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Raymond Barrett

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The Emir of Qatar's Gift to the Israeli People

Posted: 02/06/2013 7:32 pm

When the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamed Bin Thani publicly embraced Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya during a historic visit to Gaza late last year, Israel's political establishment quickly condemned the first "state visit" by an Arab leader since the militant group took control of the restive Palestinian territory.

While His Highness donated $400 million to the Hamas government to build roads, homes and a prosthetics center (more of which anon), his gift to Israel was perhaps more valuable: a wake-up-call to accept both the lessons of history and the new realities of a changed Middle East.

Prior to the recent Israeli elections, historians such as Zeev Sternhell had insisted that the extreme right had co-opted both Likud and Labor to such a degree that politicians on both sides were loath to appear weak on the Palestinian issue and thus compromise was out of the question.

But given the success of political newcomer Yair Lapid and his freshly-minted Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party in the January poll on a centrist platform of Palestinian engagement, it appears some in Israel are willing to listen to what the emir has to say.

The most important lesson is the simplest: if you want to stop violence, talk to those with the guns.

"But Hamas are rejectionists!" the editorial page of the Jerusalem Post roars back at those even contemplating such blasphemy, "Israel cannot deal with those who deny our right to exist!"

The second lesson builds immediately upon the first: no ideology is immovable. For the leaders of any rebel movement, divergence from the founding principle of resistance can be suicide, both figuratively and literally; therefore, caution must be exercised.

It was this internal struggle with Ireland's republican movement that the veteran journalist Ed Moloney captured in his book A Secret History of the IRA. Though it took decades, Sinn Fein leader (and alleged IRA Army Council member) Gerry Adams eventually wrested power from the more radical members of the group and set off on the road to peace.

Over time, "the struggle" evolved from an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Brighton to handshakes with Queen Elizabeth II in Belfast.

A sea change, for sure.

As such, Israeli politicians, both old and new, need to understand how best to support those within Hamas and Gaza's other militant groups with the least belligerent agenda towards Israel.

The answer could be relatively straightforward and luckily not a problem for your average Gulf petro-sheikh: money, and lots of it.

Grand bargains such as the Oslo Accords and the Good Friday Agreement are admirable, but nothing de-radicalizes a militant faster that turning him into a bureaucrat. And the more Hamas gets brought into humdrum task of governance, the more its leaders will be forced to act like bookkeepers rather than not bomb-makers.

Once Sinn Fein's leaders grew accustomed to St. Patrick's Day parties at the White House, Armalites and Cemtex were never going to hold the same allure.

"But what about the missile attacks on Beersheeba? They have to stop!" I hear the Post cry out again.

Again, history tells us that even a leadership contemplating peace may use occasional violence as a bargaining tool and as a means to ward off the inevitable internal allegations of weakness or betrayal.

Eventually, the more radicalized militants split off into a rainbow of new but weakened splinter groups, such as the Continuity IRA or the Real IRA, hell-bent on sabotaging any burgeoning peace efforts.

The trick is not to encourage them.

This leads us to Sheikh Hamad's second gift: a reminder that there are new realties in the region of which Israel's establishment seem blindingly ignorant.

Although the ostentatiously "pro-Israel" Mitt Romney admitted during the final presidential debate that "we can't kill our way out of this mess" when quizzed about the War on Terror, this has not stopped Israel trying the same tactic in Gaza.

Now we return to that prosthetics center funded by the emir, a shameful legacy of Israel's 2009 Operation Cast Lead. That attack, coupled with another bombardment in November 2012, has left a bloody trail of amputees long along the Mediterranean coast and hundreds more civilians dead and injured.

But such wholesale civilian slaughter can only further radicalize those within Gaza opposed to compromise while providing excellent recruiting propaganda for potential splinter groups.

"But by backing Hamas you undermine our boys in Fatah?" The Post finally sighs in desperation.

The other new reality for Israel to accept is that the political Islamism of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, out of which Hamas evolved, is a rising force across the region and no amount of 'ostrich politics' can make it go away.

Furthermore, the acquiescent Arab leaders the West has dealt with in the past are no longer the only game in town.

Within Hamas there are no doubt people whose ideas have no place in the 21st century (the same could be said of the Israeli cabinet), yet every Israeli Defense Force attack on Gaza only further strengthens the very people any sensible politician would want sidelined.

While the same argument is true in reverse, that every rocket from Gaza galvanizes extremists in Israel, one expects higher standards (and perhaps pragmatism) from a sovereign nation.

Between backing Libyan rebels, inviting Shimon Peres to Doha, bidding for the 2022 World Cup, hosting the U.S. military's regional HQ or having the Taliban over for tea, Qatar has shown a distinct taste for both pragmatism and tangible results -- qualities the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is in desperate need of, now more than ever.

Raymond Barrett is an Irish journalist and the author of Dubai Dreams: Inside the Kingdom of Bling. He has written on the Middle East for The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, Haaretz, Ireland's Sunday Business Post and newspapers across the region. He has also appeared as a guest commentator on Al Jazeera, Newstalk (Ireland) and the Voice of Russia.

 

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