A self-defeating fixation

Israel’s rejection of Qatar’s offer to reopen diplomatic relations in exchange for letting the emirate carry out reconstruction projects in Gaza shows not only intransigence, but a lack of a coherent policy on how to end the Arab-Israeli conflict

palestinian poverty 311 (photo credit: AP)
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, butthat too must be balanced against the reality of Hamas, which cannotsimply be wished away. At some point a pragmatic policy must beintroduced to demonstrate how Israel is going to calibrate its risksand opportunities and better manage its relations with the Arab statesthat are making goodwill gestures.
By now it has become abundantly clear that the blockade of Gaza has notweakened Hamas, but in fact it has increased its popularity in the Arabstreet and heightened international sympathy to the beleagueredPalestinians there.
THE FACT that Israel allows ample supplies of food and medicine to passthrough the crossings to Gaza while denying other critical material torebuild has created the widespread perception of indifference anddisdain toward the plight of ordinary Palestinians. Tens of thousandscontinue to live in squalor which defies any political logic theNetanyahu government may wish to employ and from which Israel couldconceivably benefit. Israel will have to coexist with the Palestiniansin Gaza under any political configuration regardless of who may governthe area. The question is: Does the Netanyahu government have aspecific plan to change the current dynamics to entice Hamas into thepolitical process? Engaging in wishful thinking that may in factscuttle other peace overtures such as that of the Qataris is futile andprofoundly counterproductive.
Had the Qatari offer been accepted, it could have had serious positiveimplications from which the country could greatly benefit. To beginwith, it would have sent a clear message to the international communitythat although it has genuine concerns about Hamas’s continuingmilitancy, in light of the Qatari assurances that the material would beused for housing and other civilian institutions, the welfare of thePalestinians overrode such concerns.
In addition, unlike a similar offer made by Turkey’s Red Crescentorganization which came on the heels of a growing tension between thetwo countries and was seen by Israel as pandering to domestic and Arabpolitical support, the Qatari offer provides a critical opportunity toestablish formal relations with an Arab state. This would have allowedother Gulf states, such as Bahrain and the Emirates, and other Arabcountries to follow suit. Qatar in particular has taken severalinitiatives toward Israel in the past, including inviting then foreignminister Tzipi Livni to speak in Doha, and its current offer representsa continuation of a policy which has received, albeit tacitly, theendorsement of other Arab states. Moreover, the timing of the Qatarioffer is particularly auspicious as it comes when the proximity talksare under way and a goodwill gesture is both needed and expected ofIsrael.
More important is the fact that involving other Arab governments in theinternal affairs of Gaza and working with Hamas’s leaders would havethe effect of moderating Hamas’s position over time. Indeed, the onlyway to distance Hamas from Iran is by encouraging it to return to theArab fold. But that can happen only through constructive, gainful andlasting engagement of Hamas, especially by official Arab governmentswhich are much harder to rebuke than aid organizations or nonprofitgroups.
Qatar could have paved the way for other Arab countries to be involvedin the reconstruction efforts in Gaza, something the government mustsupport if it ever wishes to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.Egypt has voiced its dissent of the deal, as it jealously guards itshegemony in Israel’s relations with Hamas due to its own problem withthe Muslim Brotherhood, and because of its shaky ties to Qatar aftermuch criticism from Doha-based Al-Jazeera broadcasts. Yet ultimately,Egypt has not yet proved to be effective in dealing with the problem ofHamas and ameliorating the situation in Gaza, so Israel needs to startlooking at this problem on a wider scale. Allowing other Arab playersinto Gaza could open up various channels of communication with Hamasthat were heretofore unproductive under Egypt’s ownership.
ALTHOUGH THE Qatar offer was rejected, it is not too late to revive itand unfreeze ties, particularly since the rejection was carefullydeliberated and even Uzi Arad, the astute right-wing national securityadviser to the prime minister, argued in its favor. Security concernsabout Hamas’s potential threats are genuine and cannot be dismissed onthe grounds of simple paranoia.
The problem here though is to what extent Israel should allow itself tobe fixated on Hamas as an irredeemable militant group bent on itsdestruction without searching for ways to reconcile with its existence.The Gaza war has clearly demonstrated that Hamas’s current militancycannot be changed either by brutal force or by a continuing blockade,which has not worked and has deleterious effects on Israel’s standingin the international community.
Regardless of why Hamas is currently pursuing a nonviolent posture, thegovernment must demonstrate its willingness to reward such behavior.After all, it has rightfully demanded in the past cessation of allhostilities as a precondition to improved relations; it must nowdemonstrate the readiness to respond and deny Hamas the pretext ofresuming violence under the continuing unbearable conditions. Unlikeother foreign attempts to reconstruct Gaza, Qatar’s offer comes from amoderate Arab state and has the potential to influence the nature ofrelations with Hamas by accepting it as a political movement and byallowing the Palestinians in Gaza to develop a vested interest in theimproved conditions.
This experiment may entail some risk, but such a risk needs to be seenin the bigger picture, because the tremendous benefit should the effortwork far outweighs the potential risk.
Without a long-term strategy, Israel’s fixation on Hamas will prove tobe self-defeating, playing willfully into Hamas’s hand especially whenthe patience of the international community is wearing thin.
The writer is professor of international relations at theCenter for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiationand Middle Eastern studies. www.alonben-meir.com