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.



Reverse Migration Rocks Mexico

With the U.S. economy contracting rapidly, Mexican migrants are heading back south. But they're finding the homecoming isn't quite what they imagined.

Every Saturday for nearly four years, Elena Trujillo has gone to the local department store in Morelia, Michoacn, to pick up money wired home by her 34-year-old son, ngel. This 59-year-old mother of three is one of between 16 and 35 million Mexicans who depend on remittances from relatives in the United States to boost their incomes. But in late September -- for Trujillo and for countless others -- the wire transfers stopped coming. Confused at first, Trujillo was reassured by ngel on the phone: Everything is OK; I have a surprise for you. The next week, Trujillo received another transfer, this one much larger than normal. She was ecstatic. ngel's construction work must finally be paying dividends, she thought.Then, just a few days later, ngel came back to Michoacn.I couldn't believe it. He had given up and come home, Trujillo said. He had given up on the American Dream.

Angel Trujillo is just one of as many as 3 million Mexicans who some experts and officials predict will return home from the United States in the coming months. The economic crisis in the United States is already hitting migrant workers, many of whom work in tanking industries such as construction and manufacturing. Unemployment among Mexican immigrants was 9.7 percent in January, up from 4.5 percent in March of last year, and higher than the 7.6 percent for the United States overall, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not surprisingly, remittances from the United States are also falling for the first time in the 13 years that officials have kept figures on record. In 2008, transfers dropped $1 billion compared with year before, and economists say that the effects of the recession are only beginning to be felt.

Mexico's central bank announced in late January that 20,000 of the migrants who returned for Christmas won't go back to the United States. Officials in Mexican states such as Michoacn, Puebla, and Zacatecas, which send some of the largest numbers of migrants north each year, are predicting a mass return as more migrants give up on the land of opportunity. Fewer migrants than ever are leaving Mexico, too, according to the Mexican government, with the emigration rate dropping 46 percent since 2006.

Local and federal governments have made it clear that returning migrants are more than welcome (officials even hand out information pamphlets entitled Bienvenido, paisano -- Welcome, countryman -- to help the returnees). But the realities of Mexico's economy will likely leave some doors shut.

Having fallen behind by 200,000 on a promise to create two to four times that number of new jobs by this past December, the government of President Felipe Caldern is not well placed to accept an influx of once emigrants. Mexico's economy secretary said earlier this month that zero formal jobs would be created this year. Although the Caldern administration is investing heavily in infrastructure, the jobs created will only be temporary. Local governments, like that of Michoacn, are appealing for federal subsidies to help spur growth of sectors such as agriculture and generate more jobs. They also want federal funding to help returnees set up small businesses. But officials throughout Mexico acknowledge how difficult it will be to absorb those who once left.Some experts and Mexican columnists warn that if the massive southbound flood of migrants does occur in the coming months, resentment could boil to the surface.

Jose Mendez Lopez, a 46-year-old Morelia resident who heads a construction team, is just one employer who will welcome returnees -- but will still give preference to those he knows.Unemployment is already rife in states such as Michoacn, even before an influx of returnees. And because of the experience many ex-migrants have gained in the U.S. construction industry, Mendez says, they often ask for higher pay than local workers. He can only offer about $10 a day, a standard wage for a Mexican construction worker.If push comes to shove, Mendez will hire the people he knows. But, he says, I prefer my team who has been here all along. They didn't quit on Mexico.

Returning to a land left behind poses challenges for returning migrants. In a city like Morelia, where many locals still wear traditional indigenous dress and some even wear cowboy hats, a Mexican who has lived in the United States can be spotted a mile away. The returnees wear clothes from stores like Urban Outfitters (and not the knockoff versions that are popular among ordinary Mexicans), sport new sneakers, and don baseball caps of U.S. teams (again, not the fakes). They'll shun straws that aren't pre-wrapped, and according to some local policemen, they are clueless about the code -- in other words, when to pay a bribe in order to avoid the laborious process of paying a traffic ticket.

Despite the barrage of returns late in 2008, the jury is still out over whether the predicted mass exodus from the United States will occur -- and when. Most Mexican officials, for example, are now dialing back their predictions to about one million returnees -- still a big wave coming. If the U.S. economy does go completely south, Mexico and Central America will still look worse by comparison. Migrants, advocates, and experts agree: There will be ups and downs [in the flow of migrants heading north], says Martha Luz Rojas, an immigration expert at the Colegio de la Frontera Sur, located near Mexico's southern border. But where else are migrants going to go -- Europe?

And even if the pull factors drawing immigrants to the United States decline, many still expect that push effects could overpower its stalling economy. Drug violence is consuming parts of Mexico -- an escalating phenomenon that could spur more emigration in spite of the risks faced by migrants navigating a terrain that is increasingly controlled by Mexico's organized criminal gangs.

Back in Mexico for more than two months now, ngel Trujillo is vowing to stick it out in Michoacn, even though he won't be able to send his mother a few hundred dollars a week anymore. Instead, he'll help her rebuild her home and work in construction in Morelia and its environs when he can. He's working on picking up the local accent and slang again and trying to integrate himself into the community -- if only to help him get a job in construction that suits his qualifications.This is my country, he says. I'm sure I'll get used to it.

Others, such as Juana Patio, an engineering consultant who has been working in Houston for 10 years, aren't so attached. She came back this past holiday season to sniff out opportunities in Mexico for a qualified professional like herself. She was disappointed to find that the pay is either too low or the possibility of advancement nearly nonexistent. So Patio is returning to her adopted home.I don't really like living there, but I'm going back, she says. There are always more opportunities there.