Friday, September 3, 2010

The Palestinian problem

It is good news that Obama seems to be investing effort in the Middle East peace process, and that he is doing so during the first half of his term, and not saving it 'til the end, for some kind of legacy project when all on the domestic scene is lost. The beginning of talks this week in Washington, D.C. is to be commended. However, there are problems. For one thing, the absence of Hamas calls into question the legitimacy with which any deal will be viewed by Palestinians. It is understandably difficult for the U.S., given the extant political climate and views of their leadership, to contemplate negotiations, but it should not be insurmountable.

Hamas' commitment to targeting Israeli citizens is deeply problematic, but all parties would do well to remember that their actions, whether proportional or not, often come in response to (repulsively heavy-handed) Israeli military action. If members of the State Department, the NATO high command and hardliners in the U.S. military have been able to suggest that negotiations with the Taliban are a distinct and even desirable possibility, then surely the same should hold for Hamas, which has the benefit of actually having won democratic elections to control a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. It is suspiciously convenient for Israel and the United States to condemn Hamas as a terrorist, pariah organisation, and yet to also hold it responsible for every breakdown in the peace process. Burdening Hamas with all of the responsibility, and yet acknowledging none of its democratically won power is illogical and fuels a self-willed process of violence and misunderstanding.

A failure to bring all parties to the table will make negotiations easier but ultimately more problematic, particularly given that PNA President, Mahmoud Abbas, unilaterally extended his term in 2009. Imagine if George W Bush had begun negotiations with an outside power about some fundamental issue of American sovereignty on 1 December 2008. Negotiation, we should remember, is not the same as endorsement.

In some ways, the bigger problem is the proposed destination of the talks. The 'Two-State Solution' has become almost ridiculously reified over the years...the Holy Grail of diplomatic gamesmanship. Logic suggests that while in the short term this might prove to be a useful salve on a gaping historical wound, in the long-term, the existence of two states, defined in mutually exclusive racial and religious terms, will work to perpetuate enmity. One would think that the better prospect, the one which would actually work to alleviate the mutual antipathy and replace it with a sense of shared purpose and humanity, would be the creation of one state, in which all people share equal access to rights and living space...that this is a more difficult but also more genuinely desirable prospect, and one that people should be talking more about.

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