The Israeli attack on the Gaza-bound “Freedom Flotilla” has put the United States in a difficult position. But it has also given Washington an opening for a game-changing action.
When ships on a humanitarian mission to the besieged Gaza Strip were violently confronted in international waters, the Obama administration was faced with a choice between one strategic ally, Israel, and a larger international community centered on a key NATO ally, Turkey. The United States also has to be careful to protect fragile Palestinian-Israeli proximity talks that took U.S. envoy George Mitchell over a year to get started. Both Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were due to visit Washington within a week of the confrontation, which left nine peace activists dead, including an American.
The United States also has to deal with a broader moral issue. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top U.S. officials have repeatedly said that the status quo in the region, especially in Gaza, cannot continue, and the attempt to break a siege not sanctioned by the international community seems consistent with this aim. But complicating this dynamic is the United States’ decision not to deal with those in power in Gaza, a self-imposed restriction that doesn’t make sense in light of President Obama’s much-discussed pledge to break with the isolation of his predecessor and engage America’s foes. With the publication of the new U.S. security strategy that omitted the phrase “Islamic terror” and distanced Washington from the doctrine of preemptive attacks, this boycott of Hamas appears even more counterproductive.
The Unites States cannot continue to be all but silent on an attack in international waters on civilians representing most Western countries, including the United States. It cannot hide behind the facade of waiting for an inquiry when basic facts such as the location of the attack, the perpetrators of the killings and the absence of violent intent or goods on board the ships are so obvious. What the Obama administration can do, however, is turn its problem into an opportunity — if it is willing to employ creative diplomacy and political courage.
The Israeli attack, as well as the continued U.S. refusal to talk to the political leaders in Gaza, may have been intended to weaken Hamas, but the opposite has happened. Politically, the attack has strengthened the Hamas movement while weakening moderate Arab regimes such as Egypt and Jordan. The Egyptians, who have been acquiescing in the blockade of Gaza, have been forced to open the Rafah crossing. Hamas has welcomed the move and asked that it be made permanent.
But it is important to note that the Hamas leadership, both in Gaza and Damascus, has been sending positive signals for some time. The group has stopped firing rockets into Israel. Hamas leaders have moderated their positions on acceptance of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and expressed willingness to sign a long-term cease-fire. All of this provides the Obama administration with clear avenues for productive diplomacy.
By refraining from using tough language against Israel over this incident, Washington might have regained its ability to quietly influence Tel Aviv. But it cannot allow such silence to be understood as acquiescence or support for an act of violence in international waters. A better way to respond would be to move to reach an understanding with Hamas regarding security and other issues. In return for the beginnings of dialogue with the United States, Hamas should be asked to agree to a complete cease-fire, including that of violence by more radical groups, and a commitment not to disturb the U.S.-sponsored proximity talks.
Even in Israel there are voices calling for the government to change its policy on Hamas. “The way to press Hamas on various fronts . . . is to talk to it, not to boycott it,” wrote Giora Eiland, head of the Israeli National Security Council, in the independent daily Haaretz. If credible Israeli patriots are calling on their government to talk to Hamas, why shouldn’t the United States pursue this avenue?
In his inaugural address, Obama said, “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” During the campaign, he stood his ground against rivals questioning his belief in talking to America’s enemies. Now Palestinians, including Hamas, have unclenched their fists and called on the United States to help end the siege, occupation and misery. By widening the dialogue with Palestinians to include Hamas, Obama will not only fulfill his election promises but also ease a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and make a serious contribution to peace in the Middle East.
Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.