After 70 years of conflict in the Middle East, peace has never seemed more elusive. Even the savviest foreign policy expert may be tempted to dismiss the recent escalation between Israel and the Palestinians. Yet this time it’s different. The peace process has been on life support, but this could be the moment historians turn to for time of death.
New Factors in an Old Conflict
First, the U.S. administration’s approach to peace has shifted, and the impact goes beyond the symbolism of an embassy relocation to Jerusalem. The elephant sitting tall in peace negotiations has been the question of whether the United States is being perceived as an honest broker. It was agreed worldwide that Washington’s slight leverage over Israel would be needed in settling key issues centering on a “final status” — one of which was the status of Jerusalem. Washington’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital demonstrated a move toward unilateral U.S. decisions about the peace talks. The move has changed the perception of Washington from a questionably honest broker to a provocateur of the conflict.
Second, the feasibility of a two-state solution is in question. The desire for such a solution has been the default U.S. position since the end of the Cold War, yet President Donald Trump’s administration leaves a two-state solution up to the principal antagonists. All sides question the practicality. Jeff Halper cautions in Haaretz that the two-state solution “only ever meant a big Israel ruling over a Palestinian Bantustan,” or in the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a “state-minus.” The Palestinians are left with the dreaded question: What exactly is being negotiated? In addition, the interruptions in peace talks have led to a crisis of leadership among the Palestinians. If ongoing events continue to delegitimize all Palestinian leadership, the hope for peace will die before terms ever reach the street.
The Gaza Crisis & Hamas
There is always an attempt to dismiss legitimate Palestinian nonviolent action by associating it with Hamas, which the U.S. State Department has designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization since 1997. While Hamas engages in acts of terrorism, it is also the ruling body in Gaza since 2007. As the governing authority in Gaza, it would need to, at the very least, authorize any political activities in the territory. However, it is a far leap to classify all current protests as being Hamas-led and Hamas-funded. Still, the Islamist movement is claiming that protesters killed last week along a border fence were Hamas members.
Omar Baddar, a political analyst and human rights advocate based in Washington, D.C., has said that claims of Hamas membership do not automatically denote militancy; any civilian with a government job would be affiliated with the group serving as the de facto government in Gaza.
“The only question that must be asked is whether the protesters who were shot posed any threat to life,” Baddar says, “and all indications, including ample video evidence, point to Israel killing protesters who posed no threat to anyone whatsoever.” Though from the point of view of the Israeli authorities, the protesters, if not interdicted, could breach the border.
Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and assistant professor at George Mason University, further cautions that not only are Hamas’ claims an “irresponsible and opportunistic attempt by the group to enhance its political standing and legitimacy,” they also have opened the door for others to “jump on the opportunity to justify a massacre.”
She explains, “As a practical and legal matter — that claim is irrelevant. Assuming that it is in fact true, membership in a party is not grounds for lethal force. … These protesters were unarmed and posed no lethal threat to Israeli civilians, soldiers, or military installations.”
This escalation is an opportunity for the international community to refocus peace efforts. The U.N. Security Council call for “independent and transparent investigation” is a key step. This can shed light on the political rhetoric of disproportionate use of force or incitement by Hamas. The fact that both Israel and the United States are trying to block the resolution calling for a probe casts a darker shadow of suspicion around talks of peace.
Time for a New Approach?
Perhaps the time has come to engage a new range of stakeholders. Previous attempts to engage with Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia have led to temporary settlements but ultimately to failure. The combination of corruption and ineffective governance of the Palestinian National Authority, plus Hamas’ status as a terrorist group, leaves no potential negotiating partner. For any successful peace process to emerge, Washington must not re-engineer Palestinian stakeholders but try to work with current ones.
It is an opportunity for the Trump administration to demonstrate that its “new approach” will go to the last frontier for peace, including the very thorny and risky move to initiate a potential conversation with Hamas. The Palestinian Islamist movement has historically gone through somersaults. From 1967 till 1987, the group not only steered clear of politics but also cooperated with Israeli military authorities that were fighting the Fatah-dominated PLO, which was deemed a terrorist group. Since the First Intifada and until recently, Hamas was mainly engaged in terrorism against Israel. However, since forcibly taking over Gaza in 2007, the group has had to balance militancy with the imperative to govern the territory – a task made extremely difficult due to three wars with Israel. This experience has forced Hamas to change some of its radical stances. Hamas has already retracted some previous positions — specifically, ones that did not recognize Israel. As Erekat highlights, “Hamas has made clear that it is willing to enter into negotiations for a two-state solution in a unity government.”
Baddar highlights a specific role for the United States. He explains, “Israel’s abuse of Palestinian human rights is not some random injustice in the world, but one specifically enabled by U.S. military and diplomatic support for Israel. Holding Israel accountable is not just a moral obligation; it’s also a legal one, as U.S. laws prohibit the arming of military forces engaged in gross human rights violations.”
Like many Palestinian experts, Baddar and Erekat agree that Hamas has generally played an extremely negative role. Yet as Baddar points out, “Their emergence as a political force is the direct result of the more pliant Palestinian Authority’s failure to secure any Palestinian rights through negotiations and cooperation with Israel.” The United States should not ignore Hamas and leave it as a tool for actors like Iran to exploit. Such a course of action further exacerbates regional insecurity and undermines U.S. national interests.
The time has come to do something dramatically different: engage all current stakeholders, including some extreme elements. After all, peace negotiations are held with enemies, not friends, which is what Washington is seeking with the Afghan Taliban and now North Korea. The Trump administration is even prepared to do this with Iran as is evident through the new deal that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo laid out in his May 21 speech. The Trump administration should extend this same radical foreign policy approach to dealing with the Palestinian conflict as well.
Manal Omar is the founder of Across Red Lines. Over the last eight years, she served as the Associate Vice President of Middle East and Africa for the U.S. Institute of Peace. She has over twenty years working for international organizations including the World Bank, Oxfam-GB, and Women for Women International. She is an inaugural fellow for Foreign Policy Interrupted and is a 2016 Truman National Security Fellow in Washington, D.C. @ManalOmar
The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.