palestinian poverty 311.
(photo credit: AP)
Last week, an effort by the Qatari government to improve diplomatic relations with Israel and aid the reconstruction effort in Gaza ended with a freeze in all official ties between the two countries. Qatar’s offer to carry out infrastructure reconstruction projects in Gaza in exchange for reopening Israel’s diplomatic mission in Doha would have been a positive development for both sides. The rejection of this offer by the Netanyahu government is both short-sighted and self-defeating.
The government’s failure to seize an opportunity to normalize relations with an Arab state, against a limited risk that Hamas would act against the Qatari government and seize some of the construction materials for fortification of its defenses, demonstrates not only intransigence but a lack of a coherent policy as to how to bring about an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The government may justifiably suspect Hamas’ menacing intentions, but
that too must be balanced against the reality of Hamas, which cannot
simply be wished away. At some point a pragmatic policy must be
introduced to demonstrate how Israel is going to calibrate its risks
and opportunities and better manage its relations with the Arab states
that are making goodwill gestures.
By now it has become abundantly clear that the blockade of Gaza has not
weakened Hamas, but in fact it has increased its popularity in the Arab
street and heightened international sympathy to the beleaguered
THE FACT that Israel allows ample supplies of food and medicine to pass
through the crossings to Gaza while denying other critical material to
rebuild has created the widespread perception of indifference and
disdain toward the plight of ordinary Palestinians. Tens of thousands
continue to live in squalor which defies any political logic the
Netanyahu government may wish to employ and from which Israel could
conceivably benefit. Israel will have to coexist with the Palestinians
in Gaza under any political configuration regardless of who may govern
the area. The question is: Does the Netanyahu government have a
specific plan to change the current dynamics to entice Hamas into the
political process? Engaging in wishful thinking that may in fact
scuttle other peace overtures such as that of the Qataris is futile and
Had the Qatari offer been accepted, it could have had serious positive
implications from which the country could greatly benefit. To begin
with, it would have sent a clear message to the international community
that although it has genuine concerns about Hamas’s continuing
militancy, in light of the Qatari assurances that the material would be
used for housing and other civilian institutions, the welfare of the
Palestinians overrode such concerns.
In addition, unlike a similar offer made by Turkey’s Red Crescent
organization which came on the heels of a growing tension between the
two countries and was seen by Israel as pandering to domestic and Arab
political support, the Qatari offer provides a critical opportunity to
establish formal relations with an Arab state. This would have allowed
other Gulf states, such as Bahrain and the Emirates, and other Arab
countries to follow suit. Qatar in particular has taken several
initiatives toward Israel in the past, including inviting then foreign
minister Tzipi Livni to speak in Doha, and its current offer represents
a continuation of a policy which has received, albeit tacitly, the
endorsement of other Arab states. Moreover, the timing of the Qatari
offer is particularly auspicious as it comes when the proximity talks
are under way and a goodwill gesture is both needed and expected of
More important is the fact that involving other Arab governments in the
internal affairs of Gaza and working with Hamas’s leaders would have
the effect of moderating Hamas’s position over time. Indeed, the only
way to distance Hamas from Iran is by encouraging it to return to the
Arab fold. But that can happen only through constructive, gainful and
lasting engagement of Hamas, especially by official Arab governments
which are much harder to rebuke than aid organizations or nonprofit
Qatar could have paved the way for other Arab countries to be involved
in the reconstruction efforts in Gaza, something the government must
support if it ever wishes to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Egypt has voiced its dissent of the deal, as it jealously guards its
hegemony in Israel’s relations with Hamas due to its own problem with
the Muslim Brotherhood, and because of its shaky ties to Qatar after
much criticism from Doha-based Al-Jazeera broadcasts. Yet ultimately,
Egypt has not yet proved to be effective in dealing with the problem of
Hamas and ameliorating the situation in Gaza, so Israel needs to start
looking at this problem on a wider scale. Allowing other Arab players
into Gaza could open up various channels of communication with Hamas
that were heretofore unproductive under Egypt’s ownership.
ALTHOUGH THE Qatar offer was rejected, it is not too late to revive it
and unfreeze ties, particularly since the rejection was carefully
deliberated and even Uzi Arad, the astute right-wing national security
adviser to the prime minister, argued in its favor. Security concerns
about Hamas’s potential threats are genuine and cannot be dismissed on
the grounds of simple paranoia.
The problem here though is to what extent Israel should allow itself to
be fixated on Hamas as an irredeemable militant group bent on its
destruction without searching for ways to reconcile with its existence.
The Gaza war has clearly demonstrated that Hamas’s current militancy
cannot be changed either by brutal force or by a continuing blockade,
which has not worked and has deleterious effects on Israel’s standing
in the international community.
Regardless of why Hamas is currently pursuing a nonviolent posture, the
government must demonstrate its willingness to reward such behavior.
After all, it has rightfully demanded in the past cessation of all
hostilities as a precondition to improved relations; it must now
demonstrate the readiness to respond and deny Hamas the pretext of
resuming violence under the continuing unbearable conditions. Unlike
other foreign attempts to reconstruct Gaza, Qatar’s offer comes from a
moderate Arab state and has the potential to influence the nature of
relations with Hamas by accepting it as a political movement and by
allowing the Palestinians in Gaza to develop a vested interest in the
This experiment may entail some risk, but such a risk needs to be seen
in the bigger picture, because the tremendous benefit should the effort
work far outweighs the potential risk.
Without a long-term strategy, Israel’s fixation on Hamas will prove to
be self-defeating, playing willfully into Hamas’s hand especially when
the patience of the international community is wearing thin. The writer is professor of international relations at the
Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation
and Middle Eastern studies. www.alonben-meir.com