The Economist (Editorial)
January 23, 2009 - 1:00am

FRANCE’S president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has a reputation for letting his enthusiasm run away with him. Having rushed with other European heads of government to the Middle East to douse the flames of Gaza, he returned home with a characteristically grandiose idea. Now that a truce seems to be taking hold, he wants, “within weeks”, to convene a peace conference to begin solving the whole conflict once and for all.

Impetuosity can be a dangerous thing in diplomacy. One reason for the failure of Israel and the Palestinians to make peace at Camp David in 2000 was a lack of adequate preparation by Bill Clinton. And Mr Sarkozy would certainly be a fool to rush in before co-ordinating any proposal with Barack Obama. But the French president’s main insight is correct: the aftermath of the Gaza war is as good a moment as any—and maybe even better than many—to breathe new urgency into broader peacemaking in the Middle East.

This is because nothing focuses minds faster than a war. Gaza is only the latest bloody reminder that when this particular conflict is left to smoulder, it tends to ignite with a bang, the reverberations of which travel far beyond Palestine itself. The anger on the Arab street has shaken pro-American Arab regimes such as Egypt’s and will hinder Mr Obama’s efforts to open a friendlier chapter in America’s relations with Islam.

All of this strengthens the case for Mr Obama to do what he has promised and tackle the Arab-Israeli conflict right away. There is, however, an argument against. This holds that the present circumstances are in fact all wrong. When Mr Clinton was president, the Palestinians still had what they used to call a sole, legitimate representative in the person of Yasser Arafat, who said he accepted the permanence of Israel. How can diplomacy work now that the Palestinians are split between Fatah in the West Bank and, in Gaza, the Islamists of Hamas who say they reject the very idea of peace with a Jewish state?

The answer to this excellent question is not to put diplomacy on hold. Nor is it to pretend, as George Bush did, that Fatah can make peace with Israel as though Hamas did not exist. Instead, American, European and Arab diplomacy should now join forces to mend the Palestinian schism. The peacemakers are not without tools. Hamas held a hollow “victory” parade this week (see article), but Israel’s rampage through Gaza’s streets and skies may have reduced the allure of “armed struggle” in the eyes of both the movement’s leaders and its followers. The right mixture of pressure and inducements, including an end to Gaza’s economic blockade, might well tempt Hamas back into a unity government, not least because it stands a fair chance of controlling such a government when next there are elections in both Gaza and the West Bank.
The test of the settlements

Would it be a disaster if Hamas won? Only if it stood by its rejectionist creed. Yet Fatah too once called for the destruction of Israel, and changed its mind. Hamas even now sends out enough hints of pragmatism to make it worth seeing whether it can be induced to undertake a similar ideological journey. But—and here is the other immediate job for the peacemakers—Hamas will not be induced to compromise unless the prospect of a Palestinian state begins to look real. To that end, Mr Obama needs to make it clear, preferably before Israel’s election next month, that America will no longer countenance Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank. The Jewish settlements there should never have been built, and Israel has promised to freeze them. This has become a test. If Mr Obama cannot hold Israel to its promise, his chances of restoring America’s standing as the indispensable mediator in this conflict are nil.


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