May 25th 2010

A Self-Defeating Fixation

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates
Last week, an effort by the Qatari government to improve diplomatic relations with Israel and aid the reconstruction effort in Gaza has ended with a freeze in all official ties between the two countries. Qatar's offer to carry outinfrastructure reconstruction projects in Gaza in exchange for re-opening up Israel's diplomatic mission in Doha would have been a positive development for both sides. The rejection of this offer by the Israeli government is both short-sighted and self-defeating. The Netanyahu government's failure to seize an opportunity to normalize relations with an Arab state-against a limited risk that Hamas would act against the Qatari government and seize some of the construction materials for fortification of its defenses-demonstrates not only intransigence but a lack of a coherent policy as to how to bring about an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Israeli government may justifiably suspect Hamas' menacing intentions, but that too must be balanced against the reality of Hamas which cannot simply be wished away by the Israelis. At some point a pragmatic policy must be introduced to demonstrate how Israel is going to calibrate its risks and opportunities and better manage its relations with the Arab states that are making goodwill gestures.

By now it has become abundantly clear that Israel's blockade of Gaza has not weakened Hamas, but in fact it has increased its popularity in the Arab street and heightened international sympathy to the beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza. The fact that Israel allows ample supplies of food and medicine to pass through the crossings to Gaza while denying other critical material to rebuild has created the wide-spread perception of indifference and disdain by Israel towards the plight of ordinary Palestinians. Ten of thousands continue to live in squalor which defies any political logic the Netanyahu government may wish to employ and from which Israel could conceivably benefit. Israel will have to coexist with the Palestinians in Gaza under any political configuration regardless of who may govern the area. The question is, does the Netanyahu government have a specific plan to change the current dynamics to entice Hamas into the political process? Engaging in wishful thinking that may in fact scuttle other peace overtures such as the Qataris is futile and profoundly counterproductive.

Had the Qatari offer been accepted by Israel, it could have had serious positive implications from which Israel could greatly benefit. To begin with, Israel would have sent a clear message to the international community that although it has genuine concerns about Hamas' continuing militancy, in light of the Qatari assurances that the material will be used for housing and other civilian institutions, the welfare of the Palestinians will override such concerns. In addition, unlike a similar offer made by Turkey's Red Crescent organization which came on the heel of a growing tension between the two countries and was seen by Israel as pandering for domestic and Arab political support, the Qatari offer provides Israel with a critical opportunity to establish formal relations with an Arab state. This would have allowed other Gulf States such as Bahrain, the Emirates and other Arab countries to follow suit. Qatar in particular has taken several initiatives toward Israel in the past, including inviting then Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to speak in Doha, and its current offer represents a continuation of a policy which has received, albeit tacitly, the endorsement of other Arab states. Moreover, the timing of the Qatari offer is particularly auspicious as it comes when the proximity talks are underway and a goodwill gesture is both needed and expected of Israel.

More important is the fact that involving other Arab governments in the internal affairs of Gaza and working with Hamas' leaders would have the effect of moderating Hamas' position over time. Indeed, the only way to distance Hamas from Iran is by encouraging it to return to the Arab fold. But that can happen only through constructive, gainful and lasting engagement of Hamas, especially by official Arab governments which are much harder to rebuke than aid organizations or non-profit groups. Qatar could have paved the way for other Arab countries to be involved in the reconstruction efforts in Gaza, something that the Israeli government must support if it ever wishes to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Egypt has voiced its dissent of the deal, as it jealously guards its hegemony in Israel's relations with Hamas due to its own problem with the Muslim Brotherhood, and because of its shaky ties to Qatar after much criticism from Doha based al Jazeera broadcasts. Yet ultimately, Egypt has not yet proved to be effective in dealing with this problem of Hamas and ameliorating the situation in Gaza, so Israel needs to start looking at this problem on a wider scale. Allowing other Arab players into Gaza could open up various channels of communication between Israel and Hamas that were heretofore unproductive under Egypt's ownership.

Although the Qatar offer was rejected, it is not too late to revive it and unfreeze ties, particularly since Israel's rejection was carefully deliberated and even the astute right-wing National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister Uzi Arad argued in its favor. The Israeli security concerns about Hamas' potential threats are genuine and cannot be dismissed on the grounds of simple paranoia. The problem here though is to what extent Israel should allow itself to be fixated on Hamas as an irredeemable militant group bent on Israel's destruction without searching for ways to reconcile with its existence. The Gaza war has clearly demonstrated that Israel cannot change Hamas' current militancy either by brutal force or by a continuing blockade which has not worked and has deleterious effects on Israel's standing in the international community.

Regardless of why Hamas is currently pursuing a non-violent posture toward Israel, the Israeli government must demonstrate its willingness to reward such behavior. After all, Israel has rightfully demanded in the past cessation of all hostilities as a precondition to improved relations, it must now demonstrate the readiness to respond and deny Hamas the pretext of resuming violence under the continuing unbearable conditions. Unlike other foreign attempts to reconstruct Gaza, Qatar's offer comes from a moderate Arab state and has the potential to influence the nature of relations with Hamas by accepting it as a political movement and by allowing the Palestinians in Gaza to develop vested interest in the improved conditions.

This experiment may entail some risk for Israel, but such a risk needs to be seen in the bigger picture, because the tremendous benefit Israel could potentially garner should the effort work far outweighs the potential risk. Without a long-term strategy, Israel's fixation on Hamas will prove to be self-defeating, playing willfully into Hamas' hand especially when the patience of the international community is wearing thin.

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