Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Middle East: just waiting out the ineffectual and counterproductive Bush administration

Throughout the Middle East, there seems to be a degree of resignation in the air – a sense that Gaza will suffer for the remainder of the Bush administration, and once he is out of the way, the dialogue will commence. The next administration will talk to Hamas, and so will the Israelis. "They'll have to," said Dr. Eyad Sarraj, a Palestinian human rights activist "because they'll have seen that Hamas can deliver."

The looming end of the Bush regime underpins the political thought throughout the region. The political leaders of the region are looking forward to the end, preparing for change, and readying themselves for the coming dialogue.

Throughout the region, the disdain is virtually palpable, even among people like Dr. Sarraj, who consider themselves friends of the United States. The aura of just waiting it out does not bode well for any future Bush administration initiatives where the Israel/Palestine dilemma is concerned.

This sense of resignation and time-biding offers context for Condi’s recent embarrassingly inept trip to the region. (We know it was a failure because we didn’t hear anything about it.) The trip was such a flop that the tepid response by the Saudis that they might consider attending a U.S. sponsored summit was hailed as a significant development.

One Egyptian diplomat put it about as bluntly as possible "No one likes American policy."

The Israeli’s are equally critical:

A senior Israeli official sat silently for several seconds after he was asked which negotiating approach was most likely to lead to progress in peace talks with Israel's Arab neighbors. Then he laughed and, in flawless English, suggested to a colleague that he must not have understood the question. "I don't see any promising pathway," he said. "There is a huge gap between the rhetoric and what people believe."

The Israeli government understands that to have peace with Syria "means giving back the Golan Heights," the strategic high ground that Israel seized in 1967, and "we're willing to discuss it," he said. But with Bush insisting "from the Oval Office" that the U.S. won't talk to Syria, nothing can be expected. "The Syrians really want to talk to the United States," the official said. Even among government officials in Iraq there's little embrace of Bush policy, and surprising expressions of distrust.

Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, with three decades in clandestine service, sworn to protect the Jewish state from enemies such as Hamas, now speaks aloud what was unthinkable until recently. “It is time to negotiate with the movements leaders.” (The leaders he now advocates dialogue with are the same leaders Mossad has made a policy of targeting for assassination.)

The Hamas takeover of Gaza in June effectively split the Palestinians into Gaza, controlled by Hamas, and the West Bank, politically dominated by the more secular Fatah party and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his appointed prime minister, Salam Fayad.

In response, the White House has rolled out what it calls a "West-Bank-first" strategy. (Without batting an eyelash that the strategy was “Gaza First” right up to the moment it blew up in their faces.)

The “new” approach envisions financial, political and diplomatic support for Mr. Abbas and Fatah. The thinking is that life can be improved in the West Bank to such a degree that support for Hamas will evaporate in both the West Bank and Gaza. Simultaneously, Washington maneuvers to work with Israel to isolate Hamas further, while refusing to talk to the leaders.

"I don't say we should talk to Hamas out of sympathy to them. I have no sympathy whatsoever for Hamas. I think they are a ghastly crowd," Mr. Halevy says. "But I have not seen anybody who says the Abbas-Fayad tandem is going to do the job."

Mr. Halevy says defeating Hamas politically is unrealistic, given its enduring popularity among Palestinians. Hamas defeated Fatah in Palestinian parliamentary elections last year.

"The danger is that they will not be defeated, that they will become more despairing...and they will no longer feel constrained by anything, because there is nothing left for them to hope for," he says.

Then he said something that truly gives me hope. When the former Mossad chief finally “gets it” there is reason to rejoice. "We don't need their recognition," he says. "We are a sovereign state...They need us to recognize them. The shoe is on the wrong foot." (Really, who cares whether Hamas recognizes Israel or not?) We're dealing in issues which are existential to free society," Mr. Halevy says. "When you look around for potential allies in this war, sometimes you have to settle for strange bedfellows."

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