Sunday, January 25, 2009

Who Gets to Dictate the Terms?

In reviewing the appointment of George Mitchell as the US special envoy for the Arab-Israeli conflict, I made it a point to stress that the current tensions on Gaza can only be resolved through productive communication. Needless to say, you cannot have productive communication if you do not have communication at all; and, where Gaza is concerned, this involves the disquieting question of who will be allowed to communicate. Adam Entous and Arshad Mohammed recognized this problem in a dispatch they filed for Reuters early this morning:

President Barack Obama plans to dispatch his Middle East envoy to the region next week, in a quick start to the new administration's efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and shore up a shaky Gaza truce.

Obama has taken the Middle East by surprise with the speed of his diplomatic activism.

Western, Arab and Israeli diplomats said his envoy, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, plans to meet leaders in Egypt, Israel, the occupied West Bank and Jordan, but they ruled out direct contacts with Hamas Islamists who rule the Gaza Strip.

A Western diplomat said Mitchell was likely to go to Saudi Arabia but said Syria was not now on his schedule.

What is disquieting is that the exclusion of Hamas smacks of what I had called "Sin-of-Omission Diplomacy" when it was perpetrated by the recent Bush Administration. Where foreign affairs are concerned, the "change we can believe in" is a change in our lamentable tendency to regard ourselves as "the sole arbiter of who should and should not participate in discussions" over diplomatic crises, such as the current situation in Gaza. Hillary Clinton's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said all the right things about getting beyond such selfish thinking, but actions always speak louder than words. It would be nice to know if the "they" in that third paragraph of the quote encompassed all the enumerated parties or just reflected a submission to the principle that whatever the United States says is how things will go. Both interpretations are equally depressing; but I, for one, voted the way I did to get beyond another Presidential term of Bush-style bully diplomacy.

In all fairness, however, it is probably the case that the United States is not the sole impediment to the prospects of productive communication. Another Reuters dispatch, this one from Jeffrey Heller, indicates that Israel has its own part to play in this process:

International calls to investigate Israel over alleged war crimes in the Gaza Strip prompted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday to promise military personnel state protection from foreign prosecution.

"The commanders and soldiers sent to Gaza should know they are safe from various tribunals and Israel will assist them on this front and defend them, just as they protected us with their bodies during the Gaza operation," Olmert said.

Last week, the military censor ordered local and foreign media in Israel to blur the faces of army commanders in photos and video footage of the Gaza war for fear they could be identified and arrested while traveling abroad.

Israeli media reports said the military had been advising its top brass to think twice about visiting Europe.

This is not so much a question of who gets to participate in the discussion as one of the agenda for that discussion. It is hard to imagine having a discussion about Gaza without raising questions about grievances. By all rights those questions should address who has legitimate cause for grief and who should bear the responsibility for that grief. There is no question that Israel had a hand in bringing grief to the civilians of Gaza; but blocking any discussion of this matter is to cut off an approach to "truth and reconciliation" that we had no trouble accepting when it was practiced in Africa. Meanwhile, as Entous and Nidal al-Mughrabi reported for Reuters this morning, Hamas is doing its best to assess which Gazans have that "legitimate cause for grief" and draw upon Hamas financial resources to provide at least interim compensation. Put another way, Hamas is showing signs of acting responsibly as an elected government, even when those signs continue to "pass unnoticed" before the eyes of both the United States and Israel. The "time of waiting" for Mitchell's appointment may be over; but we may be due for a much longer wait before any productive communication can begin.

No comments: