Quest for an Honest Broker

Quest for an Honest Broker
Osama Al Sharif, osama@mediaarabia.com

In the cross-wired minefield of Middle Eastern politics, it is best not to volunteer for the role of a goodwill messenger unless one is willing to pay the price. In Jimmy Carter’s case, the price so far has been a scathing attack by conservative and liberal American pundits alike, ostensibly for breaking an official US policy rule barring any contact with the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas. His latest peace mission has been dubbed as stupid, reckless and verging on treason.

But the former US president and the architect of the first peace treaty between an Arab country and Israel is no Don Quixote. Criticisms by Israel and the US aside, Carter has the credibility needed to play the role of an honest broker in what has become an extremely entangled conflict. His is a personal venture aimed at achieving a specific and limited goal; the release of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas in exchange for the freedom of scores of Palestinian detainees. In the process, he hopes to engineer a truce between Hamas and Israel that will end belligerent acts by both sides and dismantle the economic blockade that is strangling Gaza’s 1.4 million residents.

Such targets could be achieved if the two parties involved are willing to concede. Both stand to gain without giving up much, especially since the current stalemate is proving to be too costly at all levels. And in the absence of a serious intervention by the UN, the Quartet and others, Carter’s gamble is worth a try.

This is probably why, in spite of the frigid reception the former president received in Israel, a senior Cabinet minister declared that he too was willing to meet with Hamas leaders to discuss the fate of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. If an Israeli official was willing to break a taboo by talking to a “terrorist” organization, then why not Carter?

Hamas, which carried out an armed takeover of Gaza last June, is ostracized by the PNA, Israel and the United States, but it maintains some level of contact with many countries, both Arab and non-Arab. Syria, of course, is viewed as a staunch supporter of the militant organization while offering safe harbor to the movement’s political leader in exile Khaled Meshaal.

Of all the three parties that shun Hamas, Israel appears to be the one that is most likely to stand down and conduct limited negotiations, at least within the scope of a prisoners’ swap. The policy of isolating Hamas, which won a majority in the 2006 legislative elections, has proved to be a complete failure on moral, political and strategic grounds.

Despite months of harsh, not to mention illegal, economic blockade and bloody Israeli incursions, the Islamist movement remains in control of the Gaza Strip. Carter’s mediation is humanitarian in nature: to win the release of prisoners and to end the plight of Gazans. But it also points to the futility of the current policy of ignoring Hamas. Within the context of the larger picture, Hamas has a claim to Palestinian legitimacy, both at the ballot box and through its political program. Whether Mahmoud Abbas likes it or not, Hamas represents a sizable chunk of the Palestinian people. And regardless of what America and Israel think, the Islamist movement has the capacity to derail any peace deal that could be worked out in the future.

Carter is not the first Middle East mediator who has made contacts with a perceived enemy. In 1979, Andrew Young, America’s UN representative, was forced to resign for initiating contacts with the PLO’s observer at the international organization. But less than nine years later, the US was conducting covert negotiations with the PLO, which was then still listed as a terrorist organization. Even Israel, through Swedish contacts, launched secret talks with Yasser Arafat to come up with the famous Oslo agreements.

And it was President Ronald Regan’s special envoy to the region, Phillip Habib, who in 1982 negotiated a cease-fire between Israel and the PLO in Lebanon and facilitated the latter’s evacuation from besieged Beirut.

Even today, the Bush administration is negotiating with Iran, over Iraq, and North Korea, clearly because US strategic interests require it. But it has chosen not to talk with Syria and Hamas, most probably to appease the Israelis. But Carter’s mission is a reminder that only through dialogue between opponents can there be real movement toward political solutions. It is worth noting that about 64 percent of Israelis want their government to talk to Hamas, as a recent poll has revealed.

The US has been encouraging its Arab allies to normalize relations with Israel even when the core of the region’s conflict remains unresolved. By the same token, it refuses to engage Hamas and Syria although both hold valuable assets to support a so-far sterile peace process

Carter’s personal mission has proved to the skeptics that there is still room for hope if only an honest broker is willing to take the necessary risks. At one point, the US presented itself as that broker, but today it has become party to the very conflict it claims it wants to solve.

– Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist based in Jordan.
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