June 20, 2007
"Hello, Condoleezza Rice," the Hamas gunman joked, speaking into the President Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen)’s phone from the Palestinian Authority president’s chair in his abandoned Gaza office. "You have to deal with me now, there is no Abu Mazen anymore."
Never a truer word spoken in jest, and all that…
But the Bush administration doesn’t get the joke. Bush and Condi would now have us believe that in fact some kind of opportunity has arisen to promote "peace" between Israel and the Palestinians by starving the Gazans and ignoring the political party in which Palestinian voters placed their confidence 18 months ago, while pumping cash into a new authoritarian regime under U.S. tutelage headed by Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. The Administration has "no good options", the New York Times tells us, although the truth is that’s only if you accept the limits set by the Administration’s extremists who have ruled out the obvious option — talking to Hamas. (Gasp!) Spare me the adolescent rubbish about not being able to talk to people who don’t recognize Israel — Mahmoud Abbas’s own Fatah movement only did so in 1998, five years after the Oslo Accords were concluded. (The U.S.-backed Iraqi government, by the way, is led by a coalition whose basic political platform includes non-recognition of Israel.) Hamas has made clear ever since winning the election that it wants to engage with the West, most recently in a New York Times op-ed from a key adviser to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. It is the U.S. that has — to the point of criminal irresponsibility — refused to consider it.
Veterans of the peace process, such as Rob Malley and Aaron David Miller, simply roll their eyeballs at the Bush administration’s apparently bottomless capacity to believe its own delusions despite all countervailing evidence.
But Paul Woodward makes a persuasive case that this was not merely an ad hoc response — the rapidity with which the new policy fell into place was a sure sign that it follows a script long in the making in the White House Mideast policy shop of Elliot Abrams, seasoned veteran of Reagan’s Dirty Wars in Latin America during the 1980s.
The new policy is dysfunctional and ultimately self defeating because it is based on eight connected fallacies:
Fallacy #1: Mahmoud Abbas is legitimate; Hamas is not
Ever since Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections 18 months ago, Washington has insisted that President Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a Abu Mazen) remains the sole legitimate leader of the Palestinians. Abbas was certainly democratically elected back in 2005, although it was not exactly a competitive election. The only challengers that would have represented a credible alternative in voters’ eyes — Hamas, and imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti (who, opinion polls found, would have handily trounced Abbas if he’d made good on his threat to run), stayed out of the race. But when Hamas entered the legislative elections six months later, it swept home in a stunning repudiation of Abbas and Fatah. Still, Hamas did not deny Abbas’s legitimacy; it simply demanded that it’s own, based on a democratic mandate, be recognized.
Hamas from the moment it won the election sought a unity government with Fatah; it was the corrupt old guard of Fatah that refused to accept the verdict of the electorate. As Danny Rubinstein noted in Haaretz last week, "The primary reason for the break-up is the fact that Fatah, headed by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, has refused to fully share the PA’s mechanism of power with its rival Hamas - in spite of Hamas’ decisive victory in the January 2006 general elections."
Rubinstein continues: "Fatah was forced to overrule the Palestinian voters because the entire world demanded it do so. The United States, the European nations, most of the Arab leaders and, of course, the State of Israel, warned Fatah not to share power with Hamas."
Even after last week’s events in Gaza, Hamas recognizes Abbas’s legitimacy as President. But it contests the legality of his installing a new emergency government that excludes Hamas. Abbas may be "legitimate" in Western eyes, and those of the Arab regimes as averse to democracy as Fatah has been, but the actions he has taken at the behest of Bush and Rice have little legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian street. Washington assumes that if Abbas can be bolstered as a kind of Palestinian Musharraf, given plenty of cash to buy support, that the Palestinians can be persuaded to accomodate themselves to Israel’s terms. There’s nothing in reality to indicate that this is a valid assumption. And look at Musharraf now.
Fallacy #2: Hamas Launched a Coup Against the Legitimate Government in Gaza
No, Hamas is the legitimate government in Gaza, and in the West Bank for that matter. There may be a debate to be had over whether its decision to move against Fatah’s militias was ill-considered, but there’s no question in the minds of Hamas — and even of many Fatah activists in Gaza and the West Bank — that its target was not the government or the Fatah organization, but a political-military faction within Fatah headed by the warlord Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian Pinochet figure backed to the hilt by the U.S. The Observer’s reporting seems to back this up, stressing that the speed of Hamas’s victory was a result of the fact that it’s assault targeted Dahlan and his organization, and left many other Fatah figures untouched. Some of these figures continue to cooperate with Hamas in Gaza, and the "new government" in the West Bank is threatening to withhold their salaries as punishment.
In a superb, detailed analysis, Mark Perry of Conflicts Forum points out: "Last week, many Fatah members in Gaza stood aside, aghast and angry as their American-trained cohorts marched into the Strip (only to just as quickly flee) — and these Fatah loyalists who are not supporters of Dahlan continue to work with their counterparts in Hamas. A Fatah militia has been defeated, but rank and file Fatah members are not being lined up against walls, or herded into camps. Newspapers are not being closed or businesses shuttered. Schools are not being told what to teach and there is no purge. This is not an Islamic revolution but simply a political party attempting to defend itself against the militia of an unelected warlord backed by foreign powers. Not only is life returning to normal, people are now breathing much easier. The instability and violence that marked life in Gaza over the last few months is gone, in large part because the soldiers of the Preventive Security Services are gone."
Dahlan refused to accept the unity government brokered by the Saudis, and made his opposition intolerable to Hamas when he refused to subject the security forces under his command, armed and trained by the U.S., to the legitimate Palestinian unity government as agreed between Hamas and Fatah. And Dahlan was plainly not following orders from Abbas, but pursuing agendas of his own, and others.
Fallacy #3: Fatah Offers a Viable Alternative to Hamas
Fatah’s defeat at the polls last January, and its military rout last week in Gaza, are symptoms not simply of corruption and organizational decay, but of the political failure that has allowed those conditions to fester. Rubinstein, again: "The Palestinians, like people in many other places, are prepared to forgive corruption, as long as the leaders do well by the people and bring them prosperity and well-being. The problem that Abu Mazen, Dahlan and Fatah have is that they have dragged their people down to a terrible low point, to a life of poverty, distress and siege. The political track that they have followed for decades, especially since the recognition of Israel in the summer of 1988, has led to a dead end. The blame for this dead end certainly falls on Israel, but what interests the battered Palestinian public is the fact that their leaders, who had pinned their hopes on Israel, have led them into this situation."
That, rather than simply corruption, was the reason Hamas won the election in the first place — Fatah no longer had anything to offer; it had placed all of its eggs in the White House basket, only to discover that the White House had aligned itself entirely with Ariel Sharon and had no intention of pushing Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders. Abbas was feted by the Bush Administration precisely because he seemed to offer the promise of ensuring Palestinian quiescence in exchange for baubles. It would have been abundantly clear to Fatah activists for years that their leaders were not following any sort of national program; they were simply in it for themselves. As Malley and Miller put it, "unlike Hamas, Fatah has ceased to exist as an ideologically or organizationally coherent movement. Behind the brand name lie a multitude of offshoots, fiefdoms and personal interests."
Pouring money into the unreconstructed corpse of Fatah is likely only to have monstrous effects. Even the likes of Dennis Ross are warning that if it is to be done, it must be on the basis of Abbas rooting out corruption. But whatever good intentions are mouthed at the handover, the point is that the corruption will be most rife among the very security services and warlords on whom the U.S. strategy is going to depend for its success. It’s a safe bet that the venality of those answering to Washington will be overlooked because of the security it is deemed to provide.
But the Palestinians have had a taste of democracy; they’re unlikely to accept outsiders telling them who their leaders are any more. The idea that any sort of peace agreement can be concluded between Israel and the Palestinians while ignoring the party the Palestinians elected to govern them is a particularly dangerous fantasy.
Fallacy #4: Abbas Can Impose His Will on the Palestinians
Let’s just say the affable Abu Mazen is not exactly Central Casting’s idea of a Middle Eastern "strongman," and what Washington calls his "indecisiveness" is, in fact, an instinct for political consensus-building. Those who know him say he’s never been comfortable with what the U.S. has demanded of him, and the fact that even now, Washington continues to talk directly to Dahlan. It’s widely known that the only leader that can restore Fatah’s political fortunes is Marwan Barghouti, currently jailed for life in Israel. It looks like Abbas will tell the Israelis and Americans that if they want to help him, they’ll free Barghouti. Israeli leaders are already indicating that the answer will be no, because they don’t know if Barghouti will "help" Abbas. Indeed, I’d say it’s a safe bet (given his centrality to brokering Hamas-Fatah unity efforts from within prison) that were he freed, his priority would be to restore the unity government, and move Fatah away from the disaster it has become under U.S. tutelage. Already, there is growing resentment of the U.S. option that Abbas has taken, and there’s a growing demand from within the Fatah leadership — including from Barghouti — for Dahlan to be axed. In short, the ever-hapless Abbas will find himself caught between Condi Rice, the warlord Dahlan, and the remnants of his movement led by Barghouti seeking a rapprochement with Hamas. And Abbas will simply retire to his home in Qatar.
Fallacy #5: The West Bank is in Fatah’s Hands
Because the West Bank remains under occupation, Hamas fighters are forced to operate underground, although its political leaders are out in the open — many of them have been arrested by Israel or kidnapped by Hamas in recent weeks. Fatah’s security forces certainly have more guns in the West Bank and are less prone to be overrun. But that may not be Hamas’s strategy — the Islamists remain politically strong in many key West Bank towns (after all, they won the election, and only one quarter of the electorate is in Gaza), and they can expect a growing rebellion within Fatah against the U.S.-Dahlan-Abbas line. Hamas retains the political momentum among the Palestinians, and what the U.S. has planned is likely to strengthen rather than weaken Hamas politically — it always does, after all. The U.S. has failed to recognize that it’s open support for a Palestinian faction is a political kiss of death. Whatever illusions the U.S. leadership likes to weave about itself, the Palestinian street knows that Washington is part of their problem, rather than part of its solution. So, Fatah’s grip on the West Bank, measured in hearts and minds, is, in fact, tenuous, and likely to weaken in the face of the new U.S. policy.
Fallacy #6: Israel’s Shlemiel Regime is Capable of 'Bolstering Abbas’
When the U.S. and Israel talk about "helping" Abbas, they mean money to buy support and guns to kill opponents. But Abbas has always made clear, and continues to do so, that the only "help" that can boost his political support among Palestinians is for Israel to release Palestinian prisoners, remove checkpoints and begin uprooting settlements in the West Bank. But Israel is lead by a mournful chump despised by more than 95% of his electorate, and the contenders waiting in the wings to replace him are Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak (what was that Bob Dylan line about "there’s no success like failure"?) No government in Israel for the foreseeable future is going to be able to cut a credible peace deal based on the 1967 borders, nor even to muster the political strength to help Abbas by easing Israeli security restrictions, and if even they did so while starving Gaza, it’s inevitable that Hamas would send a couple of suicide bombers through the West Bank and that would be the end of relaxing restrictions. The only way Israel might take some of these steps would be if pressed by the U.S., but with the shadow of AIPAC hanging over Washington in an election year, that remains unlikely. And so the Israelis and Americans will fail Abbas once again, and damn him in the eyes of his own people.
Fallacy # 7: If Starved, the Palestinians Will Blame Hamas for Their Fate
The Palestinians are not stupid, and they know exactly who is denying them resources as punishment for choosing a government deemed unacceptable to their enemies. A year ago, Palestinian opinion polls found that even close to half of those who identified themselves as Fatah supporters believed that the Hamas government should not buckle to international pressure to recognize Israel. Hamas will not suffer politically as a result of Israeli-American efforts to starve and bludgeon the Palestinians into submission. Indeed, open support from the U.S. has become something of a kiss of death for Palestinian leaders, as the last election showed, where Washington suddenly began pumping money into Fatah.
Fallacy #8: Hamas is an Extreme Jihadist Group With Whom Negotiation is Impossible
That’s another self-serving myth of the neocons and Likudniks, who’ll also tell you that Hamas is a cat’s paw for Iran or al-Qaeda, or some combination of the two. Hamas is a national political resistance movement, inspired by an Islamist ideology, that has combined guerrilla warfare and terrorism with the provision of social services and, more recently, parliamentary participation. It is a movement with different factions pressing in different directions, but far more disciplined and coherent than any of its rivals. Its ideological roots are in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, of which it is essentially an offshoot. As such, it is at loggerheads with al-Qaeda, which has engaged in public mud-throwing against Hamas — Ayman Zawahiri publicly castigated Hamas in one of his broadcasts for its decision to participate in democratic politics, and Hamas told Zawahiri it had no need for his advice. Iran certainly supports Hamas to the extent that it is able, but it has little if any strategic influence over the organization. (Iran supports the Iraqi government, too.) Indeed, the great fear of many of the Arab regimes was that the isolation of Hamas pursued by the U.S. would, in fact, make it more dependent on Iranian aid, and therefore give Tehran more influence. But if that did occur, it would be the fault of those who refused to listen to and engage with Hamas, and instead seek to isolate and destroy it.
Hamas is offering talks, based on calming the situation and pursuing a long-term truce (which is, by the way, exactly what Sharon always said was the best Israel could hope for). To refuse that offer is the height of folly. Indeed, the U.S. is negotiating with the very same element in Iraq — the Muslim Brotherhood-oriented non-al Qaeda element of the Iraqi resistance. Yet, somehow where Israel is concerned, grownup thinking appears to be trayf in Washington.
So, What’s Going to Happen?
Mark Perry makes it clear:
The United States will fail to deliver. Some money will trickle in, but not nearly enough. The little that does trickle in will be spent unwisely. Israeli may remove some outposts, but only a few, and the settlements will continue to expand and settler roads will continue to be built and Palestinians will continue to die. Israelis will die too. A Palestinian security guard will be trained and it will march smartly through the streets of Ramallah. If it should exchange fire with a militia led by Hamas it will just as smartly be defeated. And if there is an election in "Fatahstine," (i.e. the West Bank) Hamas will win, while at the White House, Tony Snow will talk about how the outcome was engineered in Tehran. And nineteen months from now, in the waning days of the Bush Administration — with American foreign policy in tatters — Elliott Abrams and Keith Dayton will proudly stand alongside a smiling President Bush as he honors them, the newest recipients of the Medal of Freedom.
The Oslo process was in trouble when Bush came into office in 2001, but it might have been saved had the Administration heeded the voices warning of the consequences of its malign neglect. But what Bush has allowed, and even encouraged on his watch has been the effective demolition of the Palestinian Authority’s institutions. He has left both Israel and the Arab world in far greater danger than was even conceivable when he took office, starting a fire that could burn for decades. With only another 18 months ago, it seems that in the West Bank and Gaza, he and his crew are determined to pour kerosene on the flames.