An opening for Israeli-Palestinian peace?

Daniel Freedman thinks so, and even credits the Arab Spring — in a kind of backhand manner.  In yesterday’s New York Daily News, Freedman notes that incoming Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged to make Israeli-Palestinian peace talks a high priority, a traditional pledge that goes back for decades at Foggy Bottom.  Kerry has Barack Obama making his first state visit to Israel, though, and Freedman believes that an opening might exist:

One of the difficulties for those looking to maneuver Hamas into accommodation with Israel has been Iran’s patronage of Hamas. Iran had no interest in the group being anything other than leverage it could use against the West.

Today is different because unlike Iran, Hamas’ new patrons — Turkey, Egypt and Qatar — are in fact U.S. allies, with many shared interests. Turkey is a fellow NATO member, Qatar hosts U.S. Central Command in the region and the U.S. has substantial economic, military and diplomatic ties with Egypt.

They also all have incentives to play the mature peacemaker. Egypt needs to calm Western fears about the Muslim Brotherhood; Turkey needs to show that resuming its regional leadership role isn’t a threat to historical rivals; and Qatar’s efforts to sell itself as a positive force in the region and attract the West’s top universities and companies will only be helped by pushing peace.

If they choose to use it (as they did to force the ceasefire), the three have serious leverage over Hamas. Qatar, for instance, has pledged $400 million in aid to Gaza for development. It could get reversed. Egypt controls Gaza’s only non-Israel border. It can determine what goes into and out of the country. Turkey has been using its credibility on the Sunni street in support of Hamas’ present leadership. That could end.

The problem for me in this analysis is that two of these three players have grown more radical over the last two or three years.  Turkey has embraced Islamist politics, turning its back on Kemal Atatturk’s relentlessly secular vision of Turkish government, and Egypt speaks for itself.  It may be true that these are primarily Sunni versions of Islamism, but that’s not necessarily a large improvement over Iran’s Shi’ite version.  They may be friendlier to the West than Iran, but that position is an artifact of earlier, less Islamist governments.  We’ve noted Mohamed Morsi’s unedited thoughts on Israel and the Jews on more than one occasion.   These don’t exactly build confidence in Freedman’s hypothesis.

Still, all three want to do business with the West, and at least Turkey and Qatar knows that means a grudging acceptance of Israel’s place in the region — for now.  And they also know it means trying to get Hamas to put on a better face, at least, to take the pressure off:

In the Middle East, peace has repeatedly failed partly because radicals threatened to destroy anyone who dealt with Israel. What’s going on today, in the battle over the future of the Arab Spring, is a war between those who want to be part of the international system and those bent on overthrowing it.

Iran is in the latter camp — and until now, moderate Palestinians never had any powers in their corner. Until now.

I’m still not convinced that this is a meaningful change rather than a change in rhetoric, if even that, given Morsi’s recent history.  That doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try, and Obama must believe the same thing, or else he wouldn’t bother with the trip to Israel at this point.  He needs to assuage Israelis ahead of any negotiations in order to smooth the path for whatever concessions Obama and Kerry will demand.  Don’t expect much out of the effort, though, as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t get to this point just to concede on Israel’s legitimacy and existence.

On the other hand, what if Kerry pulls the rabbit out of the hat and actually succeeds within weeks of taking the job?  What exactly will that mean for the legacy of his predecessor at State?  It would tend to highlight the remarkable lack of accomplishment in Hillary Clinton’s tenure, would it not?

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