MIDDLE EAST/ Obama, Abbas and Netanyahu: what about Gaza?
Last Tuesday, prior to the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The meeting seemed cordial, especially given what is at stake, even featuring the first ever handshake between the two leaders. In the end, both sides agreed to return to peace negotiations with no preconditions. While resuming negotiations with no preconditions sounds like a good place to start, in these negotiations it means returning to square one yet again, thus wiping out any progress made in numerous negotiations, several of which resulted in formal agreements that have not been fully implemented. Of course, both sides have preconditions, not the least among these are the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for displaced Palestinians. Beyond these perennial issues, one necessary precondition to any negotiations that will lead to the “just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” resulting “in two states living side by side - Palestine and Israel,” called for on the day of the meeting by President Obama, is for the Palestinian Authority to somehow reestablish control over the Gaza Strip.
Even though he was slow to agree to it, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was able to form a coalition government despite the fact that his Likud party finished second to the Kadima party in Israel’s general election earlier this year, now agrees to the so-called two-state solution. Of course, what fuelled Netanyahu’s political resurgence were Israeli concerns about the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States, who promised a new approach to U.S. relations with Iran in the hopes of rapprochement. Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly on 24 September, the Israeli leader reasserted Israel’s commitment to living peaceably alongside its Arab neighbors and acknowledged the legitimacy of the aspirations among the Palestinians for their own state. However, he laid down some conditions before Israel could subscribe to such an independent state: the Palestinians must “Say yes to a Jewish state,” that is, to acknowledge Israel as a legitimate and specifically Jewish nation and that a Palestinian state would have to effectively be a demilitarized state. All of this implies that the Palestinians must renounce violence and terrorism aimed at the violent destruction of the State of Israel.
It bears noting that when he left office in 1999, Netanyahu was the most unpopular prime minister in Israel’s modern history, whose hard-line stance, characterized by his “three nos”: no withdrawal from the Golan Heights, no negotiations about the status of Jerusalem, and no negotiations requiring preconditions, especially ones that called for Israeli land concessions, led him to victory, but whose subsequent personal negotiations with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which led to the 1997 Hebron Agreement and the withdrawal of most Israeli forces from the last city on the West Bank controlled by Israel, along with political scandals and gossip about his personal life, caused him to lose to Ehud Barak and temporarily retire from politics.
At present none of this matters as much as the current political reality among the Palestinians. It seems in this tripartite meeting that the elephant in the room was ignored. Currently the single biggest obstacle to making any progress at all in Israel, especially when it comes to establishing an independent Palestinian state, is the fact that Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, which, along with the West Bank, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, constitutes Palestinian territory- territory not occupied or controlled by the Israeli Defense Forces. It does not help that these two parcels of land are geographically separated. The so-called Conflict of Brothers between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, the latter led by Abbas and recognized as the legitimate government of the Palestinians by the international community, began in 2006, when Hamas forcibly seized control of the Gaza Strip. This land/power grab was only made possible by Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Hamas now governs this territory independently of the Palestinian Authority and use it as a launching pad for attacks against Israel.
Of course, one of the biggest supporters of Hamas, along with Hezbollah in Lebanon, is Iran. This is what led Netanyahu to say in his speech at the U.N. that those who think Iran only poses a threat to the Jewish state are “dead wrong." The reason any future Palestinian state must be demilitarized, Netanyahu insisted, is because Israel does not “want another Gaza, another south Lebanon, another Iranian-backed terror base threatening Jerusalem."
This brings up an incoherency in the current administration’s foreign policy, expressed in a shocking way last week when it was announced that the U.S. will not go forward with a land-based European missile defense system to guard our central European allies against potential missile attacks from Iran and, to a lesser extent, Russia. This move is completely unilateral, catching two NATO allies, Poland and the Czech Republic , by surprise, while extracting no concessions at all from either Russia or Iran, except perhaps to forestall the sale of the Russian-made SA-20 surface-to-air missile system to Iran, but only time will tell if even that concession was asked for and granted. So, today’s non-binding and unanimously approved U.N. Security Council resolution calling for “a world without nuclear weapons” and for strict sanctions against unnamed nations who proliferate and violate international nuclear agreements is little comfort either to Israel or to our stunned allies, having about as much effect as Hans Blix telling Kim Jong-Il in the spoof move Team America that he is going to write him an angry letter.
"The struggle against Iran,” Netanyahu warned at the U.N., is one that “pits civilization against barbarism." Referring back to Winston Churchill’s prescience about both Soviet communism and German National Socialism, Israel’s prime minister insisted that “[t]he question facing the international community is whether it is prepared to confront these forces or just accommodate them." Confronting the Hamas-led government in the Gaza Strip is the first step, not only for the United States, but for the Palestinian Authority and the rest of the Arab world, in rolling back Iranian aggression, if not their nuclear ambitions. It is important to note that the Palestinian Authority and most of the Arab world were fairly silent, probably in the hope that Israeli forces would topple Hamas without reoccupying the strip, when they invaded Gaza earlier this year in response to terrorist attacks.
A united front against Hamas, consisting of the U.S., the Palestinian Authority, Israel, along with the other Arab states, all of whom see Iran’s ambitions as a threat to regional and domestic security, as well as the European Union, insistent on re-establishing the rule of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip, is a necessary first step to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, not to mention a way to thwart Iranian aggression. Nobody suffers at the hands of Hamas and, by extension Iran, more than the people of Gaza and southern Lebanon.