Middle East Leaders offer an Open Door to Peace — Will U.S. and Israel respond?

Shortly after Hamas’ election victory in January 2006, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh sent a message to President George W. Bush requesting dialogue with the Americans. In a letter transmitted by Dr. Jerome Segal, professor of political science at the University of Maryland and founder of the Jewish Peace Lobby, Haniyeh wrote: “We are so concerned about stability and security in the area that we don’t mind having a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders and offering a truce for many years.” Segal delivered the letter by hand to the U.S. State Department. The Bush administration did not reply, and maintained its boycott of Hamas.

Haniyeh and other Hamas officials have continued to send out the same message. At least 10 times since 2006, Hamas has offered peace with Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to its 1967 borders. Hamas had even earlier endorsed the Arab peace proposal of April 2002, which offered Israel full diplomatic relations, including recognition, if Israel ended its occupation and agreed to “a just and agreed upon solution” for Palestinian refugees. The offer was ignored at the time by Israel and the U.S.

The Arab proposal remained dormant until this fall, when Israeli President Shimon Peres spoke at an interfaith conference at the United Nations and expressed partial support for the peace plan, but ruled out Israel’s withdrawal from any part of Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal responded that the proposal was “a package deal.”

On Nov. 8, Haniyeh met with 11 members of the European Parliament and again stressed his willingness to make peace with Israel. A few days later the chief of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshal, reminded President-elect Barack Obama of his campaign pledge to sit down and talk with adversaries, and invited him to discuss peace with Hamas leaders. Ahmed Yousef, an adviser to Hamas’ Foreign Ministry, called on Obama to “open his doors to people with different opinions and perspectives on the conflict.”

Obama’s appointment of Sen. Hillary Clinton, an ardent supporter of Israel, as secretary of state suggests he will adhere to the policy of refusing to talk with Hamas until it recognizes Israel and renounces violence. A further clue to the direction the new administration will take was contained in an op-ed column for The Washington Post by two former national security advisers close to Obama, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Their proposed “Obama Plan” calls for Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders, but with “slight alterations” that would allow it to retain the large settlement blocs adjoining Jerusalem. Palestinian refugees would receive compensation in lieu of the right of return, and each side would have Jerusalem as its capital.

Even if the Palestinians accepted such a reduced version of their demands, still to be determined would be disposition of the water from the acquifers that lie under the West Bank settlement blocs, and a method of enforcing the agreement. Israel has violated every agreement it has signed with the Palestinians since Oslo, and broken every promise it has made to freeze settlement expansion and ease travel restrictions on the West Bank. Nevertheless, Obama has vowed to fulfill Bush’s pledge of $30 billion in military aid to Israel over the next 10 years.

Israel’s response to Hamas’ peace overtures was the now familiar one of provoking renewed violence. On Nov. 4, a month before a six-month cease-fire was due to be renewed, and after five months of calm, Israeli troops invaded Gaza and destroyed a tunnel Israel claimed Hamas intended to use for the purpose of kidnapping an Israeli soldier. Gazans have frequently used tunnels to smuggle much needed diesel fuel and other goods into the besieged territory.

The Israeli assault resulted in the death of six Hamas members, and subsequent air strikes killed 10 more Palestinians over the next two weeks. Israeli defense officials admitted they knew the raid would jeopardize the cease-fire and counted on Hamas’ interest in maintaining it. But the initial incursion immediately followed the arrests of hundreds of Hamas members on the West Bank by U.S.-sponsored Palestinian troops, and talks aimed at reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority had earlier broken down over President Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to consider a prisoner exchange.

Hamas and other militant groups retaliated against Israell’s attacks by firing rockets across the border. The rockets did little damage, but prompted Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to impose a total blockade on Gaza. The Israelis barred all shipments of fuel, food and medicine as well as other vital supplies. Even the passage of currency was cut off, causing tens of thousands of civil servants and other workers to go unpaid. As the stoppage continued day after day, Gazans were left without heat or light, and U.N. relief workers were for the first time in 60 years unable to deliver food to 750,000 needy people, more than half of them women and children.

“This has become a blockade against the United Nations itself,” said UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness. The deliberate targeting of an entire population in order to exert pressure on an adversary could just as accurately be called a massive act of terrorism. To make sure the full extent of Gaza’s suffering did not become known to the outside world, Israel barred from the territory 20 senior officials of the European Union and all foreign reporters–”a ban still in effect in late November.

As ongoing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority remained at a standstill, both sides agreed to focus on what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called “state building.” This approach, backed by the international Quartet of Middle East mediators, calls for heavy infusions of foreign aid to build up Palestinian security forces and provide infrastructure in Palestinian areas.

During her visit to Israel in early November, Rice used as a showcase for the plan the once-embattled city of Jenin, where in 2002 the Israeli army leveled large parts of the city refugee camp. Rice spent her three hours in Jenin inaugurating a hospital wing renovated with American funds and announcing an additional $14 million in U.S. aid for road improvements and educational projects. The city has remained quiet since May under the eye of some 600 U.S.-backed Palestinian police, who replaced part of a contingent of Israeli soldiers. Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, U.S. security coordinator, called their operation “a great success.”

Palestinians took a different view of such “state building.” Fatah Prime Minister Salam Fayyad warned that without a political agreement improvements on the ground will be seen as “beautifying the occupation.” Others say Rice’s plan is simply a way of using Palestinians to enforce Israeli rule. Rice did not explain how the Palestinian economy could be restored while more than 600 West Bank checkpoints choke off all normal commerce.

Not surprisingly, the leading candidate for prime minister in the forthcoming Israeli elections, Likud party head Binyamin Netanyahu, has adopted Rice’s approach. Netanyahu pledged that if elected he will stop negotiations with the Palestinians, calling such talks “premature.” Instead he favors building up the Palestinian economy while waiting, he says, for Palestinian attitudes to change.

Netanyahu’s chief rival, Kadima party chair Tsipi Livni, vows to continue peace talks but shows no greater flexibility than her predecessors. She welcomed the longstanding Arab peace offer, but said its provisions on final borders, the status of Jerusalem, and return of Palestinian refugees were “not acceptable.” The negotiations Livni intends to continue began in 1991 with the Madrid conference, and have dragged on in fits and starts for 18 years, while Israel swallowed up more and more Palestinian territory.

Other Regional Conflicts

Leaders in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia meanwhile are attempting to end conflict in their countries. In Somalia, the war initiated by the Bush administration in 2006 and fought by a U.S.-trained Ethiopian army aided by U.S. special forces, may soon end. The moderate wing of the Islamic insurgency is gaining ground and bringing a degree of order to war-ravaged areas. A more radical Islamic force that arose following the invasion may prolong the fighting, but Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin announced in late November that Ethiopia was no longer willing to prop up Somalia’s unpopular government, and would withdraw its troops by the end of the year.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai in late November asked foreign powers with armies in Afghanistan to set a firm timeline for withdrawal of their troops, saying that otherwise he would seek a political solution with the Taliban. He had earlier offered a guarantee of safe passage to Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar if the latter agreed to take part in peace negotiations. If the Western nations opposed his offer to Omar, Karzai said, they “have two choices: remove me, or leave.”

A spokesman for Omar said he “would not take part in peace talks with Karzai or Karzai’s administration until the day when foreign forces leave Afghanistan,” but Karzai and others, including Gen. David Patraeus, have suggested the Taliban is not monolithic and that some members may be wooed away, as they were in Iraq.

On the day Americans were celebrating Thanksgiving, Iraq’s parliament voted 149 to 35 to approve a security agreement with the U.S. that calls for the withdrawal of all American forces by December 2011. The pact gives the Iraqi government greater oversight over house searches, arrests, and other combat operations, and ends the Americans’ right to hold Iraqis in prison indefinitely without trial.

A significant section of the agreement forbids the use of Iraqi bases to attack neighboring countries. An Iraqi official said, “We spoke to the Iranians and gave them guarantees that no one will use our country to attack you.” Perhaps for this reason Iranian officials did not condemn the agreement. Obama’s election may also have calmed their fears of a permanent U.S. military presence on their borders. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad even sent Obama a telegram congratulating him on his victory.

The ageement met with greater opposition inside Iraq. The militantly anti-U.S. Shi’i cleric Sheikh Muqtada al-Sadr bitterly opposes any agreement with the Americans, and his party and their allies in parliament put up strong resistance to its ratification. The 44-member Sunni bloc demanded a clause granting amnesty to the 16,000 Iraqi detainees, most of them Sunni, being held by the Americans. Other Iraqi lawmakers worried that the agreement would replace a U.N. resolution that protects Iraq’s oil revenue from claims against the regime of Saddam Hussain. So far $22 billion in oil profits has remained unspent in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Sectarian disputes exacerbated by war and occupation could mean continued violence, especially since many Sunnis fear that once the Americans leave they will be targeted for persecution by a Shi’i-dominated government whose police force includes former members of Shi’i death squads. Those fears were somewhat allayed by passage of nonbinding resolutions calling for amnesty for Sunni prisoners in Iraqi custody, and greater inclusion of Sunnis in the security forces. But factional and regional disputes over the distribution of oil wealth, and the Kurds’ demand for autonomy in areas containing other ethnic groups also stand in the way of unifying the country.

Adding to these problems is soaring government corruption. Investigators recently reported to Congress that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fired most of the oversight officials installed by Washington, and that $13 billion in U.S. reconstruction aid was lost to fraud, embezzlement and theft.

Dealing with governments in Iraq and Afghanistan that are plagued by ineptitude and corruption, and lack credibility with their own people, is only one of the obstacles Obama faces if he intends to shape a Middle East policy based on engagement and reconciliation rather than confrontation. He also must undo the damage done to U.S. relations with Syria, Iran and other Middle East nations by Bush’s war on terror.

Even after Syria was branded by Bush as a member of “the axis of evil,” and shunned by the U.S. and its allies, the Syrians continued to share intelligence about al-Qaeda with the U.S., accepted thousands of Iraqi refugees, and took part in peace talks with Israel. But relations chilled again this fall when CIA-directed American commandoes raided a town inside Syria. The attack force killed at least eight people, all of whom Damascus said were civilians.

“They did to us what they’re doing to the Iraqis,” said the brother of a construction worker killed in the raid. “They attacked civilians. This is terrorism.” The Syrians angrily demanded an apology from Washington, no doubt recalling the Bush administration’s defense of Israel’s airstrike in September 2007 that destroyed a building in Syria that the Israelis claimed was the site of a nuclear reactor. A report by the Intenational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released this past November said the slight traces of uranium found at the site were not compatible with the type of reactor Syria is accused of building, and could even have been contained in the missiles dropped by Israel.

The U.S. commando raid into Syria was not an isolated incident. The New York Times reported on Nov. 11 that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld issued a classified order in 2004 authorizing the Pentagon to attack suspected members of al-Qaeda in some 20 countries, including Syria, Pakistan,Yemen and the Gulf states. At least a dozen military operations were carried out, all in the name of Bush’s “war on terror.”

We have learned by now that a “war on terror” is not the way to defeat terrorism or guarantee America’s security. Washington’s all-out support for Israel, along with its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, abductions and secret detentions, and official justification of torture, have alienated much of the world and increased the number of violent extremists. Such past failures leave the way clear for the Obama administration to adopt the approach many Middle East experts advocated after the World Trade Center attacks: the redirection of U.S. foreign policy away from the pursuit of economic and military domination and toward eliminating the conditions that lead to resentment, despair and, ultimately, indiscriminate violence.