Page last updated at 23:41 GMT, Sunday, 11 January 2009

Obama and the Gaza crisis

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent, Washington

Smoke from explosions in Gaza City (04/01/09)
Violence has erupted as Obama's administration prepares to take office

US President-elect Barack Obama has signalled clearly that he intends to grapple with the problems of the Middle East from the outset of his presidency.

Richard Haass, head of the Council on Foreign Relations, underlined the point.

"What the Gaza crisis has done is to remind us - as if anyone really needed reminding - that the Middle East is not stable," he said.

"And it won't wait for the new administration to decide when it is ready to address it."

But what can the Obama administration do differently?

'Other ways'

There has been a good deal of speculation - especially in the British press - about the possibility that the Obama team might take the unprecedented step of seeking direct talks with Hamas.

Everyone I have spoken to here rules this out - certainly unless Hamas renounces violence and meets a variety of other conditions.

But Robert Malley, head of the International Crisis Group's Middle East programme, said: "This is not an on and off switch, where you either embrace Hamas or necessarily boycott it. There may be other ways."

He spoke of his hope that the incoming Obama administration would "show some creativity in terms of allowing third parties to talk to Hamas and not trying to stand in their way".

Hamas fighters. Archive photo
Hamas may not see any sense in reconciliation with Fatah

If, for example, there were to be a Palestinian national unity government encompassing Hamas members, he hoped that an Obama administration would "judge it by its behaviour and what it does on the ground".

Does it adhere to its ceasefire? Does it allow the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] chairman to negotiate an agreement with Israel? Does it say that it will allow that agreement to be put to a popular referendum and adhere to the results of that referendum?

"That's how the next administration may in fact want to deal with this problem without tackling that very poisonous question of whether you actually engage with Hamas," Mr Malley said.

'Bankrupt policy'

For Mr Haass, the shift in US foreign policy towards the Middle East is a matter of tone as well as substance. He believes that the new president should move swiftly to set out his thinking on the region.

Such a step, he says, would underscore "a new American activism and a new American emphasis on diplomacy".

We have been seeing over the past two years the impossibility of half a Palestinian entity making peace with Israel
Robert Malley, International Crisis Group

What is absolutely clear, though, is that the existing policies of the Bush era cannot continue, especially those that sought to capitalise on Palestinian division.

According to Mr Malley this was a "bankrupt policy" right from the outset.

"It wasn't simply accepting Palestinian divisions, it was encouraging them," he said.

"We have been seeing over the past two years the impossibility of half a Palestinian entity making peace with Israel, especially when we are talking about fundamental issues like Jerusalem, statehood, borders, refugees and so on."

Indeed, Mr Malley believes the Bush administration's position has shifted slightly in recent days.

The recent United Nations Security Council resolution on the Gaza fighting, which the US supported even though it abstained, calls for Palestinian national reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

This, he says, "is an extraordinary turnaround for the Bush administration, something which they fought tooth and nail against for two years.

"Clearly it is something that is going to have to happen if the goal is to have genuine, meaningful negotiations on existential issues between Israel and the Palestinians."

How that gets translated into policy, Mr Malley says, will be crucial.

Barack Obama answers questions from the press on 5 January
The new president faces many challenges in the Middle East

"How do you actually say you want unity, but at the same time you don't want to deal with one party to that unity?

"That's the dilemma that the Obama administration is going to face and I don't know, right now, if they know how they will deal with it."

But all this talk of Palestinian unity as the principal way ahead begs a fundamental question - one that is even more stark in the wake of the fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Why should Hamas in particular, which may well emerge from this experience bloodied but with its reputation bolstered, agree to seek reconciliation with its Fatah rival?

"That's a very interesting question," Mr Malley said. "There are things that were possible two years ago which may not be possible now."

Gloomy conclusion

There were, he said, "various different soundings coming from Hamas". With the right mix of inducements and pressure, he hoped Hamas could be brought round to see the benefits of reconciliation with Fatah.

But his overall conclusion is gloomy.

"At this point my fear and my suspicion is that neither Hamas nor Fatah sees a real benefit in reconciliation, because each side would have to give up something that is far too precious.

"Hamas would have to give up monopoly control over the Gaza Strip and Fatah would have to give up its virtual monopoly control over West Bank and the PLO.

"And those are assets that both would be very hard-pressed to relinquish."

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