US must bring necessary pressure on Israel to settle the Palestinian issue

Tags: Opinion
Eight days of violence and a ceasefire have brought the Palestinian issue to the forefront. President Barack Obama has praised Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for accepting the ceasefire after outgoing secretary of state Hillary Clinton engaged in a bit of shuttle diplomacy, travelling from Cairo to Tel Aviv and Ramallah. Egypt’s prime minister Mohamed Morsi has emerged as the chief mediator – his Muslim Brotherhood Party’s links with Hamas and Egypt’s longstanding agreements with Israel provided him leverage with both sides.

Israel has agreed to stop targeted assassinations and incursions into Gaza, while Hamas will stop attacking Israel with rockets. Israel has agreed to open all border crossing points and relax the restrictions on movement in and out of Gaza. Both sides are claiming victory; Israeli armed forces claim to have destroyed Hamas strategic assets and Hamas claims to have enhanced its status as a party to the ceasefire negotiations and also gained influence in West Bank.

Gaza has faced an Israeli economic blockade for over five years. Israel has restricted movement of people and goods. It has limited both imports and exports from Gaza to the extent that schools and other buildings cannot be rebuilt as materials like cement and steel are restricted for they can be used for constructing defensive structures. A network of tunnels, which connect its southern side to Egypt, supplies Gaza.

There is a pattern in the violence in West Asia. In 2008, engrossed in its transition to a new presidency, Israel launched ‘Operation Cast Lead’. Israeli military aircraft pounded the Gaza region killing over a thousand civilians in the operation and evoking widespread international condemnation. Incidentally, the Israeli operation was carried out just weeks before elections were to be held in Israel. Four years later in 2012, as ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ got underway, two conditions remained the same as in 2008; the US presidential transition is underway and elections are due in Israel in January. The combination of Washington distracted by a presidential transition and forthcoming elections in Israel has had deadly impact in West Asia.

Even as Israel made menacing moves for a ground invasion of Gaza, the US blamed Hamas for the escalation in violence and backed Israel’s right to self-defence. But Israel would have known that its targeted assassination of Hamas military commander, Ahmed al-Jabari ten days ago would result in retaliation by Hamas. Al-Jabari was assassinated even as he was said to be in the process of negotiating an informal truce with the help of the Egyptians.

Israel has a history of using of disproportionate force, whether against children throwing stones or at rockets fired at it. Does the impact of crude Hamas rockets that seldom hit their targets (described as firecrackers in comparison with Israeli firepower) compare with the damage and loss of life inflicted by Israel in the conflict?

The Arab Spring has changed the mood in the region, and the Palestinian cause has found more vocal support, including from Egypt to Qatar, the two US allies in West Asia. The Emir of Qatar and Egyptian prime minister Morsi have visited Gaza. Another ally, Jordan is worried about spillover effect of instability in the region when its government is facing street protests. The conflict has raised Hamas’ image in the West Bank and the Fatah has been forced to back its rival, Hamas in the conflict.

The conflict in West Asia – the first crisis faced by Washington after the presidential election, is a reminder that the Palestinian issue cannot be brushed aside since it is the American backing which allows Israel to ignore international opinion.

Israel prime minister Netanyahu was able to thwart president Obama in his first term by rallying the American jewish lobbies and appealing to the US Congress, where the jewish lobbies wield great influence. It stymied the president’s grand move on West Asian and his special outreach to the muslim world that he had articulated so movingly at the historic Cairo University. Now the question is whether president Obama will use the relative freedom of operation that a second term brings to pressure Israel to reach an effective settlement on the Palestine issue.

(The writer is a foreign affairs commentator)

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