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Washington's Hamas myopia

By Oliver McTernan

In June 2009, Barack Obama declared to the Arab world from the podium at Cairo University that the US would be even-handed in its efforts to find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Since then we have witnessed a lot of shuttle diplomacy between Washington, Jerusalem and Cairo but little evidence of significant change in American policy towards the Middle East. Whatever Obama's personal conviction may be, it is clear that his administration is still pursuing the old top-down approach which believes that an agreement can be reached by ignoring such an inconvenient fact as Hamas' electoral victory in 2006.

Given George Mitchell's experience in Northern Ireland where all the different factions, including those who justified the use of violence, were included in the peace process that led to the Good Friday Agreement, it is all the more surprising that he is willing to take such a prominent role in a process designed to exclude groups that have real constituency and without whom there can be no durable agreement. Why is it that Obama's administration refuses to apply the proven principle of inclusion in its search for a solution in the Middle East? Why is Washington so determined to block Egyptian efforts to broker a deal on Palestinian unity? Why have the hastily adopted Quartet principles been used as obstacles rather than the starting point for engagement with groups such as Hamas? Why has the Obama administration failed to act decisively to end the economic and political blockade of Gaza? Why has the US kept silent over the systematic use of torture by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank?

Months before the Democratic Party chose Obama over Hillary Clinton as its presidential candidate, I met at a conference a senior US government analyst who warned me that no matter which of them was elected there would be no significant change in American policy in the region as this was determined primarily by US domestic interests. Leaving to one side Obama's hope inspiring rhetoric, it would appear that this prediction was correct. The Obama administration seems as determined as its predecessor to impose a solution that won't threaten perceived US interests.

America promoted an inclusive process in Northern Ireland because, in return, Ted Kennedy promised Clinton the Irish-American vote. The judgement of what is or is not in the US interest in the Middle East is based on what appears to be a seriously flawed analysis that exaggerates the threat of Iran in the struggle for influence over the Muslim soul in the region. Washington seems to see itself as engaged in a new cold war scenario – a Sunni-Shi'a standoff – and as a consequence has opted to ally itself unconditionally with Amman, Cairo, and Riyadh, even if that means disregarding the principles of democracy and human rights it claims to promote. Islamic movements such as Hamas and Hizbullah, which enjoy real constituency within the region as proven through the ballot box, have to be excluded from the process as they pose an unpredictable element that Washington fears may be beyond its ability to control.

Since Hamas won the election in 2006, Washington has been determined to undermine its efforts to govern and its ability to implement the social changes it promised in its manifesto. By setting conditions that were politically impossible for Hamas to accept without prior engagement and agreement, it was able to set the trap that allowed it to isolate Hamas and impose a crippling economic and political embargo. What could have been a real turning point in the dynamics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict became instead a missed opportunity.

By setting preconditions which it knew that Hamas could not have accepted, the US successfully sabotaged the results of an election that reflected clearly the will of the Palestinian people. Given the relative success of its policy of inclusiveness in Northern Ireland, the obvious question is: why did America choose to exclude from the peace process a movement that had the ability to deliver on an agreement that would endure? The answer, I fear, is simple. Had Hamas been allowed to demonstrate good governance based on a democratic mandate it would have posed a serious threat to the neighbouring Arab autocracies that serve America's strategic and economic interests. Far from encouraging Hamas in its efforts to move from violent resistance into the political process as it did the unionist and nationalist paramilitary movements in Northern Ireland, America opted for the high-risk strategy of imposing international isolation of the Islamic movement in an obvious attempt to undermine its influence among the Palestinian electorate. The consequences of such a myopic choice have been felt by the people of Gaza, but may also be felt in the wider region if Hamas' leadership role is challenged by extremist groups who see the conflict as more ideological than grievance-based.

(Oliver McTernan is Director of 'Forward Thinking' and author of Violence in God's Name)

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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