Friday, 23 January 2009

Looking for "hope" and "change" in Palestine

As I wrote immediately after his election victory, whatever the prospects of positive change in other areas, Barack Obama's presidency offers little different to that of George Bush and his predecessors when it comes to foreign policy - particularly the Middle East and Israel. This is reflected in the policy statement on the subject on Obama's campaign website;
  • Ensure a Strong U.S.-Israel Partnership: Barack Obama and Joe Biden strongly support the U.S.-Israel relationship, believe that our first and incontrovertible commitment in the Middle East must be to the security of Israel, America's strongest ally in the Middle East. They support this closeness, stating that that the United States would never distance itself from Israel.
  • Support Israel's Right to Self Defense: During the July 2006 Lebanon war, Barack Obama stood up strongly for Israel's right to defend itself from Hezbollah raids and rocket attacks, cosponsoring a Senate resolution against Iran and Syria's involvement in the war, and insisting that Israel should not be pressured into a ceasefire that did not deal with the threat of Hezbollah missiles. He and Joe Biden believe strongly in Israel's right to protect its citizens.
  • Support Foreign Assistance to Israel: Barack Obama and Joe Biden have consistently supported foreign assistance to Israel. They defend and support the annual foreign aid package that involves both military and economic assistance to Israel and have advocated increased foreign aid budgets to ensure that these funding priorities are met. They have called for continuing U.S. cooperation with Israel in the development of missile defense systems.
Of course, it can be argued that such statements were a neccesity in the election campaign, as he could not have won without a strong line on Israel. It should also be noted that the closure of Guantanamo Bay and his appointment of George Mitchell, who helped to negotiate the current peace in Northern Ireland, as the US envoy for the Middle East peace process represents an overt change of direction. The fact that his first calls to foreign leaders once in office were to Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, President Mubarak of Egypt, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, and King Abdullah of Jordan also demonstrates a commitment to reaching a peace that Bush simply did not have.

That said, there remain many indications that the new administration's agenda is not as radical as needed. The above policy statement has now been transplanted - word for word - to the White House website. The new President's pre-inauguration silence on the Israeli bombardment and invasion of Gaza appeared almost as agreement with Bush's tacit support of the situation. There has yet been no mention of talking to Hamas. Indeed, the statement from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs suggested that the long-practied - and utterly fruitless - tactic of trying to muscle them out remained on the cards;
[Obama has a] commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term.

In the aftermath of the Gaza conflict, he emphasised his determination to work to help consolidate the ceasefire by establishing an effective anti-smuggling regime to prevent Hamas from rearming, and facilitating, in partnership with the Palestinian Authority, a major reconstruction effort.
Such talk demonstrates the mindset that Hamas are an enemy not to be reasoned with under any circumstances. This attitude is perfectly understandable from ordinary citizens, not least those Israelis in the range of their rockets, but it is not unreasonable to expect a wider perspective from global players. Whatever their reputation, one I fully agree with given their amoral actions and stance, the fact remains that they are the leaders of the Gaza strip, and became such by way of unequivocally free and fair elections. As such, sidelining them invariably means sidelining all Gazans, from which we will never see any lasting peace.

No, if he is to be effective in achieving "an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics" as stated in his inaugural address, then the focus must be on winning what he himself referred to as "the battle of ideas."

The Palestinians have turned towards Hamas, and more generally many Muslims have turned to Islamism, because they see nobody else speaking out for them or willing to take action in their favour. This, in the end, is the only way we stand any chance of stopping extremism. The Palestinians are suffering and dying daily, even with the most recent conflict over, from an economic blockade to which the credit crisis pales in comparison, shoved together in an overcrowed strip of desolate land without adequate food or medicine, and waiting for death.

If there is to be any hope, we must show them that they don't have to turn to madmen with rocket launchers in order to find people willing to stand up for them.