflict, in Northern Ireland. Both the US and Israel have shown how self-defeating it is to refuse to engage groups or countries based on ideological differences. (The insistence that there was no partner worth engaging led Ariel Sharon to pull out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 without an agreement, even before Hamas was ruling the territory.) Obama must now decide whether to isolate Hamas or support a Palestinian unity government. Though neither policy comes without risks, it seems to me the war in Gaza has only underscored why the first approach is bound to fail.