Despite loss of credibility, U.S. has role to play

By Lee Hamilton
Jan 11 2009

 The short-term objective for the United States amidst the current fighting in the Gaza Strip and Israel should be the cessation of hostilities. There already has been too much death, suffering and pain—a major humanitarian tragedy by any measure. Our long-term objective should be to create conditions favorable to the realization of the two-state solution.


The outbreak of violence followed the expiration of a six-month truce on Dec. 19. Hamas declined to renew the cease-fire, citing Israel's economic blockade of the Gaza Strip and military operations, particularly a November air strike targeting militants believed to be constructing a tunnel beneath the border to kidnap an Israeli soldier.

Between the truce's end and the first Israeli air strikes, Hamas escalated its attacks on Israel. In addition to crude homemade Qassam rockets, militants fired longer-range Katyushas.

Israel's strike coincided with President Bush's final weeks in office. Israel anticipated, and received, Bush's stalwart support in forestalling an early, and in its view unsatisfactory, cease-fire.

Officially, Ehud Olmert's government has set a seemingly modest goal: eliminate rocket fire from Gaza and stop the smuggling of weapons into Gaza from Egypt. But there will be no military solution to the rocket attacks or the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only a political one. A diplomatic process is beginning. Israel is in serious talks with Egypt about halting the violence.

A negotiated cease-fire with a badly battered Hamas is the most likely outcome. Hamas, by equating victory with survival, may emerge from the conflict with a psychological boost, and will likely gain Palestinian support and sympathy in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel will certainly have demonstrated its military strength.

Meanwhile, the anger among Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants, and throughout the Middle East—not just against Israel, but at the U.S. and Arab governments for their inaction—grows, fueling resentment and extremism.

When the fighting ends the real challenge will remain: How to advance the prospects for peace?

Once the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has been addressed, the United States must encourage negotiations for a broader peace and prepare a massive international aid program. For that to happen, Hamas must stop the rocket fire and weapons smuggling. Israel must endorse a diplomatic solution, accept international monitors, and remove its blockade.

For negotiations with Israel to progress, the Palestinians need to speak with a single and credible voice that has the support of Palestinians and the Arab League. European participation and U.S.-Syrian engagement would also improve the chances of success.

The U.S. cannot ignore behavior that threatens peace, including Palestinian violence and Israeli settlement construction and expansion. If either party erects further barriers to a resolution, there should be consequences.

Sporadic diplomatic missions to the region and summits for photo ops have proven ineffective. U.S. engagement should be serious, expectations kept low, sweeping rhetoric curbed, and highly visible failures avoided at all costs. It's worth noting that significant Arab-Israeli breakthroughs have occurred absent U.S. involvement (e.g. the Oslo Accords and Israel's peace treaty with Jordan). Our own efforts often have failed, and we have lost considerable credibility in the Middle East.

Despite these handicaps, when Israeli and Palestinian internal politics have steadied, Barack Obama should begin to lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive solution.

A statement of core principles for a final settlement that addresses the needs and grievances of both sides, empowers the peace constituencies in both societies, and incorporates regional diplomacy would be a good starting point.

Achieving the two-state solution is not hopeless, but it will require patience, persistent diplomacy, creativity, and tough decisions. The risks of disengagement are more death, suffering, and destruction.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)