Ira Chernus  



Before the Israelis started dropping bombs on Lebanon, they should have taken a moment to remember what an old general, Dwight Eisenhower, once said.  When you start a war there’s only one thing for certain: Things won’t turn out the way you planned.

Israel is learning that one the hard way. It was supposed to destroy Hezbollah as a meaningful political force, and Hamas was supposed to fall with it.  (While Israelis have been killing well over 500 in Lebanon, they’ve also been busy in Gaza, killing over 130 people in the last two weeks.) But things are turning out far different from what Israel intended.  

It’s not just a matter of Hezbollah remaining intact and well-armed. The bombs that shattered Lebanon may also have shattered the Middle East playing field and created startling new bedfellows. Who would ever have expected to see a top figure in the U.S. foreign policy elite endorsing the views of the top elected officials of Hamas? 

Yet that’s just what happened on Sunday, July 30. The Washington Post’s editorial board (about elite as our media get) gave space on their op-ed page to Brent Scowcroft, a long-time pillar of the foreign policy establishment who was national security advisor for both the current President Bush’s father and President Ford. 

The crisis in Lebanon provides a historic opportunity to achieve what has seemed impossible,” Scowcroft wrote. “Now, perhaps more than ever, we have an opportunity to achieve a comprehensive resolution of the entire 58-year-old tragedy” of Israel against its Arab neighbors. And the heart of Scowcroft’s “comprehensive resolution” is much the same plan that the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority was ready to propose in June:

·         A Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with minor rectifications agreed upon between Palestine and Israel.

·         Egypt and Saudi Arabia working with the Palestinian Authority to put together a Palestinian government along the lines of the 18-point agreement reached between Hamas and Fatah prisoners in Israeli jails in June. This government would negotiate for the Authority.

·         Jerusalem as the shared capital of Israel and Palestine.

·         King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia unambiguously reconfirming his 2002 pledge that the Arab world is prepared to enter into full normal relations with Israel upon its withdrawal from the lands occupied in 1967.

With everything that’s happened since, it’s easy to forget that this is almost exactly the proposal that Hamas and Fatah leaders united around on June 24. Polls in early June showed upwards of 90% support for it in the West Bank and Gaza, even though it clearly implied acceptance of Israel as a permanently existing and permanently Jewish state.

The next day a splinter group of Hamas militants, apparently intent on scuttling the peace plan, kidnapped an Israeli soldier. That gave Israeli leaders the excuse they wanted to attack Gaza and destroy the new chance for peace. The well-known Israeli commentator Danny Rubenstein explained at the time how his own government saw things: It is best that the Palestinians remain extremists because then no one will ask the government of Israel to negotiate with them. How do we ensure that the Palestinians remain radical? We simply strike at them, over and over.”

That part of the Israeli plan has worked just fine. Hamas political leader in exile Khaled Meshaal, who was edging toward giving the proposal a stamp of approval, quickly rejected it. Even Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, the top elected Hamas leader, stopped talking about peace negotiations as a meaningful prospect. Eventually, though, Hamas will have to start talking peace again.

To be sure, Scowcroft and Hamas don’t yet agree on everything. Scowcroft calls for “Palestinians giving up the right of return and Israel reciprocating by removing its settlements in the West Bank, again with rectifications as mutually agreed. Those displaced on both sides would receive compensation from the international community.” Selling the right of return for a price will be the toughest pill for Hamas to swallow at the negotiating table.

But Yassir Arafat once made it clear that he would be willing to go that far. Eventually Hamas pragmatists like Haniyeh would probably take the same route, and their people would follow. (Realistically, the vast majority in the West Bank and Gaza would rather have money than a new home in Haifa or Tel Aviv.)

Hamas would also object, with good reason, to Scowcroft’s call for Egypt and Saudi Arabia to work with the Palestinian Authority to put together a Palestinian government. The Palestinians already have a democratically elected government, which could function well enough if Israel would leave it alone. Scowcroft’s plan, which he says can be implemented only under U.S. leadership, is designed to keep the new Palestinian state under a pro-Western thumb. There’s no need for Hamas or any Palestinians to accept that piece of it.

Brent Scowcroft does not speak for the whole U.S. foreign policy establishment by any means, nor even for the whole “realist” branch he’s usually linked with. But he’s a figure to reckon with. In addition to his two stints as national security advisor, he spent years as vice chairman of Kissinger Associates. Now he runs his own outfit, The Scowcroft Group, and sits on the boards of a bunch of top-of-the-establishment foreign affairs organizations. As Christopher Hitchens wrote, “He's traditionally thought of as a very hawkish guy [a West Pointer who rose to general]. And a Mormon to boot.”

And the Washington Post is hardly endorsing his views simply by giving him space to air them. But when someone of such stature floats an idea in a newspaper of such stature, it puts the idea on the table in the corridors of Washington power.  The very fact that such a prestigious figure in such a prestigious newspaper proposes much the same plan that Hamas was ready to negotiate on signals a profound shift in the Middle East policy arena.

Hamas won’t be ready to return to this plan for a long time. It will have to assume an intransigent anti-Israel stance for quite a while in order to maintain its political standing. Palestinian public opinion is understandably too angry to listen to peace talk now. But the Hamas leaders have shown that they understand the bottom line: The kind of plan that they and Fatah and Scowcroft have all endorsed is the only viable option for the Palestinians, in the long run.

The hard part is to convince the Israelis and the Bush administration that they, too, have to take the Scowcroft-Hamas-Fatah path. It’s the path of reason and common sense. The only alternative is more carnage, more Qanas, and more Katyushas, forever.