Hillary Clinton’s first visit to the region as United States secretary of state registered one clear achievement, albeit seemingly a marginal one: a step toward closer American engagement with Syria. As for the focus of her visit, the Palestinian issue, the outcome is bleak. The effort to galvanize financial aid to the Gaza Strip without compromising Washington’s refusal to deal with Hamas and all the while advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace has little chance of succeeding.
The "side visit" to Damascus by two senior administration officials is important. We recall that the administration’s special envoy to the Israel-Arab sphere, George Mitchell, did not stop in Damascus in the course of his first visit a few weeks ago. If US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro of the National Security Council were able to lay the initial foundations for American re-involvement in an Israel-Syria peace process, however long and tortuous it may yet be, even the potential benefits for the Israeli-Palestinian track are not insignificant.
In contrast, last week’s Sharm al-Sheikh conference seemed like an expensive attempt to square a circle. Plenty of new aid money was pledged to Gaza reconstruction. But it will be forthcoming only if Hamas can be induced to enter a new unity government based on its acceptance of the three famous Quartet conditions concerning recognition of Israel’s right to exist, renunciation of violence and acceptance of past agreements. Or if some other way can be found to return Palestinian Authority forces and officials to the Gaza Strip so that they and not Hamas will administer the funds. All this, against a backdrop of unsuccessful attempts by Egypt and others to anchor a new Israel-Hamas ceasefire and prisoner exchange.
Clinton, who represents new and strong American leadership, confronts in Israel and Palestine varieties of leadership that are either weak or uncooperative. Her chances of working successfully with one or the other are slim. In Israel, the Olmert government is in its final days, while the new Netanyahu government is going to hold the Palestinian Authority and PLO to standards that are liable to preclude any constructive engagement, while defending settler interests.
In Palestine, the resignation of PM Salam Fayyad is not likely to prove sufficient to facilitate the establishment of a unity government that sanitizes the delivery of aid to Gaza. Indeed, the US has signaled that it intends to work with no one else but Fayyad, while Hamas, which emerged from the recent war stronger than ever politically, is not about to forego power in the Strip.
Hence it is difficult to find much joy in the decision of the donors’ conference to pour billions of dollars into Gaza reconstruction. The approximately $4.4 billion pledged at Sharm al-Sheikh last week (for the West Bank as well as Gaza) is reminiscent of the $3 billion that Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn recruited for Gaza back in the summer of 2005, when Israel withdrew both its settlements and its army from the Strip. That money had far fewer strings attached to it: all the PA had to do was administer the Strip in a reasonable manner. But it failed.
Now the obstacles are Hamas, a unity government and a ceasefire. When it comes to Gaza, the Palestinian state-building effort has regressed over the past four years. That means it is extremely problematic to base American hopes and intentions on repeat exercises like donors’ conferences and unity governments that proved abortive in the past.
The Obama administration has started out on the right foot in the Middle East with its innovative appointments of distinguished emissaries, planned withdrawal from Iraq and openings to Syria and Iran. It has to recognize that new policies are required in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere as well. It should take another look at the US approach to Hamas. And it should prepare to get very tough very quickly with the Netanyahu government on issues concerning settlements in the West Bank.