Lost opportunity: Despite the cease-fire, America is in a weak spot

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The uneven contest between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip has left the United States in an almost impossible situation if it wishes to play a central role in a lasting solution.

Change in the Middle East, on which U.S. policy has been lagging, has left America in a weak position to seek a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem which roils not only that region but also general relations between the West and the Muslim world.

The battle in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinians has drawn Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the region. She went to help the effort, led primarily by Egypt, to broker a cease-fire between the Palestinians and Israelis. The truce, which took effect Wednesday, could lead to negotiations between the two sides to reach a long-term accord. Such a pact presumably would amount to agreement on two independent states, with an Israel and a Palestine recognized and respected by all parties, a decade-old idea.

Ms. Clinton's ability to play a useful role is limited by the fact that the United States has accepted Israel's position that Hamas is a terrorist organization, one with which Washington does not have contact or relations. This has been foolish policy all along; in international relations there is nothing to gain by refusing to talk with people with whom one disagrees. As Hamas has grown in strength among the Palestinians and in the Arab world including U.S. allies such as Egypt and Qatar, the U.S. policy of pretending that Hamas is not worthy of dialogue has become unrealistic and, in fact, out of touch with the reality on the ground.

Ms. Clinton is thus reduced, by U.S. policy, to trying to contribute to an agreement between Israel and Hamas through the Egyptians, an uncertain reed at best with a new Islamic Brotherhood government in Cairo and a U.S. role hampered by the absence of direct lines to Hamas. Hamas, in the meantime, has emerged as the champion of the Palestinians, as opposed to Fatah, which is theoretically in power in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but which has so far stayed out of this exchange with the Israelis. Ms. Clinton talks to the Israelis, trying to influence them with the $3 billion annually and military aid they receive from the United States. She also talks with Egypt, which in turn relays the U.S. position to Hamas, and to the powerless Fatah head, Mahmoud Abbas.

The current U.S. role is awkward at best and futile at worst, but it is the hand that Ms. Clinton has been given to play in this difficult situation.

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