Friday, January 23, 2009

Quest begins for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

It would appear as if the appointment of Clinton as Secretary of State was, as I suspected, done to help craft a Middle East peace deal.

President Barack Obama yesterday promised the US will "actively and aggressively" work for an elusive Middle East peace deal and will dispatch a high-powered envoy to the region as a matter of urgency.

Speaking to diplomats at the state department on his second day in office, he set out his widely-awaited views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ending the near silence he had maintained over the last few weeks.

Putting the conflict at the heart of US foreign policy for the first time in eight years, he said he would invest time, political capital and cash in the peace effort.

Intent on reshaping foreign policy as quickly as possible, he named the veteran mediator George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy. He also named another veteran diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, as his special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

He pledged to continue US support for Israel but his tone was more balanced than that of George Bush, who uncritically sided with Israel.

Obama, speaking alongside his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called for a durable ceasefire in Gaza. He urged Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel, as Bush had done, but he also called on Israel to "complete the withdrawal of its forces from Gaza".

It's long overdue that the US turns it's attention to this dispute in a way that is fair and even handed, unlike the ridiculously one sided handling of the dispute by Bush, where every and any Israeli action went unquestioned.

My only fear here is that Netanyahu might get elected come February 10, which will make Obama's task ten times harder.

But it's unthinkable that Bush would ever have expressed the sentiments being voiced by Obama:

The president expressed concern at the loss of life among Israelis and Palestinians, and at the suffering in Gaza. He said his heart went out to "civilians who are going without food, water or medical care".

He said he would help Egypt to try to curb smuggling of weapons through underground tunnels to Gaza and would also provide and seek donations from other countries for the development of Gaza.

He has actually expressed concern - going as far as to say that "his heart went out" - for the conditions the Palestinians now find themselves in. After eight years of Bush's callous indifference this is music to my ears.

However, he will find great difficulty when he attempts to "seek donations" from other country's for the development of Gaza. The Europeans have already heavily invested in this only to watch Israeli F16's destroy the civilian infrastructure which they paid for. And, as the BBC noted when they recently gained access to Gaza, a lot of this destruction was "wanton". People will need to know that the Israelis are not going to be allowed to carry out such attacks again before they start investing much needed funds into Gaza.

However, leaving that aside, at long last an American president appears to be ready to look at this situation fairly and to genuinely engage in the search for peace. The appointment of Mitchell is important. His work at in the Northern Ireland peace deal means that he is uniquely qualified to find a way through the morass of the Israel/Palestine dispute.

Even Tony Blair is welcoming Mitchell's appointment:
A spokesman for Blair said it would renew their close and productive relationship in Northern Ireland. "It shows the true commitment President Obama and Secretary Clinton have to making real progress in the Middle East," the spokesman said.

Mitchell, appointed by Bill Clinton to help as a mediator in the Northern Ireland peace process, played a pivotal role in Belfast.

He won the respect of both the IRA and the Loyalist paramilitaries for his efforts at bringing about decommissioning. He also reported to Bill Clinton on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling for the Palestinian authority to crack down on militant groups but for Israel too to freeze the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

Mitchell told diplomats at the state department: "I believe deeply that with committed persevering and patient diplomacy peace and stability can be achieved in the Middle East."

So far, so good. Obama has made a blistering start, banning torture, closing secret prisons, and now signaling his intent to put a peace deal in the Middle East at the very top of his agenda.

After the last eight years of Bush's shameful indulgence of the Israelis, where he at times looked like an overindulgent parent feeding an obese child chocolate, Obama has at least started by making the right noises.

And Clinton, who has a pro-Israeli record which is second to none, will give Obama the cover he needs to lean on Israel to make compromises.

It's a great start.

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