Hillary Clinton confronts reality in the Middle East

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.

The Palestinians, for their part, never could completely renounce violence, which caused the Israeli public to lose heart in a two-state solution.

Israel may have a partner for peace in Mahmoud Abbas, Yasser Arafat’s successor, but Israel has never given him anything to show his people, not enough to be able to say: This is what my cooperation with Israel has meant for you. The Israeli attack on Gaza put another nail in Abbas’s political coffin, making heroes out of Hamas and collaborators out of Fatah.

The hard fact may be that Palestinian unity died with Yasser Arafat, and maybe Fatah’s ability to represent all the Palestinian people did too. Arafat was the one man who could keep Palestinians together. His offer of a two-state solution came at a time when Israel wasn’t really ready for it, and now the Palestinians are too split to deal when most Israelis are ready to go along, under the right circumstances.

However, a measure of Palestinian unity is going to be necessary if there is ever going to be progress to an Arab-Israeli peace. For without it Israel will always say, with some justification, how can we make peace with a people so divided? This is going to be difficult enough now that Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, who does not believe in a two-state solution , seems poised to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who does.

But one of the first goals of the Obama administration, if it wants to advance an Arab-Israeli peace, has to be to foster Palestinian unity. Since that cannot be done without Hamas, President Obama has got to reverse the Bush administration’s stand that the U.S. will not deal with Hamas unless Hamas recognizes Israel and agrees to other things Israel and the United States want. The U.S. deals with plenty of countries that don’t recognize Israel and don’t do what we want. There is always the possibility that under the right circumstances they will.

The time to make that decision is now, to show that Obama is turning the page on a bankrupt Bush position that has lead to nowhere. Hamas is not what we would wish as an interlocutor, but Hamas is there. It’s a reality, and reality was the one thing the Bush administration had trouble accepting.

Also: Redefining the peace process