Wednesday, January 07, 2009

OP-ED I wrote on November 5th, 2008 on Israeli Cease-fire Violation (Not Accepted for Publication)

While millions of American viewers and journalists where anxiously waiting to see which states would go red and which would go blue last Tuesday night, an Israeli strike left 6 Palestinians dead in the Gaza strip and Hamas responded with dozens of rockets.

The most significant threat to a 5-month truce between the two parties serves as a sobering reminder of the daunting tasks which await President-Elect Obama as he prepares for office. Upcoming events also suggest that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict maybe the first foreign policy crisis the next administration will have to deal with after inauguration.

It seemed, after the Egyptian brokered truce, that Israel and Hamas were biding time, licking their wounds, and preparing for major changes in the political landscape. There is no doubt that foreign countries and parties, like Israel and Hamas, understand the ineffectiveness of a lame duck president and know that legitimacy is a key characteristic of a viable negotiating partner. However, change is not only coming in American leadership. One could argue that right now in the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority we witness a lame duck trifecta.

The could be Prime Minister of Israel Tzivpi Livni, taking over for an embattled Ehud Olmert, currently leads the Kadima Party. However, she was unable to create a coalition government leading to necessary national elections in early February 2009. Livni, relatively unknown in Israeli Politics 5 years ago, leads a party that is void of traditional leadership. Kadima was formed by Ariel Sharon, who’s hawkish record garnered him the legitimacy among right-wingers to make legitimate concessions. With Olmert- Sharon’s pick to carry Kadima- marginalized, this formerly unshakable party faces a crisis of legitimacy.

On the Palestinian side things are also very unclear. The 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, encouraged by President Bush, lead to the election of a Hamas government and a bloody divide between Palestinian political parties. Now Palestinians are dealing with their own legitimacy crisis because President Mahmoud Abass, leader of the Fatah party, is arguing for a one year extension of his term as president while Hamas and other Palestinian parties refute the claim. Interestingly polls of the Palestinian electorate indicate that if Presidential elections were held today Fatah would receive the edge over Hamas by about 14 percentage points, however, the majority of Palestinians, 63% believe Abass’ term ends in January 2009 and not in January 2010, as Abass claims.

If a peace agreement is to be reached between the two parties it will take difficult concessions. And because leadership on both sides are tied to emotional and nationalistic electorates, it is unlikely that any credible concessions will come from weak or illegitimate leaders.

For President Obama this will be the greatest challenge when he first engages the Israelis and Palestinians as the new American interlocutor. Ironically, it maybe he alone which can solve this problem of legitimacy. If the new administration plays an active role in negotiations, offering both carrots and sticks to both sides, leadership can argue to their domestic audiences that their hands are tied by outside powers. If an American policy toward the conflict is even handed, and both sides are rewarded and punished for their behavior, domestic audiences will have faith in the process and the mediator. However, if President Obama does not carry out an even handed policy we are likely to see a continuation of conflict and defection of both parties from negotiations. Israelis and Palestinians, the entire Middle East, and our own economic and national security interests cannot afford this.

The biggest mistake President Obama can make is to largely ignore this conflict until has last year in office like his two predecessors. There is little doubt that upcoming events will put the Israeli/Palestinian conflict at the forefront of foreign policy priorities in Obama’s first weeks. And, because of the centrality of the conflict to a region where America is at War in Iraq, attempting to curb terror, and hoping to prevent nuclear proliferation, one must hope that President Obama is ready to roll up his sleeves and succeed in dealing with one foreign policy issue where his predecessors have failed miserably.

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