Thursday, June 29, 2006

Mideast heats up (again)

There was a brief (if probably meaningless) moment of hope in Palestine a couple of days ago, when Hamas and Fatah agreed to recognize the so-called "prisoner's manifesto", which implicity recognizes Israel.

But Hamas later denied that it agreed to recognize Israel. If so, then this is worrisome:

The deal appeared likely to lead to the cancellation of a July 26 referendum Abbas had scheduled, over Hamas's objections, on the prisoners' document. Such a showdown would have heightened tensions between Fatah and Hamas, whose fighters have clashed repeatedly in recent weeks.

So what we might have here is a meaningless deal that allows Abbas to cancel a divisive referendum -- and squander a chance to move Palestinian-Israeli relations forward.

Things didn't get any better after Hamas-linked groups kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Israel responded by invading Gaza and arresting dozens of Hamas lawmakers -- and also venturing into Syrian airspace.

At times like this it's tough to avoid a "pox on both their houses" response. Hamas is split both politically and militarily, Abbas is largely powerless and Israel's outsized response to militant provocation further poisons the well. Israel may well have concluded that there's no point to negotiating or playing nice with a group that refuses to recognize their right to exist -- and they'd have a point. Israel also has a history of going all-out to retrieve captured soldiers, believing that it cuts down on the number of such captures. And again, they have a point.

But the fact is that the only way out of the current mess -- a mess that harms both sides -- is to show restraint and a committment to dialogue. Hamas' refusal to deal with reality carries consequences -- but Israel should strive to make those consequences proportionate. Otherwise Israel makes itself captive to the most extreme Palestinian elements -- elements that would like to see the peace process dead and buried.

Israel needs to battle the extremists and talk with the moderates, as does Hamas. But both need to take care that the methods used to achieve the former don't undermine the latter. Because the latter is the only thing that will lead to a long-term solution.

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