Local focus on global flare-up

Israel

By Julian Wise - March 2, 2006

More than 90 people gathered at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center on Sunday, Jan. 29 to hear a formidable gathering of intellectual capital discuss current developments in the Middle East. The recent election of the Hamas-led government in the Palestinian Territories has put additional pressure on a vexing political situation made all the more volatile by the incapacitation of Ariel Sharon.

William Ganson, local representative of the progressive peace organization Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (the Jewish Alliance for Peace and Justice), led a panel that included Representative William Delahunt, Professor Herbert C. Kellman (The Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Emeritus at Harvard University), and law professor David Matz (Director of the Graduate Program in Dispute Resolution at the University of Massachusetts/Boston). While the panelists had divergent views on the prospects for peace, the consensus was that the rise of Hamas requires cautious, measured action rather than a hasty response.

Congressman Delahunt, a member of the House International Relations committee, shared his perspectives on the current difficulties in the Middle East. When he and Mr. Gamson planned the panel discussion last August, neither anticipated Ariel Sharon's paralyzing stroke or the election victory of Hamas. Mr. Delahunt calls the rise of Hamas a "cataclysmic event," yet cautions against abandoning the Roadmap to Peace set out by the United States and Europe.

"This has shaped the situation dramatically, and we need to redraw the roadmap," he said. While he predicts no early swift return to negotiations between Israel and the Hamas-led Palestinians, he cautions against a policy of unilateral disengagement. "It's vitally important to stay engaged and have dialogue," he said. "If we don't talk, we lose ground."

Mr. Delahunt said his experience visiting the region and sifting through opinion polls has convinced him that the majority of the people on both sides of the conflict are exhausted by violence and want to achieve a lasting peace. "I think people simply want to do what people like to do - work and spend time with their family," he said. "It's the responsibility of the United States to maximize and leverage this desire."

Professor Kellman mused that the current situation presents new uncertainties and challenges, "as if the previous situation wasn't challenging enough." He said he believes that while negotiations between Israel and Hamas are not possible at the moment, Israel shouldn't give up on the dialogue process. Professor Kellman encourages engaging moderates within Hamas, conceivably through unofficial and indirect channels. While he understands the reluctance of donor nations to support a Palestinian leadership that has made terrorism and the avowed destruction of Israel its modus operandi, Professor Kellman advises against punishing the Palestinian population at large with boycotts and aid cutoffs. He recommends providing aid to non-governmental organizations that can help the population directly without diverting funds to Hamas.

Professor Matz observed the uncertainty in the wake of the election, saying, "We don't know what Hamas is going to do. Hamas doesn't know what Hamas is going to do." The professor expressed concern with the initial statements from Hamas, including the announcement of Sharia law that would curb the rights of women in the Palestinian Territories. The Hamas charter explicitly states that there will be no Jews in Allah's land. There is an inherent contradiction between a secular society (Palestinians) electing a religious organization (Hamas), and Professor Matz cautioned that hasty moves against the Palestinians could drive the country into the arms of Iran in a client state relationship similar to pro and anti-communist blocs during the Cold War.

Congressman Delahunt had critical words for the current state of America's foreign relations: "Our foreign policy has been characterized by lecturing instead of listening." But he refused to see the current Middle Eastern situation as hopeless. "We have to go slow," he said. "Do not push. The last thing we want to do is create more poverty. There's only so much poverty democracy can sustain. Maybe it's my innate sense of hope that things will get better, but I see this as an incredible opportunity."

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.