March 16, 2008

Step Up the Talks

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Trying to figure out the Middle East is a task we “Westerners” usually fall short on. We’ve consistently been wrong on the region and honestly, we don’t seem to be getting any better. I’m therefore hesitant to embark upon a path that has led so many to look so utterly incompetent, but I think the recent “action” in the region merits severe criticism.
Forget the fact that there’s been a serious upswing in violence recently. The mini-war taking place in and around Gaza was bound to happen and is only slightly notable (at least as far as news analysis goes). Much more important (as usual) were the words, or, to be more correct, lack of them.
The words came from Ramallah last Sunday where Mahmoud Abbas ordered “the suspension of negotiations … until [Israeli] aggression is stopped.” Does this not upset anyone? How could it possibly make sense for a leader, either Israeli or Palestinian, to stop ongoing peace talks in a time of increased violence? If anything, it would only make sense for talking to be stepped up. But hey, this is the Middle East, a place where logic doesn’t rule and leaders are so ineffective it’s no wonder the two sides are incapable of finalizing a settlement deal that’s essentially already been decided.
When it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this terrible decision to end dialogue says it all. The leaders over there consistently talk peace but practice policy that goes directly against their interests. It’s time for a more mature approach on our side to the conflict. When leaders refuse to be in dialogue, we need to refuse to accept that.
The only question is: How? The threat of restricting aid is wholly empty and, in regard to the Palestinians, would be akin to threatening economic strangulation. Strong words from American leaders are often seen (and rightfully so) as empty threats that don’t accomplish much of anything except making us look powerless. So perhaps we’re just that, powerless.
I’ve said in the past, albeit not in this forum, that the Gaza border breach was the best thing that could possibly have happened to Israel. The breach allowed thousands upon thousands of Gazans into Egypt, enabling them to obtain much needed materials, food and fuel. Israel had put itself into a corner by restricting trade in Hamas-run Gaza, with the predictable effects being a serious downturn in the already feeble Gazan economy. The breach allowed a bit of relief to the area, providing much needed supplies to the people while not legitimizing Hamas (which is a big concern on Israel’s part, whether correct or not).
But the breach also brought with it Iranian made “Grad” missiles, the likes of which played a key role in this recent outburst of violence. The outburst, however, may be poorly labeled. It looks like a new level of violence has come to the region and may be there to stay. To allow this violence to fester without continued dialogue would be incredibly detrimental to the already shattered peace process. These talks need to be continued; it’s time for the leaders to do the right thing.

My guess is they don’t.