On 22 January, two days after his inauguration, President Obama announced that Senator George Mitchell, who chaired the negotiations of the Good Friday Accords in Northern Ireland would be his special envoy charged with the Israel/Palestine conflict, thereby signalling from the outset that the region would receive greater attention than under the Bush presidency.
In the hiatus between the Bush and Obama Administrations, the voice of the US had been strangely absent on this issue. Recently many world leaders have descended on Cairo to support Egyptian president Mubarak in his efforts to find a solution that would bring the reciprocal violence to an end. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, French President Sarkozy, the EU President represented by the Czech foreign minister, Karel Schwartzenberg, British Prime Minster Gordon Brown, the Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestine Authority and leader of Fatah, and representatives of Germany, Jordan and Spain participated in the talks to help deal with the rising crisis in Gaza. However, both Israel and Hamas seemed to lack the political will to end the violence.
But at the height of the crisis, almost miraculously, both sides separately declared unilateral ceasefires, albeit while repeating their inflexible demands before entering into peace talks. The timing could not have been merely fortuitous. Criticism of Israeli action from many quarters, including the UN Secretary General, but also some members of the Jewish community worldwide, began to create a public relations debacle for Israel, especially when Israeli military action failed to prevent missile fire ever further into its territory, threatening some of its major cities.
On the other hand, as the destruction and the casualty figures of innocent civilians in Gaza mounted it became increasingly hard for Hamas to justify its actions. Many abroad began to believe that they were as guilty of atrocities as the Israelis. In fact, as soon as the ceasefire was declared, Hamas started to rebuild its tunnels bordering Egypt, allegedly to bypass the Israeli blockade of foodstuff and supplies, but also to smuggle more rockets and other arms into Gaza.
All hopeful moves in the region stalled, including indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel brokered by Turkey.
While moderate Arab leadership, such as the Jordanians and the Egyptians, countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel, have come under pressure from their populations to take a hard line against Israel, they are also reluctant to be drawn directly into the conflict. Egypt has no interest in being accused of providing a conduit for rockets, presumably supplied to Hamas by Iran. At the same time, the region can ill afford further radicalisation of its population. Syrian president Assad has spoken of Israeli violence breeding radicals.
In Cape Town the Palestine ambassador, Ali Halimeh, blamed Hamas for the violence suffered by the people of Gaza when he addressed the South African Parliamentary Foreign Affairs committee on 15 January.
Palestinians themselves are not united on the way forward. Fatah believes that history has proved that the ‘two-state’ solution is unavoidable, while Hamas will use whatever it takes to achieve ‘one state’.
This divergence is at the nub of the crisis. While Hamas which controls Gaza with its own security forces, is lobbing rockets into Israel, as part of its plan ultimately to destroy the state of Israel, Fatah, in the person of Palestinian president Abbas, is in negotiations with his Israeli counterpart to find a peaceful solution that would move the region towards the long envisaged ‘two state’ solution to the problem.
Israel itself is governed by a caretaker administration as the Israeli electorate wait to go to the polls in February, to replace the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who suffered humiliation when the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006 did not achieve its objective of neutralising Hizbollah. Will Israelis select a government that is more right-wing than the present Kadima-led coalition in February? Will Benjamin Netanyahu be the next prime minister or will it be Tzipi Livni, currently Olmert’s foreign minister? Will it matter? Is there room for moderation among the Israeli voters?
Enter at this point the Obama Administration in Washington. During the eight years of the Bush presidency, efforts to find a solution to the Palestine problem were eclipsed by the US initiated war in Iraq and its consequences. Only at a very late stage did Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice start paying attention to the issue. But time had run out to make a real impact.
Now it falls to the new Administration to pick up where the Clinton Administration had left matters in 2000. The Camp David Agreements reached shortly before Bill Clinton left office, but not accepted for implementation by Yasser Arafat, may prove to be a basis for resumed negotiations. This comes at a time when the Saudis have warned that their so-called Arab peace plan will not be on the table for ever.
How will Mitchell go about dealing with opposing sides who are unwilling to make concessions in order to reach a lasting peace, who demand that their requirements be met and reject their opponents’ demands? The lack of willingness to compromise is likely to bedevil the search for a solution. Mitchell will require tenacity and resolve to bring about peace, and the Palestinian-Israeli crisis could well prove to be the new administration in Washington’s first major foreign policy challenge.
President Obama gave his full support to Mitchell in an interview he gave to the Al-Arabiya news channel on 26 January, also sending a positive message on the attitude of the US to the Muslim world under his administration:
‘I told [Mitchell] is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating…in the past on some of these issues…and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved. So let’s listen. He’s going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response.’
And while reiterating that Israel remains a strong ally of the US, he spoke of relations with the Muslim world more broadly:
‘… if we are looking at the region as a whole and communicating a message to the Arab world and the Muslim world, that we are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest, then I think that we can make significant progress.’
‘… my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task.’
One again Obama brings a message of hope to the Middle East and to other regions where earlier there seemed little prospect of the US developing warm and friendly relations. It is in the interests of all that his initiatives succeed.