The Monitor's View

Embers of Mideast peace in Gaza

Obama might find small opportunities to build up trust. He can't afford not to.

By

With the Gaza war at a strategic pause with a cease-fire, hopes for peace may now depend on Barack Obama's likely point man for the Middle East, Dennis Ross. He promises a new style of "statecraft" in dealing with Israeli-Palestinian issues. His usual first tactic after such flare-ups is to look for small steps to rebuild trust. But is there any trust to come out of the ruins of Gaza?

Yes, once the world decides to look for it and if a declining number of peacemakers on both sides don't give up hope for a solution.

For right now, though, Israel stands accused by many observers of being too careless in its military targeting to avoid civilian casualties during its 22-day bombardment. And Hamas faces an even more onerous charge of purposely putting Gazans in harm's way while also aiming rockets at Israeli citizens. Both camps will also seem callous if their maneuvers hinder international aid that is urgently needed for the 1.5 million Gazans.

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But such issues must not stop the incoming Ross school of statecraft – honed under President Clinton – from finding opportunities to build up the confidence of those who want an ultimate settlement leading to a Palestinian state. Cynics will play the usual postwar game of winners and losers, but that doesn't bring Israelis and Palestinians any closer to learning how to live next to each other.

The first opportunity coming out of this war is a chance for some reconciliation between the two major Palestinian factions. Without that first, peace is elusive.

A weakened Hamas, which put its people at risk and then didn't fight very hard, will now need to find a rapprochement with the rival Fatah party, headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in the West Bank. To achieve that, Egypt has offered to broker a deal – although it must do so with the help of the Obama administration and Saudi Arabia.

A second opportunity lies in gaining Egypt's trust in allowing the US and other powers to use their technical expertise to keep rockets from flowing to Hamas through tunnels from the Egyptian side of Gaza. The Bush administration – with Mr. Obama's approval – promised Israel last week that it would make sure Egypt can control that border. If it wants to rein in radical Islam in the Middle East, Egypt will play along.

A third opportunity lies in a possible opening to Iran. Israel's surprising use of massive force to hit Hamas structures is a blow not only to Hamas but also to its regional supporters, especially Iran. It sent a message that Israel will hit Iran hard if Israel sees a nuclear threat. If Obama wants to open talks with Iran, now may be the time to do so.

Just as the 2006 Israeli attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon left that border in relative peace up to now, the Gaza war may create a period of calm for diplomacy to work. In both those wars, Israel sent a message that no Palestinian state can be created if it is going to be used for attacks on Israel.

After the Gaza war, Mr. Ross may find more acceptance of Israel among Middle East states. He may also find Israelis more willing to help Palestinians. True to his craft, he can use these sentiments to build up trust, step by step.

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