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Whose Move in the Middle East?

With Robert Malley, The Washington Post, 14 October 2006

In its lead editorial “Intransigent Hamas” (11 October), the Washington Post characterizes as “thoughtless” advocacy of a renewed push towards a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, together with a new, more pragmatic approach toward the Palestinian Authority – one that does not seek to starve the Palestinian people in an effort to change Hamas’s views. Instead, the Post contends that the sole obstacle to progress is Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel. It is a convenient argument, but one that flies in the face of reality and condemn the region to continued conflict.

Hamas surely deserves a good share of blame, but the notion that its ideological position alone is blocking progress is surprising, to say the least. When Hamas came to power, there was no peace process for it to derail; in fact, there had been no peace process at all for the preceding six years, which largely explains the Islamists’ electoral success. The roots of the impasse go far deeper, and they have to do not only with Palestinian, but also Israeli and international policies over the past decade.

Recognition of Israel by Hamas is desirable, but what precisely will it change? The conflict did not begin with Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel, nor does its resolution depend on the Islamists uttering these symbolic words. Indeed, every Arab party with which Israel has negotiated peace agreements has only provided recognition at the conclusion of the process; as for the vast majority of Arab states, they have refused to recognize Israel at all, and that has prevented neither the U.S. nor Israel to dealing with them.

During the Arafat era, Israel regularly argued that what the Palestinians said did not matter so much as what they did; now, all of a sudden, a few words by the Islamists are seen as the key to a peaceful settlement – words they are unlikely to believe even if pressure caused Hamas to utter them. Besides, to follow the Post’s logic, efforts towards a durable Israeli-Palestinian settlement during the 1990s also were misdirected, because it was not before 2000 that Israel accepted the principle of an independent Palestinian state and even then continued expanding the settlement of the occupied territories at an accelerated pace.

The priority right now is to focus not on what Hamas says, but on what it does: is it able to achieve a reciprocal ceasefire as it claims, and is it willing to work with Israel on matters of immediate and mutual concern – security, health, free movement, or economic development? That means changing the conditions imposed by the Quartet for resuming economic assistance and diplomatic engagement to something both more achievable and more meaningful. It also means that, in parallel, the international community should promote discussions on a political settlement between Israel and the PLO on the one hand, and Israel and Syria on the other. The solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is clear for all to see, but only once it will be put on the table with international help will Israelis, Palestinians, and Syrians have the choice to accept or refuse it. Prior to that, all talk about whether or not Hamas is prepared to accept a two-state solution is just that – talk.

The Post’s approach, by contrast, is a recipe for self-inflicted paralysis or worse. Hamas will not change its views, certainly not now, and certainly not under pressure. As a result, under the Post’s view, the sanctions will remain, Palestinians will become ever more militant, and any possible peace talks will be blocked.

The Post questions why Americans, Europeans, or Latin Americans bothered to make this call. There a simple answer: the Arab-Israeli conflict has ceased being a local, or even a regional concern. It is an international one, with obvious ripple effects in the rise of Islamic militancy and terrorism. We can choose to be held hostage by Hamas’s ideological stance. Or we can try to move forward despite it. The 135 well-known and respected international figures who chose the latter course can be called many things. Thoughtless is not one of them.

Gareth Evans is President of the International Crisis Group. Robert Malley is the Director Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program.