"It is high time for Hamas to return that soldier," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a media conference on Wednesday in reference to the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, which precipitated the current Israeli offensive in Gaza. "It is high time then for everybody who has any influence on Hamas to make sure that that happens, and then we can get back on track."
Her appeal to "anyone who has any influence on Hamas" is an admission that the U.S. has absolutely no influence on the Palestinian government. And the only players who may have any leverage in the situation will be those that actually rebuffed the Bush administration's demand that they sever all ties with the Palestinian government, particularly financial ties, after Hamas won democratic elections in January.
By embracing an Israeli strategy of using an economic blockade of Gaza to either force a collapse of the Hamas government or else induce it to make such symbolic concessions as recognizing Israel, the U.S. folded its arms in the face of the ever-explosive relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. The Administration spoke of ensuring humanitarian support for the Palestinian population and backing President Mahmoud Abbas, but that did nothing to change the reality that Palestinian voters had elected Hamas as their government and polls show its support has actually grown during the current showdown. But the financial chokehold and the rising chaos it provoked has clearly weakened the authority of both President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Haniyeh condemned the capture of Corporal Shalit, which surprised him as much as it surprised the Israelis, and demanded his safe return to Israel. Palestinian observers believe more radical elements in Hamas launched the operation that captured Shalit in part to undermine moves by Haniyeh and other pragmatists toward agreement with Abbas on pursuing a two-state solution.
Still, when Secretary Rice talks of getting "back on track" once Hamas hands over Corporal Shalit, it's difficult to know what she means. There is currently no "track" involving Hamas, and no obvious incentive for movement to respond positively to her appeal. And the gunmen of Hamas appear to be out to show that even though Israel ignores the elected government, they can force it to bargain.
Former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin wrote this week that "a different (U.S.) administration, in a different situation, would have sent a special envoy to the region who would shuttle between Syria, Gaza and Jerusalem, trying to calm things down, threatening, promising, fuming all in order to end the crisis." Instead, he continued, "The worsening violent conflict in the Middle East is a blatant reflection of the weakness of the American partner. At the moment of truth, when Israel needs a powerful third party capable of moving things in the area, it turns out that little beyond the repetitive recitation of Bush's vision and of the dust-covered road map can be expected, which neither side intends to actually implement."
The outcome of the Shalit crisis may even further empower the radicals: Israel's Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter indicated Friday that Israel may be moving toward a prisoner swap as demanded by Shalit's captors in order to get its soldier home. That would be a massive victory for the hard-liners in Hamas in the same way that Israel's withdrawal from Gaza without negotiating any agreements with the Palestinian leadership was taken on the street as vindication of the violent strategy of Hamas, which had not yet entered politics.
Abbas and Haniyeh won't be the only losers if the crisis ends with a prisoner exchange. Israel, for all the violence it unleashed on Gaza in the wake of Shalit's capture, will have been seen in Palestinian eyes to have been humbled. And U.S. influence in the region is unlikely to be boosted.
The Bush administration has put the "moral clarity" of refusing to engage with an elected Hamas government above the realpolitik needed to manage a volatile region. Nor is it inclined to restrain Israel from actions that may have irreversible negative consequences. It has, in other words, left itself little scope to orchestrate a calming of the situation through pressure both on Israel and key Arab players. Gaza therefore reveals a certain paradox in the U.S.-Israel relationship: the closer the Bush administration has positioned itself alongside Israel, the less valuable its friendship may have become. After all, the best kind of friend for Israel is one capable of helping it and its neighbors carve out a path to peaceful coexistence. And that requires engaging with the real power players, no matter how offensive they may appear through the lens of "moral clarity."