- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2006

VICTORIA, British Columbia. — Amidst all the brouhaha of the impending November midterm elections in the United States and given the preoccupation with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a major political development unfolded in Washington last week practically unnoticed.

Addressing the American Task Force on Palestine Inaugural Gala, Oct. 11, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice extended an olive branch to the radical Islamist Palestinian group, Hamas.

Said Miss Rice: “For decades, Hamas dwelled in the shadows, able to hijack the future of all Palestinians at will, without ever having to answer for its actions. Today, however, the Palestinian people and the international community can hold Hamas accountable. And Hamas now faces a hard choice that it has always sought to avoid: Either you are a peaceful political party, or a violent terrorist group — but you cannot be both.”

Read carefully between the lines. This is an invitation to Hamas to abandon arms in favor of dialogue and to join in efforts to revive the dead peace process. Hamas’ victory in last January’s election was the coup de grace to the dead peace talks.

“It is my belief, and that of President Bush,” said Miss Rice, “that when we look at the recent actions of radicals in Hamas and Hezbollah or at the violence of terrorists and militias in Iraq, or at the policies of governments like Syria or Iran, we are witnessing a campaign of extremism — not always commonly planned, but sharing a common purpose: to roll back the promise of a hopeful Middle East, where security, and freedom, and opportunity can expand.”

Notice Miss Rice avoided using the word “terrorists” when describing Hamas and Hezbollah, reserving it instead for those perpetrating violence in Iraq. That was no lapse of memory or slip of the tongue. It was, in all certainty, intended to send a clear message to the militant Palestinian faction that dialogue remains an option.

Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist as an independent and sovereign state. And since its election and the nomination of a Hamas party member as prime minister, the United States and the European Union have stopped nearly all financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. If the Palestinians were in dire straits before the elections, Hamas’ victory put them further up the creek and took the paddle away — at least from an economic viewpoint.

But Miss Rice told her audience, one she realized reached well beyond a Washington hotel hall, that the U.S. recently increased its “direct assistance to the Palestinians to $468 million a year, with much of that going to meet basic needs.” (Compare that to the $2.9 billion to $3 billion per year Washington gives Israel — $1.2 billion in economic aid and $1.8 billion in military aid.)

Still, Miss Rice said the United States wants “to help the Palestinian people to lay the economic foundations of a successful state.” Dreams do come true, she told her audience. “I know that sometimes a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with Israel must seem like a very distant dream. But I know too, as a student of international history, that there are so many things that once seemed impossible that, after they happened, simply seemed inevitable.”

Miss Rice’s optimism for a peaceful Middle East remained, nevertheless, mixed with a certain amount of realism. “These are, without a doubt, difficult and challenging times. And I know that the past few months have been especially trying. In many places across the region — from Lebanon and Iraq, to the Palestinian territories and Israel — the images of violence, the stories of suffering, the deaths of innocent people are hard for all of us to bear. They’re hard for me and I know that they are for you.”

Miss Rice said if peace is to prevail in the region “it is absolutely essential for leaders to be able to show, for moderate leaders to show, that their ideas, and their principles, and their vision for the future can offer a better alternative than violence and terrorism.”

The Palestinian people, said the secretary of state, deserve a better life rooted in liberty and democracy, “uncompromised by violence and terrorism, unburdened by corruption and misrule, and forever free of the daily humiliation of occupation.”

President Bush, said Miss Rice, became the first president to make creation of a Palestinian state “a matter of policy.” She said the United States is today endeavoring to keep its promise.

But the dream of a viable Palestinian state is not about to materialize anytime soon, at least not until all parties concerned can come to terms with the fact you can coexist alongside your neighbor, even if you choose not to ask him over to dinner.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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