Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Israel and Hamas' Military Conflict

It is very unfortunate and tragic that Israel in recent days found it necessary to bomb and invade the small and very poor Hamas controlled Palestinian territory of Gaza, demolishing dozens of buildings and unintentionally killing and wounding hundreds of largely innocent civilians, including quite a few children. However, it's difficult to credibly blame the Israeli government, given the hundreds, if not thousands, of missiles recently fired by Hamas militants into and around towns and other residential communities in southern Israel, killing a number of innocent civilians and wounding dozens of others. Retaliation is entirely understandable, and also Article 51 of the United Nations charter reserves the right to every nation to engage in self-defense against armed attacks.

Critics of Israeli actions should keep in mind that it was Hamas who allowed the six month cease-fire agreement to lapse last month and who initiated the latest round of missile attacks. This is the same Hamas who, like Iran's current radical government, which reportedly is supplying Hamas with weapons and financial backing, does not recognize Israel's right to exist and, incredibly, has vowed to destroy the country! That noted, the Palestinian people do have some legitimate complaints and concerns about Israeli actions going back several decades that definitely ought to be addressed.

Obviously this fighting, especially if it escalates and goes on for too much longer, is not good for the Palestinians, Hamas, Israel, the entire Middle East region, the U. S., or the world at large. A cease fire is urgently needed first and a fair, durable, and lasting peace agreement is needed thereafter . Two key questions are how this can be best achieved, and what should be the role of the U. S. Acknowledging I'm not an expert on this very emotional and complicated subject, I'll still relatively briefly provide my "common man," pragmatic viewpoints.

The initial urgent step must be reestablishment of a firm cease fire agreement of six to twelve months to be monitored by either United Nations troops, European Union troops, or a contingent of troops from moderate regional powers such as Turkey or Egypt. Almost everyone agrees with that. The U. S. is in the best position to pressure Israel to agree to this, although the European Union certainly could also contribute. Hamas can best be pressured by Iran, but it's doubtful that Iran will want to play that role, in part because the longer the conflict continues, the easier it will be for both Hamas and Iran to fan the flames of anti-Israel and anti-U. S. rhetoric in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Additionally, the conflict is serving to deflect world-wide attention to Iran's controversial nuclear power and weapons build-up plans. A quick cease-fire and early peace agreement would therefore probably be detrimental to Iran's strategic interests. The primary alternative governments to pressure Hamas, aside from their countrymen in the West Bank, would likely include those of Syria, Egypt and Turkey, as well as Jordan. I'm not confident pressure from the United Nations' Secretary-General or Security Council would be as effective.

Israel will surely agree to an early cease-fire with strong pressure from the U. S., particularly if they believe they have significantly weakened Hamas and their capacity to fire more missiles into southern Israel. It is less certain with Hamas, who are much less predictable and rational, but with meaningful political pressure from one or more of the above regional governments and their own citizens, it's very probable they will comply. Recognition of their militants' casualties and substantial infrastructure damage, as well as very limited realistic options, should also induce Hamas' leaders to sign up.

A fair, durable and lasting peace agreement will be much more challenging. The Palestinian people, while very angry now with Israel's bombing and invasion should, when the dust settles and some months have gone by, be so unhappy with the performance of Hamas' leadership, that they will increasingly come to accept the fact that they would be better off with the more moderate Fatah leadership in the West Bank led currently by President Mahmoud Abbas. I cannot believe that a majority of the Palestinian people, even those living in Gaza, would prefer to continue supporting a highly militant Hamas organization with continued fighting and resultant further devastation of their land, and no realistic chance to ever defeat Israel. If they have a clear option of living in peace, with no more threats of Israeli attacks, an internationally backed, fair peace agreement, and promises of substantial economic aid from both the West and their well-heeled Muslim neighbors, I think they would definitely go this route. It's possible even a significantly weakened Hamas would still try to prevent the Palestinians in Gaza from having this peaceful choice, but international pressure should be able to overcome that potential threat.

Both sides would need to make substantive concessions in order to achieve a fair, durable and lasting agreement that both the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as most of their supporting countries (excluding Iran) could be convinced to sign. There is no need to go into all of them here. However, the Palestinian government in both Gaza and the West Bank must acknowledge Israel's right to exist in peace and security without any military threats from its neighbors or other countries in the Middle East. If somehow Hamas remains in power in Gaza, their leaders must make it clear that they fully agree with this point, though that would be a drastic change in their current political posture toward Israel. As long as Hamas is in power and would reasonably still be considered a potential threat to Israel, any agreement would also need to incorporate a provision that no import of any offensive weapons or weapon components be allowed into Gaza.

The Israeli government must also make some meaningful accommodations to the Palestinians. While perhaps only symbolic and of little practical significance, Israel should seriously consider acknowledging some responsibility for disadvantaging Palestinians since 1948, when with United Nations support Israel declared its independence after the British Mandate to govern Palestine had expired.

One of the major practical accommodations Israel should agree to in the peace agreement is removing the de facto economic blockade surrounding Gaza and make it easier for Palestinians to enter and leave the territory and to find employment in Israel. Others, of course, include reasonable and fair provisions with respect to restricting Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, the status of Jerusalem, adjusting the final borders, and the right of at least a modest number of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel or be compensated. As a reminder, I'm talking about the Palestinians who lived in what is now Israel, or their descendants, and fled or were forced to leave their homes and businesses in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli war and its aftermath.

The peace agreement must build upon the negotiations brokered by President Bill Clinton that took place at Camp David eight years ago and serve to expedite the long discussed independence for Palestine and full Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist in peace and security.

The U. S.' role under President-Elect Obama and his new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must be to put appropriate pressure on Israel and to work diplomatically with our allies in the Middle East and fellow members of the Security Council to do what we can to achieve a fair and balanced agreement Israel and the Palestinians can live with and which has a good level of support from most of the countries in the region. Recognizing our longstanding, well-known bias favoring Israel, shared by most of the U. S. media, it's critical that our diplomatic initiatives be perceived as pragmatic, objective and balanced, being as fair as possible toward the Palestinian side.

Getting a temporary cease-fire in place within the next week or so will be relatively easy. Getting a satisfactory result with a signed peace agreement that endures will no doubt be very difficult. Major challenges will be dealing with the deep emotional scars from decades of conflict and anticipated resistance from Islamic radicals led by Iran, Hamas in Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Negotiations between Syria and Israel, perhaps brokered by Turkey and encouraged by the U. S., with respect to the longstanding dispute on the future of the Golan Heights, could be an important component in achieving a peace agreement with limiting the resistance from the Islamic radicals.

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