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The Middle East mess

Though recent events don't bode well for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, we can't give up.

May 19, 2011

The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is really not so far out of reach. The outlines of a reasonable two-state compromise have long been known, and a couple of reasonable people could work out the remaining details tomorrow. But for stubbornness, cynicism, fear and violence, it probably would have happened years ago. The late Israeli diplomat Abba Eban was speaking of the Arabs when he said that they "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity," but his statement could as easily have been applied to Palestinians and Israelis, both of whom sometimes seem determined to keep the conflict alive rather than to end it.

Here are the latest developments in the depressing, 63-year-old saga: Former Sen. George J. Mitchell, who helped settle the conflict in Northern Ireland, is stepping down as Middle East envoy after two frustrating years, with peace no closer than before. On Sunday, thousands of Palestinians confronted Israeli troops to mark the anniversary of Israel's creation in 1948; more than a dozen were shot dead. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated Tuesday that he intends to ask the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state, despite Israel's objections. That comes on the heels of the news that Abbas' Fatah party has reconciled with the militant Islamist group Hamas.

Against that infelicitous backdrop, President Obama will deliver a "major address" Thursday about the Middle East, and on Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive in Washington for "consultations." Everyone will talk about how to move forward, of course, but the reality is that the peace process is, for the moment, moribund. Privately, Netanyahu will ask the U.S. to do what it can to scuttle the U.N. statehood vote, and U.S. officials may agree, because statehood is an issue the United States says should be addressed through negotiations. But what the U.S. can do as a practical matter may be limited if the vote doesn't take place in the Security Council, where the U.S. has a veto, but in the General Assembly, where it does not. If the vote occurs, there is little doubt that most of the rest of the world will vote for statehood.

A key subject between Netanyahu and Obama will be the Fatah-Hamas rapprochement, which has led Netanyahu to throw up his hands and say he won't negotiate with a government that includes terrorists. That position is certainly understandable. Hamas is best known around the world for its terrorism, including suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israeli civilians indiscriminately. Most of those bombings were aimed clearly and simply at sabotaging peace talks.

Yet even that bloody history might be surmountable if Hamas would make clear once and for all that it intends to forswear violence, negotiate a deal and live in peace alongside Israel. But it has said nothing of the sort. Just last week, in fact, Mahmoud Zahar, one of the organization's senior leaders, once again trotted out the kind of squirrely statement that Hamas' top officials have been making for more than a decade: Yeah, sure, he said, Hamas will accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza — but that doesn't mean it will ever recognize Israel or call on other Palestinians to give up the goal of "liberating" all of pre-1948 Palestine.

It's unpromising, to say the least. Still, it's important to recognize a few things. One is that this reconciliation is not about the peace process. Rather, it appears to have been driven by domestic concerns on the part of two sclerotic organizations that have failed to deliver on promises to their people. Furthermore, it's not clear whether Hamas will even be involved in future peace negotiations or, for that matter, how long the fragile reconciliation will last. In any case, it's difficult to imagine a real, lasting solution to the conflict while the two factions are at war with one another, with Hamas running Gaza and Fatah ruling in the entirely separate West Bank. Hamas' support, even tacit, for whatever final agreement eventually emerges would be, to say the least, helpful, which means that everyone interested in peace — Israel, the United States and the Palestinian Authority — has a strong incentive to encourage the militant group to moderate its positions. Will that succeed? No one knows.

The return of Hamas to the Palestinian fold should not be an all-purpose excuse to terminate the search for peace. The prospects may seem dim at the moment, but strong leadership and a willingness to take chances are the only way forward.

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