New York Times, March 26, 2009 - Pressure on President Obama to recast the failed American approach to Israel-Palestine is building from former senior officials whose counsel he respects.
Following up on a letter dated Nov. 6, 2008, that was handed to Obama late last year by Paul Volcker, now a senior economic adviser to the president, these foreign policy mandarins have concluded a “Bipartisan Statement on U.S. Middle East Peacemaking” that should become an essential template.
Deploring “seven years of absenteeism” under the Bush administration, they call for intense American mediation in pursuit of a two-state solution, “a more pragmatic approach toward Hamas,” and eventual U.S. leadership of a multinational force to police transitional security between Israel and Palestine.
The 10 signatories — of both the four-page letter and the report — include Volcker himself, former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Senator Chuck Hagel, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills, former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering.
My understanding is their thinking coincides in significant degree with that of both George Mitchell, Obama’s Middle East envoy, and Gen. James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser who worked on security issues with Israelis and Palestinians in the last year of the Bush administration, an often frustrating experience.
This overlap gives the report particular significance.
Of Hamas, the target of Israel’s futile pounding of Gaza, the eminent Group of 10 writes that, “Shutting out the movement and isolating Gaza has only made it stronger and Fatah weaker.” They urge a fundamental change: “Shift the U.S. objective from ousting Hamas to modifying its behavior, offer it inducements that will enable its more moderate elements to prevail, and cease discouraging third parties from engaging with Hamas in ways that might clarify the movement’s view and test its behavior.”
Although this falls short of my own recommendation that the United States itself — rather than European allies — engage with moderate elements of Hamas, such a shift is critical. Without Hamas’s involvement, there can be no Middle East peace. Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and president of the Palestinian Authority, is a beleaguered figure.
The report goes further: “Cease discouraging Palestinian national reconciliation and make clear that a government that agrees to a cease-fire with Israel, accepts President Mahmoud Abbas as the chief negotiator and commits to abiding by the results of a national referendum on a future peace agreement would not be boycotted or sanctioned.” In other words, stop being hung up on prior Hamas recognition of Israel and watch what it does rather than what it says. If Hamas is part of, and remains part of, a Palestinian unity government that makes a peace deal with Israel, that’s workable.
Henry Siegman, the president of the U.S./Middle East Project, whose chairman is Scowcroft and board includes all 10 signatories, told me that he met recently with Khaled Meshal, the political director of Hamas in Damascus. Meshal told him, and put in writing, that although Hamas would not recognize Israel, it would remain in a Palestinian national unity government that reached a referendum-endorsed peace settlement with Israel. De facto, rather than de jure, recognition can be a basis for a constructive relationship, as Israel knows from the mutual benefits of its shah-era dealings with Iran.
Israeli governments have negotiated a two-state solution although they included religious parties that do not recognize Palestinians’ right to statehood. “But,” Siegman said, “if moderates within Hamas are to prevail, a payoff is needed for their moderation. And until the U.S. provides one, there will be no Palestinian unity government.”