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Monday, May 7, 2007

What the US Needs to Learn from Norway Concerning the Middle East

The below article is offered for this purpose: The US states that it is doing all it can to bring peace to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, when indeed, all that the US is doing is throwing their towel in with the heavy-handed tactics of Israel. On the other hand, they also claim that the "recognition of Israel" by Hamas is a prerequisite to abandoning the boycott of Palestine. Much has been written about what the recognition of Israel means to the Palestinians, and THIS subject also needs to be addressed. A passage from that article: (please read full article to understand the complexity of premising negotiations on this prerequisite or continuing to work towards that goal as even Norway seems to be doing)

"There is an enormous difference between "recognizing Israel's existence" and "recognizing Israel's right to exist." From a Palestinian perspective, the difference is in the same league as the difference between asking a Jew to acknowledge that the Holocaust happened and asking him to concede that the Holocaust was morally justified. For Palestinians to acknowledge the occurrence of the Nakba – the expulsion of the great majority of Palestinians from their homeland between 1947 and 1949 – is one thing. For them to publicly concede that it was "right" for the Nakba to have happened would be something else entirely. For the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, the Holocaust and the Nakba, respectively, represent catastrophes and injustices on an unimaginable scale that can neither be forgotten nor forgiven."

What Norway knows and the US must learn

Rami Khouri
May 8, 2007
Page 1 of 2 |

US SECRETARY of State Condoleezza Rice's "hello" to the Iranian Foreign Minister and her brief "businesslike" meeting with the Syrian Foreign Minister at the international conference on Iraq in Egypt have generated considerable international attention. I join those who see these two gestures as small but significant steps towards a more rational American foreign policy in the Middle East.

It is important to acknowledge when the United States does something sensible in the world, because this happens relatively rarely in the Middle East. In this case, Washington is showing important new strains of maturity, realism and composure that have long been absent from its arsenal. Whatever the reason for the slow revisions in American policy, the change is to be welcomed. Those to whom the United States says hello should respond with a gracious "and hello to you too, Ma'am," so that simple courtesies can quickly move towards serious dialogue that leads to meaningful diplomatic negotiations for mutually satisfying policy changes on all sides.

The real significance of Rice and her staff's assorted interactions with the Syrians and Iranians is not mainly about the impact on Iraq, but rather in affirming — in this case, at least — the ineffectiveness and futility of boycotts and sanctions as serious foreign policy tools. The change of policy towards Syria and Iran only highlights the continued nonsensical American-Israeli-European policy towards the elected Government in Palestine, which has evolved into a national unity government comprising Fatah, Hamas and some key independents.

Rice met the Palestinian Finance Minister in Washington a few weeks ago, but that was not a real change of policy; it was merely a sleight-of-hand magician's trick that did not change reality, but only fostered an optical illusion. The continued boycott of that part of the elected Palestinian Government led by Hamas is not achieving anything useful, and is only making things worse for all, as pressures and resentments build up in Palestine and the tenuous ceasefire with Israel slowly collapses.

One country that has gone against the prevalent Israeli-American-European trend of boycotting the elected Palestinian Government is Norway, which has maintained contacts with Hamas and the entire Government for years. Norway

is a very sensible place, run by thoughtful, reasonable people who are not prone to extremes in any direction. So I thought it was worthwhile finding out more from knowledgeable Norwegians, in and out of government, about their experience with the Palestinians and Hamas, and why they have remained in touch with Hamas and the elected Government.

Several relevant points emerge from the Norwegian experience and perspective. In principle, the Oslo mind-set says, contacts should be maintained with all relevant parties in a dispute, other than out-and-out criminals such as al-Qaeda. Political groups that use violence but also represent real political constituencies should be engaged with a view to changing their policies ultimately, as Norway has done, for example, in mediating between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Government. Boycotting eliminates the possibility of prodding militant groups to evolve politically, and thus is not useful.

In the case of Hamas and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is also the issue of balance in the demands of both sides. It is reasonable to ask the Palestinians to end armed resistance, political violence and terror against civilians, but such an approach is not very credible or effective if it punishes the political violence of one side only.

In practical terms, the boycott of Hamas and the Hamas-led coalition Government has failed, the thinking goes among Norwegians who follow this closely and know both sides intimately. The boycott has destroyed Palestinian institutions, increased poverty and hopelessness, radicalised elements of the population, badly damaged the internal Palestinian security situation, and made the ceasefire with Israel more vulnerable to breach and collapse. The boycott has steadily undercut Palestinian moderates, and is likely to fuel further extremism.

The integrity and credibility of the Palestinian Government as a whole has declined, but Hamas as an organisation remains strong, and may have become stronger in the past year, especially since forming the unity government that it had called for immediately after winning the elections in

early 2006. Those in Norway who support the policy of engaging the Hamas-led Government also sense that Hamas officials have moved forward in the past two years, towards an ultimate possible recognition of Israel, but this tentative trajectory would not continue if Hamas were boycotted totally. It would also move more quickly if Israel made reciprocal moves towards recognising a viable Palestinian state, rather than recognising only the PLO.

Finally, some Norwegians question the appropriateness of the United Nations' slightly contradictory position towards the Hamas-led Government — adhering to the boycott of Hamas by the quartet (the United States, European Union, Russia and the UN) until the Palestinian Government accepts the three principles laid down by the quartet, while also meeting some Hamas Government officials. One problem with the UN adhering to the quartet position is the fact that the UN Security Council did not take up this issue, nor did the UN make relevant demands of Israel to balance the quartet demands of the Palestinians.

The Norwegian position is all the more useful to learn from in view of the apparent slow shift in American policy towards speaking to Syria and Iran.

Rami G. Khouri is director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and editor-at-large of the Beirut Daily Star.


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