By Yousef Munayyer
Saturday, January 24, 2009; A13
The Obama administration appointed former senator George Mitchell as its special envoy to the Middle East this week in a positive step toward resolving the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While a fragile cease-fire has brought a temporary halt to the recent bloodshed in Gaza, the outburst of violence at the end of the Bush administration was the culmination of eight more years of failed U.S. policy. The new administration will need to break with that policy if it is to make progress toward ending the conflict.
The Bush policy can be divided into two periods. Initially, the administration sought to marginalize Yasser Arafat and pushed for the democratization of the Palestinian Authority. President Bush supported the Palestinian presidential election of 2005 and supported the Palestinian parliamentary elections early the next year -- until he saw the outcome of the vote.
The election of Hamas in January 2006, and the faltering of the longest-ruling party in Palestinian politics, was a wake-up call. The administration, understanding the pressure that Islamic movements were putting on regimes in the Middle East, shifted to "bolstering the moderates." The goal became marginalizing Hamas through economic sanctions and siege, while funding and supporting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
But this tactic of backing "our guy in the fight" achieved results much like those of the Cold War-era tactics it resembled. Ideology-driven civil conflict has raged on. Neither side has moved toward peace or security.
To make real progress toward a lasting peace, a fundamental shift in U.S. policy is needed. Simply put, a divided Palestinian partner can never make serious concessions to arrive at a lasting agreement when it is viewed as legitimate by only half of its population.
The United States must work to forge a unified Palestinian partner and must be wary of the dynamics of legitimacy in domestic Palestinian politics. Attempts to continue aligning Mahmoud Abbas with Israel against Hamas only serve to erode Abbas's legitimacy among his people. And Abbas's Fatah party members will continue to be targeted by domestic opposition as "sellouts." This appearance of submission contributed to their defeat in the 2006 parliamentary elections.
Rather than seeking to bolster the moderates in this conflict, the Obama administration should focus on moderating the extremists. The idea of eliminating Hamas could not be seriously proposed by anyone with any knowledge of domestic Palestinian politics. The notion that Hamas is a primarily militant organization based in Gaza ignores the movement's vast support in the West Bank and elsewhere.
Dealing with Hamas and groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Islamic Jihad in arenas of legitimacy, such as elections, negates the possibility that outside parties will spoil peace negotiations.
Those who would resolve the conflict must understand that such parties and groups, often labeled rejectionist, are not primarily ideologically based and are not monolithic. They, like most political parties, are beholden to a constituency.
Yet while their politics are not always the same, the political alliances between them are far stronger than any ideological divisions. For example, consider the image of the Islamist Khaled Meshal of Hamas seated next to communist George Habash at rejectionist party conferences.
Yes, Hamas and other groups must stop the violence. But the process cannot begin by demanding that they recognize Israel.
The support for rejectionist parties in Palestinian politics, Islamist or otherwise, comes straight out of the refugee camps. Gaza has the highest concentration of refugees; nearly half of the population shares in the personal experience of dispossession.
Asking rejectionist parties to recognize Israel's right to exist, thereby justifying the displacement of the majority of their constituents, is not something that could be agreed to under today's circumstances. Most Palestinians owe their tragedies to the very genesis of Israel.
The key to real progress in resolving the conflict is, and has always been, providing a just resolution to the refugee issue. While a resolution will not be easy or immediate, a significant step in the right direction would be an acknowledgment from the state of Israel of at least partial responsibility for creating the refugee problem.
Such a statement, made in a serious and genuine tone and supported by American mediation, would destroy the perception held among many in the Middle East that Israel does not want peace. This, in turn, would begin to moderate the extremists.
The territorial outline for a two-state solution is largely agreed upon, even by some rejectionists. What remains outstanding is a just resolution for the refugee issue. The Obama administration should begin by tackling this necessary step toward comprehensive and lasting Arab-Israeli peace.