Mideast Openings

By David Ignatius
Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Bush administration is coming to a crunch point soon in the two biggest conflicts in the Middle East -- the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate and the struggle to create a stable Iraq. In each case, we can see the limits of military power in combating the "bad guys" who the administration believes are obstructing the path to peace.

The conundrum in Palestine is how to deal with Hamas, the militant Islamist group that controls Gaza. By firing rockets into Israel and provoking a punishing Israeli response, Hamas has nearly torpedoed the Annapolis peace process. It is a ruthless and unyielding organization but has strong support in Gaza, and, as Israel has discovered, it has been impossible to destroy militarily.

So what to do? Last week, Vice President Cheney and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert repeated the conventional line that Hamas is a threat to peace and that Israel should not negotiate with its representatives. But Egypt is holding talks with Hamas with the aim of negotiating a cease-fire -- and I haven't noticed either Israel or the United States demanding that the Egyptians stop their mediation.

An Israeli who challenges the conventional wisdom about Hamas is Efraim Halevy, former head of his nation's celebrated spy service, the Mossad. In a March 19 interview on al-Jazeera's English-language channel, he called for an opening to Hamas to try to reach a cease-fire. "I believe Hamas is a force on the ground. I believe we have to deal with realities," Halevy told al-Jazeera. "This is the moment to try to engage them and see if some kind of interim arrangement can be found."

Halevy elaborated on his proposal in a telephone interview Thursday. He said that a formal exchange with Hamas around a negotiating table is unlikely; the two sides are too angry and entrenched. What's possible instead is a "listening dialogue," in which each side responds indirectly to the other.

Halevy set three conditions for a viable cease-fire: It can't include the West Bank, where Palestinian security forces aren't strong enough yet to stop terrorism; it can't simply be a "momentary pause" that allows Hamas to regroup and rearm for the next round of fighting; and it must include some political discussion about the future, probably conducted through Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli government analysts doubt that Hamas is interested in anything more than a limited, conditional lull, and they worry that another round of fighting may be inevitable. But what then? Even the most hawkish Israelis don't want to reoccupy Gaza, which means that at some point, a truce must be reached.

In Iraq, the "bad guys" are the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia that is nominally loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr. The fledgling Iraqi military, with strong U.S. support, is battling Sadr's forces in Basra. This fight is crucial in establishing the credibility of the Iraqi army, but we shouldn't idealize the Basra conflict -- or forget the political reality of intra-Shiite fighting that underlies it.

Here's how complicated the Basra battle is: The Iraqi army is loyal to the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who represents the Shiite faction known as the Dawa Party. The army is fighting against Sadr's Mahdi Army, in some areas against the Badr Organization of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and against a hodgepodge of other local Shiite militias and gangs. To make matters more complicated, all three main combatants have some support from Iran.

Sadr is America's enemy, for now. But his power base among poor Shiites is as hard to eradicate as is that of Hamas in Gaza. And it's hard to imagine a stable future Iraq that doesn't have support from the poor Shiites who follow Sadr. A sign of their power is the rising last week in Shiite neighborhoods of eastern Baghdad. If the Shiite community en masse goes into the streets, the American mission is effectively finished; we can't fight 60 percent of the people.

Sadr wants to fight, but he also wants to talk. I'm told that he sent a verbal message through an Iraqi intermediary last month to Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq. The gist of the message was that the Mahdi Army in the Baghdad area was no longer under Sadr's control but Iran's. The United States apparently didn't answer this message, but at some point, through some channel, America will need to talk with Sadr and the forces he represents.

We tend to think about conflict as an either/or proposition. Either we negotiate peace, or we destroy the enemy militarily. But in the Middle East, as Gen. John Abizaid, the retired chief of Central Command, liked to observe, it's often a matter of fighting and talking. Right now, we do too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company