The Middle East: What Next?

Heidi Levine/Sipa
A Palestinian praying by the ruins of his house, Jabalya, Gaza, January 26, 2009

On the eve of the war in Gaza, Robert Malley and Hussein Agha wrote “How Not to Make Peace in the Middle East” [NYR, January 15], a critical review of US policies in the region during the Clinton and Bush years, and a call for a new approach. On January 24, a few days after the end of the conflict, Malley spoke to Hugh Eakin about its consequences. Following are excerpts of the interview, which is available in full at nybooks.test/podcasts.

Hugh Eakin: In Gaza, does Hamas retain the ability to govern?

Robert Malley: All the reporting we’ve been getting, both during and after the war, is that, for all the massive destruction and the large number of victims, Hamas’s authority has not been eroded. They have reasserted it, sometimes ruthlessly, since the end of the war. They are back, policing the streets. Of course, they don’t have the same means they had in terms of police stations, and basic infrastructure of government. But in terms of asserting authority, there is really no political alternative today in Gaza that could challenge Hamas. And so if the objective of the war was to weaken Hamas’s grip on Gaza, that failed.

H.E.: Should the US have contact with Hamas?

R.M.: I’ve never advocated direct engagement with Hamas, because we know the political realities here. My argument is different. What I say is that we have to start from a factual realization that the policies of the last two years have not only failed to achieve their objectives. They often produced the precise opposite of what we sought to promote.

If we start from that, then we have to think about how we should deal with Hamas and Gaza differently. And that doesn’t necessarily mean for the US to start treating Hamas the way it treats Fatah. But it does mean that it’s going to be very hard to have a political agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, or genuine stability, if they are not somehow part of that political equation.

Now maybe it means for the US to take a less interventionist approach toward domestic Palestinian politics; maybe it means for the US to take a less obstructionist approach, when other third parties—whether it’s the Europeans or the Arabs—seek to reconcile the Palestinians, and in doing so, engage with Hamas. Maybe it means for the US to take a less hostile view toward the emergence of a potential, putative new unity government among Palestinians, and say, as the Europeans now are hinting, that they would judge it by what it does, rather than by the ideological position of its membership. I think those are steps that the Obama administration should consider.

H.E.: How do you see the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy to…

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