Middle East envoy must talk to everyone

By Cecilie Surasky
13 Feb 2009

A long-standing conflict divided people according to their religion and nationality, causing enormous pain and claiming many civilian lives. The US sent an envoy with a strong conviction.

That conviction was that "there is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings."

Senator George Mitchell, now American special envoy to the Middle East for the Obama administration, needed patience and determination to help broker an agreement in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s. And he did.

A key to his success was his ability to talk to all parties in the conflict, including those connected with paramilitaries. For instance, he engaged Sinn Fein - the political wing of the Irish Republican Army - even before they agreed to lay down their weapons, weapons that had killed not just soldiers but civilians.

Why? Because they were there. They had political power. And just as they held the power to harm others, they also had the power to stop harming others. And so without them, there would be no solution.

The conviction of Jewish Voice for Peace is that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Senator Mitchell now needs to talk with everyone, with Israel, with the Palestinian Authority, and with Hamas.

Talking to everyone does not mean denying the very real suffering experienced by both Israelis and Palestinians, suffering caused by the various involved parties.

It does mean acknowledging they have political power. And that just as they have the power to harm others, they have shown they have the power to hold their fire. Excluding any of these parties would make it literally impossible to reach a peace agreement.

Tony Blair saw first-hand the positive effects of the Northern Ireland agreement. He saw what it took to get the IRA to lay down their weapons, and he knows what it will take to get Hamas to do the same. In reference to Gaza, he said that his "basic predisposition is that in a situation like this you talk to everybody."

The late Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban would have concurred, saying "You make peace by talking to your enemies." So do a large number of American Jews: 76% said last summer that they supported negotiations even with Israel's "worst enemies."

Jewish Voice for Peace and Just Foreign Policy have been calling for talks with Hamas for some time. In the Spring of 2008, both organizations collected thousands of signatures in support of President Carter's call to that effect, a call he has since renewed.

Talking with some and not to others while sealing off Gaza has been tried for a number of years. This has brought immeasurable suffering to the besieged Palestinians in Gaza and great trauma to the citizens of Sderot in Israel. We need change.

We hope many people will sign the Open Letter we have prepared for President Barack Obama, asking him to lift the blockade of Gaza and to talk with all the parties in the conflict, and that they will ask their like-minded friends to do the same.

The Open Letter is here: http://tinyurl.com/dxv53x

(c) Cecilie Surasky is the Communications Director for Jewish Voice for Peace (http://www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org/).

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