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Weissman: Talking to Israelis, the PLO and Hamas

Talking to Israelis, the PLO and Hamas

Monday 02 February 2009
by: Steve Weissman, t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell must have wondered why he ever agreed to his latest mission impossible. On arriving for his first official visit as President Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, he saw the cease-fire in Gaza start to unravel and heard a new round of incitement to mark the Israeli elections, set for February 10.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's Kadima Party kicked off its campaign by threatening to assassinate Hamas leaders, while the likely new prime minister, Likkud's Bibi Netanyahu, announced that he would trash the current government's commitment to evacuate Jewish settlements and withdraw from the West Bank. "Those understandings are invalid and unimportant," he declared.

Hamas proved equally helpful. Its leaders called for an end to all peace negotiations with Israel, a Palestinian uprising on the West Bank, and an "armed struggle" to retake all of Palestine, including Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and the Negev. So much for the first week of Team Obama's effort to jumpstart "the peace process" between Israelis and Palestinians.

But don't despair. Famous for his patience, the 75-year-old Mitchell took the fighting words in stride, keeping his focus on what Washington and its allies could do to preserve the faltering cease-fire, provide humanitarian aid and counter arms smuggling into Gaza. He took considerable time to bring Northern Ireland's warring Protestants and Catholics together in the Good Friday Agreement, and he knew that peace in the Promised Land was even less promising.

Though many observers missed the nuance, Mitchell also made clear that his first visit was primarily to show Arab, Muslim and European governments that Barack Hussein Obama intended to do what most of the world considers the right thing in the Middle East. Think of the visit as a loss-leader, a "Come on down" to sell Obama's larger ambitions in Muslim lands that extend to the former Soviet Central Asia, Afghanistan and beyond.

Fans have extolled the many virtues that Senator Mitchell, the son of a Lebanese mother, brings to his new job. But the most telling tribute came from Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and one of the Israeli Lobby's loudest voices.

"Sen. Mitchell is fair. He's been meticulously evenhanded," said Foxman in the January 21 Jewish Week. "But the fact is, American policy in the Middle East hasn't been 'evenhanded' - it has been supportive of Israel when it felt Israel needed critical US support.

"So I'm concerned," Too-Honest Abe continued. "I'm not sure the situation requires that kind of approach in the Middle East."

A second insight into Mitchell's mission came from the Arab media, in Obama's extremely effective interview on al Arabiya. "I think it is possible for us to see a Palestinian state ... that is contiguous," said the president. Obama knows that the Gaza Strip will never be "contiguous" with the West Bank, but he was telling the world - and Likkud - that the new sheriff would oppose the Jewish settlements that now divide the West Bank into a patchwork of non-contiguous Palestinian Bantustans.

Strangely enough, Obama used exactly the same word last June in his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Happily, the anything-Israel-wants crowd did not pay attention, but they can never say that Obama hid where he stood on the settlements.

One last clue to the Mitchell mission: Obama has already indicated that the United States will talk to Hamas through covert channels like the CIA. But, to make peace, the very visible Mitchell needs to talk openly to the people now making war. There's no getting around it, especially now that the Israelis have made Hamas so popular among Palestinians.

The difficulty is that the American public will never find it easy to understand Hamas, whose roots go back to the Muslim Brotherhood, a group formed in Egypt in 1928 to promote an Islamic revival after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. Over 80 years, the Brotherhood has built the largest political oppositions in several Arab countries and its members have participated in a great deal of violence, including the killing of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Hamas - the Islamic Resistance Movement - continues to pursue the Brotherhood's agenda, including the subordination of women, the imposition of Islamic law, and an armed struggle to create an Islamic state throughout all of historic Palestine. Like Jewish settlers who believe that God promised them the whole Land of Israel, Hamas believes that, in the eyes of Allah, "the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgment Day."

Those are the words of the Hamas Charter, which the group could change, as Arafat did with the charter of his PLO. But the PLO has always been a secular organization, while the Hamas leaders believe they are following the word of God in pursuing their single-state solution.

Does this mean they will never accept Israel's right to exist? Not at all, at least not in practice. Like Brotherhood offshoots in other countries, Hamas leaders have proved adept in making necessary compromises with their Islamist ideology. They understand the difference between what they might want in the future perfect and what they can get in the here and now.

The dynamic is not uncommon. Many Christians believe in the Second Coming but live like there's no tomorrow, while a lot of Communists preached world revolution as they found ways to build capitalism in one country. Mitchell understands all this. But, if Washington demands in advance that Hamas leaders explicitly reject the words of their creed, the veteran peacemaker will never get Hamas to make the practical compromises the region needs.


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A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.

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