Argument

Middle East Peacemaking Has Failed

It’s time for Plan B.

Addressing the international conference gathered in Egypt this week to discuss aid to Gaza, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear that her inclination is to continue precisely where the Bush administration left off -- using assistance to shore up the Palestinian government based in Ramallah, ignoring the Palestinian government based in Gaza, and hoping that the Ramallah government can realize enough success to help lead the path back to a two-state solution.

But if the past two years have shown nothing else, it is that showering Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad with help, hoping Hamas will disappear, and going through the motions of two-state diplomacy only opens the door to a darker future.

It is time to choose a different path.

Far from the limelight, a less ambitious diplomatic process, overshadowed by the 2007 Annapolis conference hoopla, was born in the Bush administration's last year.Gritty, difficult, and serious negotiations took place between Israel and Hamas -- talks that, eventually, were tolerated by the United States.They were indirect and barely acknowledged, and they specifically excluded mutual recognition and permanence. But they may provide a more realistic place for Obama to start.

The talks deal with some familiar issues -- the terms of Israeli withdrawal, the nature of the cessation of hostilities, the role of international forces, the release of prisoners, the flow of goods, the patrol of borders, and the supply of weapons. But negotiations are now punctuated with violence rather than posited as an alternative, and all the while each of the two parties proudly proclaims its rejection of the other's legitimacy.

There may be no Nobel Prize to be had here, no triumphant hugs or handshakes on a dais mobbed by photographers. Yet making sure these real negotiations succeed -- and only then immediately worrying about the next step -- is a far more promising approach than pretending that the parties can be cajoled, muscled, and jawboned into a final and comprehensive settlement anytime soon.

The first step must be to establish a cease-fire that builds on the common interests of both Israel and Hamas to avoid fighting in the short term.The last such cease-fire, negotiated in June 2008, was badly designed -- as the recent war in Gaza made clear. The agreement was unwritten, and the two sides had different interpretations of what it contained. A new cease-fire should be clear and perhaps even written. Mediators must be willing to make an agreement more attractive to both sides to maintain (Hamas can be enticed by some opening of the border with Egypt; Israel will demand serious efforts to halt the supply of arms to Hamas).

Such a cease-fire would admittedly be more difficult to conclude than the last one. There's an important general lesson here: Everywhere it turns, the United States is struggling merely to recover what it could have had for a much lower cost, and much less effort, earlier.

The Bush administration squandered the quiet provided by the last cease-fire on futile diplomacy among weak and lame-duck leaders.The Obama administration should avoid making the same mistake.

Rather than chasing an elusive peace, George Mitchell, the U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, should focus on stretching a short-term cease-fire into a medium-term armistice -- a modus vivendi in which Israelis and Palestinians live without hurting each other for five to 10 years.An armistice will have to codify a situation that both sides find tolerable for a while. Hamas could operate freely and govern; Israel could live free from rocket fire and other attacks on civilians. Neither side could be allowed to use the period to impose permanent changes: Israel would have to accept a real settlement freeze, and Hamas would have to live with an internationally patrolled arms embargo.

Of course, such a U.S. shift would immediately provoke severe criticisms that it violates the long-standing taboo on negotiating with a terrorist organization. Like many taboos, this one obscures thinking more than it clarifies.

First, the original rationale for refusing to negotiate with Hamas is that doing so would encourage terrorism. Yet it was only after Hamas fired rockets on Israeli towns, after all, that Israel sought to negotiate a cease-fire. Perversely, when Hamas wishes to practice regular diplomacy rather than blackmail against civilians, it is treated fully as a pariah.

But more importantly, the argument against engaging Hamas completely misses the point. The important question is not whether the United States enters into formal discussions with the Islamist group, but what the United States says and does when other countries attempt to speak with Hamas. On this point, even the Bush administration itself quietly shifted last year when it endorsed Egyptian mediation between Fatah and Hamas.

An armistice is the most that can be hoped for now, but it will not work forever. It should therefore lead peacemakers to focus on two long-term tasks.

The first task is encouraging an effort to rebuild a Palestinian political system capable of making decisions. That means tolerating reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah -- as long as it leads in the long run to elections and rotation in power rather than permanent power-sharing and paralysis.

The second order of business is confronting each side with the need to make hard choices. Faced with options, both Israelis and Palestinians have a habit of selecting all of the above. Israel has raced to build settlements while talking of a two-state solution; Hamas has pursued diplomacy and governing while also continuing its bloody version of resistance.Over the short term, it often makes sense for politicians to preserve options. But over the long run, the result has been fatal to any diplomatic process.

The only alternative offered at present is to negotiate a two-state solution now as if there were a viable Palestinian leadership, no Hamas, no Palestinian civil war, and no ongoing settlement activity. And we've seen how that has turned out.

CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images

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