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The US and Israel missed many opportunities for peace with Hamas | Opinions

The US and Israel missed many opportunities for peace with Hamas | Opinions

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The continued failure of the Biden administration to secure a full and lasting ceasefire in Gaza may go down as the most terrible and deadly diplomatic catastrophe of our time. The principles have been in place for weeks; Hamas has agreed to the general terms, and endorsed the June 10 ceasefire resolution by the UN Security Council. Yet US deference to Israeli intransigence – no matter that it stubbornly blames Hamas – is costing thousands of Palestinian lives.

Any close follower of US-Israeli relations might have predicted this. US acquiescence to Israel’s unprecedented onslaught in Gaza has powerful roots in the last 30 years – ironically, since the beginning of the Oslo “peace process” in 1993. US reluctance to confront its ally, save it from itself, and insist on a visionary path of reconciliation, has brought us to this latest precipice.

Let us travel, for example, to June 2006, when a private US citizen named Jerome Segal left the Gaza Strip carrying a letter for Washington. The letter was from Ismail Haniyeh, then and now the Hamas leader. Segal, founder of the Jewish Peace Lobby at the University of Maryland, was bound for the State Department, where he would deliver a surprising offer.

Hamas had just been elected by the Palestinian people, who had grown exhausted and angry with the corruption of the ruling, Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, and voted for change. Haniyeh, long the leader of the Islamist opposition in Palestine, was suddenly confronted with the real prospect of navigating through humanitarian and economic crises, not to mention ongoing military pressure from Israel and a looming economic siege on Gaza. In the back-channel letter, Haniyeh sought compromise.

Despite Hamas’s charter calling for the elimination of Israel, Haniyeh’s note to President George W Bush was conciliatory. “We are so concerned about stability and security in the area,” Haniyeh wrote, “that we don’t mind having a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders and offering a truce for many years”.  This was essentially de facto recognition of Israel, with a cessation of hostilities – two of the key US and Israeli demands of Hamas. “The continuation of this situation,” Haniyeh added prophetically, “will encourage violence and chaos in the whole region”.

Was Hamas serious? It was at the time in negotiations with the PA to form a unity government – suggesting the letter wasn’t just a ruse. Haniyeh now appeared to accept the concept of a two-state solution. If true, it was a stunning concession.

It would hardly be unprecedented for a militant revolutionary group, considered terrorist by the US, to come to the negotiating table.  After all, the PA’s predecessor, the PLO, long carried the terrorist label, as did Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. For that matter, Jewish militias fighting for Israel’s independence before 1948 were also labelled terrorist by the British authorities – two of them, Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin, became prime ministers of Israel. Yet they all navigated a way to a reconciliation, albeit with sharply divergent goals and degrees of success.

A few voices in Israel’s security establishment endorsed engagement with Hamas. Shmuel Zakai, former brigadier general and commander of the Israeli military’s Gaza division, pressed Israel “to take advantage of the calm to improve, rather than markedly worsen, the economic plight of the Palestinians in the [Gaza] Strip… You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they are in, and expect Hamas just to sit around and do nothing”.

Another advocate for dialogue was a former director of the Mossad. “I believe there is a chance that Hamas, the devils of yesterday, could be reasonable people today,” said Efraim Halevy. “Rather than being a problem, we should strive to make them part of the solution.”

But we’ll never know if Hamas really wanted to help forge a solution. The US did not respond to Haniyeh’s letter. Instead, in 2007, it launched a covert effort to foment a Palestinian civil war, trying and failing to oust Hamas. In hand-to-hand street combat, Hamas battled the US-backed PA fighters. Hamas prevailed in the Battle of Gaza, and has ruled ever since.  True to Haniyeh’s prediction, violence and chaos has followed, almost without pause. In war after war, Israel has pledged to destroy Hamas, and failed.

In 2014, the Obama administration would follow the same path as Bush’s when it rejected another deal with Hamas, which was in new unity negotiations with the PA, and had again agreed to a deal with Israel and the West – this one even more accommodating than Haniyeh’s appeal eight years earlier. The new effort at reconciliation “could have served Israel’s interests,” wrote Jerusalem-based author and analyst Nathan Thrall:

“It offered Hamas’s political adversaries a foothold in Gaza; it was formed without a single Hamas member; it retained the same Ramallah-based prime minister, deputy prime ministers, finance minister and foreign minister; and, most important, it pledged to comply with the three conditions for Western aid long demanded by America and its European allies: nonviolence, adherence to past agreements and recognition of Israel.”

Instead, the US tacitly backed Israel’s “splintering strategy” to divide the Palestinian factions, and, with it, the land itself. In a State Department cable, published by WikiLeaks, the director of Israel’s military intelligence told the American ambassador in Tel Aviv that a Hamas victory would allow Israel “to treat Gaza” as a separate “hostile country”, and that he would be “pleased” if PA leader Mahmoud Abbas “set up a separate regime in the West Bank”.  Thus the West Bank became essentially sealed off from Gaza, and the dream of a corridor between the two territories in a sovereign Palestine effectively died.

The US also has abetted Israel’s policy of splintering Palestine from itself, weakening the dream of self-determination and making a two-state solution all but impossible. In the last 30 years, since the Oslo deal was signed, the settler population in the West Bank has quadrupled, hundreds of military checkpoints remain in place, and over a dozen Jewish settlements now ring East Jerusalem, which Palestinians still consider their capital. Yet in those three decades, no US president has been willing to hold Israel to account by linking US military aid to ending its ongoing colonisation of the West Bank. The last US official to do that was Secretary of State James Baker, in the first Bush administration in 1992. US inaction has consequently enabled Israel’s settlement expansion and the indiscriminate killing of tens of thousands of Gaza’s civilians.

Now, with Gaza in ruins, Hamas has agreed in principle to a ceasefire, both on May 6 and again after the June 10 UN Security Council Resolution. Reports suggest Hamas wants to ensure guarantees of Israeli withdrawal and a lifting of the siege on Gaza. A senior Hamas official told Reuters that any requested changes are “not significant,” and Haniyeh claimed Hamas’s position is “consistent” with the agreement’s principles. Israel, meanwhile, is balking, saying, again, it won’t rest until Hamas is no more. Yet none of Israel’s previous promises to destroy Hamas have come true. With the group’s popularity surging among Palestinians, Israel’s continued insistence on eliminating Hamas amounts to a fantasy to justify the ongoing slaughter. US Secretary of State Blinken, on his recent trip to the region, didn’t exactly inspire confidence. In his June 10 remarks in Cairo, he put all the blame on Hamas, without once mentioning the killing of 274 Palestinians in the Israeli military operation to extract four hostages in Nuseirat.

If the Biden administration had a shred of political vision, not to mention humanity, the US would end its acute deference to Israel, flex its muscle, and use the leverage it somehow refuses to exercise. Whatever scant credibility the US maintains internationally is at stake. Far more important, the lives of over two million Palestinians in Gaza depend on it.

But with Biden’s own party inviting Netanyahu to address the US Congress on “the Israeli government’s vision for defending democracy”; with the so-called leader of the free world playing a willing punching bag for Israel’s prime minister; with all moral clarity and political logic abandoned by a Washington intelligentsia held captive by pro-Israel interests: it may be too much to expect a change in behaviour any time soon.

Still, it must be said. It is time for the US to stop accommodating Israel’s rogue and ruinous behaviour, and insist on an immediate, full and lasting ceasefire.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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