The new violence and instability in Palestinian territories is very serious and presents enormous new challenges for U.S. foreign policy. But the situation is not hopeless.
Some experts are finding a silver lining in the split of the Palestinian territories into two defacto governments (with Gaza run by Hamas and the West Bank run by Fatah). With Hamas in control of Gaza, they will now have to prove they can actually govern and provide basic public services or they will lose popular support.
In the West Bank, the Fatah government led by Mahmoud Abbas now has a chance to shed its corrupt, ineffective past and prove to the Palestinians that they too can govern and provide basic public services. The split means the U.S., which shut off funding to prevent money from going to Hamas, can again fund Palestinian development, at least in the West Bank.
Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and current head of the Saban Center for Middle East Polocy at the Brookings Institution, went so far as to say the success of Hamas in Gaza may have been part of a larger plan by Abbas to force the current situation.
What does all this mean for U.S. foreign policy?
1. We have to remember that the credibility of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East is very low. American rhetoric and actions seem to send a message to people in the region that America, and the Bush Administration in particular, is anti-Muslim and actually wants there to be ongoing instability in the Middle East. I think this perception is wrong, but we are kidding ourselves if we think the perception doesn't matter.
Therefore, we cannot likely play our traditional role of leading massive peace talks and forging or coercing compromise among various parties in the region. We may need to find a new role of giving strong support from the sidelines of talks led by others. And pitching in with economic and private sector support behind whatever agreement others can hammer out.
In Lebanon, for example, new French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner is leading a peace effort. And the most important role for the U.S. may be to simply stay out of the way.
2. We need to re-double our efforts to stop lumping all Islamic extremist groups into a single category. Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, and others have separate demands, interests, tactics, and goals. None of them may love America, but that does not mean they all actively seek to destroy America. However, if we make them all pariahs and act as if they are all the same, we will be pushing them to work together and adopt each other's goals.
Political campaign consultants in America are brilliant at finding "wedge issues" designed to drive American voters apart from each other (like "gay marriage" or the "death tax"). So why can't we draw the same, smart distinctions among groups we see as our enemies? Why can't we exploit their differences to keep them from seeing each other as allies?