By George S. Hishmeh, Special to Gulf News
Before she embarked on her three-country tour of the Arab world, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice invited for the first time a handful of Arab print correspondents for a round table discussion on the region’s concerns, primarily the ascendancy of Hamas and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
An articulate speaker, the top American diplomat underscored headline-grabbing US views about the Arab and Muslim world. For example she stressed that "there is nothing incompatible between Islam and democracy" or "there is no reason that the Palestinian people ought to be denied statehood, a more peaceful life, an end to the kind of daily humiliations to which they are currently subjected".
She also declared that "Israel should not try to prejudge a final status outcome, that it’s important that Israel do everything that it can to make it possible for the Palestinian people to have a good life and a normal existence and to move freely".
More interestingly, she emphasised that "the United States is not trying to contemplate overthrowing or doesn’t have a plan for ousting Hamas".
Rice acknowledged that the Hamas landslide victory in last month’s Palestinian parliamentary elections represented the Palestinian people’s desire for change "after more than a decade of corrupt leadership that did not address their needs".
She, however, maintained that President Mahmoud Abbas and his finance minister, Salam Fayyad, had both tried but "were not able to fully transform" Fatah, the predominant party, and the Palestinian National Authority and "deal with the [deteriorating] security situation in Gaza" after Israel’s unilateral pullout.
Her punch line during the session was: "The obligation of the international community is to say that the only path to a good and peaceful life [in Palestine] is to have a government that is prepared to seek a two-state solution, that is prepared to recognise the other party to that two-state solution. You can’t say you want the destruction of Israel and be committed to a two-state solution. So, Hamas needs to do that. They also need to renounce violence, because you can’t have one foot in violence and terrorism and another foot in the political process."
Whether Rice’s views would find any positive response in the countries she was to visit Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE or in the Arab and Muslim world at large will depend on how the actions of the Bush administration vis-a-vis Hamas are perceived.
The first wrinkle became apparent following reports of collusion between the US and Israel, first revealed by The New York Times earlier this month, to prematurely deflate the Hamas victory. And when Israel announced recently that it was freezing the transfer of about $50 million a month in tax and customs dues to the Palestinian National Authority, former US president Jimmy Carter saw this emerging collusion as having "counterproductive" and "devastating consequences".
In a column published in The Washington Post on Monday and in Gulf News yesterday, the former president believes that "the likely results will be to alienate already oppressed and innocent Palestinians, to incite and to increase the domestic influence and international esteem of Hamas".
The Bush administration and Israel, as well as the other members of the Quartet, will do well to mark time and see how Hamas, which has more than a month to form a government, deliver a policy statement that has to be supported by the newly elected legislature.
Although it is understandable that Rice should feel that Hamas cannot have "one foot in violence and terrorism and another foot in the political process", one must not forget the example of the Irish model which included both Sinn Fein, the political wing, and the Irish Republican Army.
Richard Haas of Brookings Institution and a former presidential aide in the administration of George Bush Sr, sees the challenge nowadays as "find[ing] a way gradually to bring [Hamas] into the [political] tent" in the same way that "the United States, Britain and Ireland successfully worked with [Sinn Fein/IRA] and over the course of more than a decade [and] essentially moved that group into the political process".
Israel, of all other nations involved, must be aware that since Hamas has accepted the hudna or truce a year ago, it has not been targeted by Hamas elements and the situation might continue if the new Palestinian leadership can be positively engaged. In this respect there is much hope in the selection of Esmail Haniyya, the pragmatic prime minister-designate who has been described as the Gerry Adams of Hamas.
George Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at [email protected]