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Hillary Clinton confronts reality in the Middle East

Analysis: Obama needs to inject Middle East policy with realism, especially regarding Hamas.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks with Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal (R) in Sharm El-Sheikh at the opening of an international conference in support of the Palestinian Authority to rebuild Gaza March 2, 2009. International donors pledge at least $3 billion in aid to the Palestinian Authority, mainly to rebuild the damage done in Gaza by Israeli attacks, while shunning the battered territory's Islamist Hamas rulers. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton' s trip to the Middle East lands her where former President Bush left us his biggest messes. First stop: Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt’s Sinai where rebuilding Gaza is the topic.

Donors must get weary seeing, time and time again, billions being poured into re-building Palestinian infrastructure, only to see the Israelis knock it all down again. The Palestinian Authority is estimating that $2.8 billion will be needed this time. “Large areas have been reduced to rubble, with 15,000 houses damaged or destroyed,” according to the PA report.

There are several problems facing reconstruction. One is that Israel still does not see fit to sufficiently open the Gaza crossings, choosing to maintain what the PA calls the “merciless siege” of Gaza.

Less solvable is the fact that, despite everything Israel could throw at it, Hamas still runs Gaza. The Palestinian Authority, which is controlled by Hamas rival, Fatah, is against funneling money to Gaza through Hamas. So are most foreign donors. But how to avoid that with Hamas still in charge?

Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, by the United States, and by other countries as well. But it is clear that Hamas has to be a major part of the solution, just as it is a part of the problem, distasteful as that may be. For Hamas is more than just a terrorist movement. It is a political organization that came to govern Gaza legitimately through elections.

Israel warned that conditions were not favorable for an election in Gaza, but George W. Bush insisted, banking on his, at times, naive faith in democracy. But once Hamas won, Bush and Israel tried to reverse the election results by squeezing Gaza economically in hopes that people would turn against Hamas. It didn’t work.

If eliminating, or even seriously degrading, Hamas’ grip on Gaza by physically destroying so much of Gaza was Israel’s goal, that, too, failed.

A problem has been that once the Palestinian Liberation Organization changed its mind and said it would recognize Israel and work towards a two-state solution — in effect sharing what was once the old British Mandate — Israel never gave the Palestinians enough cause to believe in the peace efforts. Restrictions on their daily lives grew worse, and Jewish settlements continued to eat up their land.