By George S. Hishmeh
As the stage has reportedly been set for US President Barack Obama to spell out his much-awaited ideas on a Palestinian-Israeli settlement at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly later this month, two issues remain regrettably overlooked or sidelined. The persistent neglect of these twin problems has the potential to derail a peaceful settlement. The twin issues are the failure of the Obama administration to engage Hamas, and its inexplicable refusal to identify Israeli colonies in the occupied West Bank as illegal under international law. It is like burying one’s head in the sand and hoping all will be well. Several Egyptian attempts have been launched to reconcile the two key Palestinian groups, Hamas and Fatah, but no headway has been achieved. Hamas, which won the first Palestinian parliamentary elections three years ago, much to the surprise of all, especially Fatah, feels it is entitled to a bigger slice of the ruling Palestinian National Authority and its governing infrastructure.
This internecine squabbling has resulted in a successful coup by Hamas whereby it now controls the Gaza Strip and its strategic location on the eastern Mediterranean. But this split has weakened the Palestinian side, raising doubts about how it will contribute to a fair Palestinian-Israeli settlement, hopefully by 2011. But this is where the Obama administration should step forward. Why not try and engage Hamas given that several of the group’s leaders in Damascus and Gaza have expressed their willingness to live alongside Israel? After all, Obama has time and again expressed his preference to engagement rather than ostracising several regimes or Islamic groups that the Bush administration had unwisely boycotted.
Besides Iran, there has been talk of engaging the Taliban and Cuba diplomatically. Israel has also been in touch with Hamas, albeit indirectly, to come to an agreement on an exchange of prisoners. Interestingly, senior US military officers have lately championed new ideas in tackling foreign policy issues and have severely criticized past practices. General David H. Petraeus, commander of the US Central Command, feels that the Arab-Israeli conflict is "very central" to the mission of US troops and policy in the Middle East. This point has been repeatedly made by many Arab leaders, but without much success. Israel, on the other hand, always downplayed the significance of the relationship, preferring to have the Obama administration focus on Iran and its alleged nuclear ambitions.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also maintains that the US military is bungling its outreach to the Muslim world and squandering goodwill by failing to live up to its promises. He recently wrote in a US military journal that "each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are".
Although Obama has admirably delivered on his promise to give top attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict upon assuming office last January, he has so far avoided resorting to a more blunt approach. It may be argued that he is overwhelmed by domestic problems, but he could, nevertheless, still utter the magic word in discussing expanding Israeli colonisation in the Occupied Territories: Illegal. Yes, all these colonies are illegal and they have to be evacuated, sooner rather than later. Allowing for ‘natural growth’ is certainly a waste of money and time.
For one, Obama can begin by cleaning his own house as in the case of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, a non-profit US organisation that has been sending millions of dollars worth of donations to Israel every year "for clearly political purposes, such as buying Arab properties in [Occupied] East Jerusalem". It is, however, registered in the US as an organization that funds educational institutes in Israel, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed. The US tax code enables non-profit organizations to receive tax-exempt status only if they engage in education, charitable, religious or scientific activities. To date, the paper reported, Friends of Ateret Cohanim has bought dozens of Arab buildings for Jews to live in. Gideon Levy of Haaretz hit the nail on the head when he commented that "an America that will not pressure Israel is an America that will not bring peace".
George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.