In the coming weeks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will cluck regretfully about the violence unfolding in the Palestinian territories as if the chaos in Gaza has as little to do with her as, say, the bizarrely warm winter weather in New York. And much of the U.S. media will concur by covering that violence as if it is part of some inevitable showdown in the preternaturally violent politics of the Palestinians. But any honest assessment will not fail to recognize that the increasingly violent conflict between Hamas and Fatah is not only a by-product of Secretary Rice’s economic siege of the Palestinians; it is the intended consequence of her savage war on the Palestinian people – a campaign of retribution and collective punishment for their audacity to elect leaders other than those deemed appropriate to U.S. agendas. Moreover, the fact that the conflict is now coming to a head is a product of Rice’s micromanagement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s political strategy – against his own better instincts.
Rice’s siege strategy was premised on the belief that the economic torture of the entire Palestinian population would either force the Hamas government to chant the catechism of recognizing Israel-renouncing violence-abiding by previous agreements (again, Israeli leaders have to giggle at that one!) — or else, preferably, force the Palestinian electorate to recant the heresy of choosing Hamas as its government in the first place. Frustrated by the failure of this collective punishment to produce the desired results — and mindful of the need to quickly reorder Palestinian politics in order to satisfy the urgent need of the increasingly marginal Arab autocracies that Washington seeks to mobilize against Iran — she has stepped things up a notch, cajoling the hapless Abbas to take steps to toppled a government democratically elected only 11 months ago and beefing up the forces of the Fatah warlords dedicated to taking down Hamas in order to restore their own power of patronage.
Update: Thanks to Paul Woodward at Conflicts Forum — the absolutely indispensable project launched by Mark Perry and Alistair Crooke (whose work engaging with the thinking of Hamas, Hizballah and other Islamist groups I have previously highlighted) offering unrivaled perspective based on access to the thinking of groupings that are fast becoming the key force in Middle Eastern politics — do yourself a favor and subscribe to their free updates, because each one contains essential perspective you won’t find elsewhere. Anyway, thanks to Conflicts Forum, we now know also that Elliot Abrams, the last of the Likudniks in senior Bush Administration positions, has spoken openly of the need for the U.S. to fund, arm and train Fatah activists to launch a “hard coup” against the elected Hamas government (Abrams, of course, is a veteran of Reagan -era Latin America policies, so he has some experience in these things.) This is more berserk social engineering from the neocon Likud crowd, and most of the U.S. government (as well as the Israelis) know that the extensive effort to promote a coup are doomed to fail, but fail bloodily. Read the whole thing, it’s a fascinating account that confirms all the reasons why even Poppy Bush considers Condi Rice a “disappointment.”
Even Middle East experts and State Department officials close to Rice consider her comments about Palestinian violence dangerous, and have warned her that if the details of the U.S. program become public her reputation could be stained. In fact, Pentagon officials concede, Hamas’s inability to provide security to its own people and the clashes that have recently erupted have been seeded by the Abrams plan. Israeli officials know this, and have begun to rebel. In Israel, at least, Rice’s view that Hamas can be unseated is now regularly, and sometimes publicly, dismissed.
According to a December 25 article in the Israeli daily Haaretz, senior Israeli intelligence officials have told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that not only can Hamas not be replaced, but that its rival, Fatah, is disintegrating. Any hope for the success of an American program aimed at replacing Hamas, these officials argued, will fail. These Israeli intelligence officials also dismissed Palestinian President Abu Mazen’s call for elections to replace Hamas — saying that such elections would all but destroy Fatah. As Haaretz reported: “Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin told the cabinet Sunday [December 24] that should elections be held in the Palestinian Authority, Fatah’s chances of winning would be close to zero. Diskin said during Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting that the Fatah faction is in bad shape, and therefore Israel should expect Hamas to register a sweeping victory.”
Apparently Jordan’s King Abdullah agrees. On the day this article appeared, December 25, Abdullah kept Palestinian President Abu Mazen waiting for six hours to see him in Amman. Eventually, Abdullah told Abu Mazen that he should go home — and only come to see him again when accompanied by Hamas leader and Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh. Most recently, Saudi officials have welcomed Haniyeh to Saudi Arabia for talks, having apparently made public their own views on the American program to replace Hamas.
Last week, in an excellent cautionary commentary that – interestingly enough – ran in the International Herald Tribune but not in the New York Times, Robert Malley and Henry Siegman made plain the folly underlying the Rice-Abrams strategy.
A civil war — for that is what it would be — would spell disaster for the Palestinian people. The presidential guard might become a more formidable fighting force than Hamas, but it will remain a far less motivated one, seen by many as doing America’s and Israel’s bidding. In such a contest, success is far from assured, as we should know from Iraq, Lebanon and, indeed, Palestine itself.
Even assuming Fatah were to prevail, it would at most drive Hamas underground, leading it to resume suicide bombings and increase rocket assaults while retaining the loyalty of a committed rank-and-file. Does one seriously believe that a genuine negotiation process can emerge from a battered, polarized Palestinian society, renewed Palestinian violence and predictable disproportionate Israeli retaliation?
The most fundamental miscalculation of all is the notion that there can be a peace process with a Palestinian government that excludes Hamas. Hamas is not an ephemeral phenomenon that can be extinguished by force of arms. It is as permanent a feature of the Palestinian political landscape as Fatah, which means that no enduring change in relations between Israelis and Palestinians — and certainly no end to violence, or beginning of a political process, let alone meaningful Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank — can occur over its opposition.
Abbas is a man of good intention, but has no political base of his own. His power is derived from two constituencies: The remnants of a Fatah organization in steady decline over the past decade, and all but shattered by its defeat in the January 2006 elections, its only organized formations now being squadrons of gunmen answerable to various warlords, and the bureaucracy of the PA. And the United States, at least to the extent that it represents the only game in town for the realization of Abbas’s preferred strategy of patient diplomacy in pursuit of Palestinian statehood, because it’s the only party capable of delivering Israeli compliance. That, of course, is an abstraction, because no matter how capable the U.S. is of delivering Israeli compliance with a peace deal, it has no intention of doing so — not under the Bush Administration, and I have to say, I’m pessimistic about the chances of the Democrats doing it, either. Still, Abbas has no alternative but to jump through whatever hoops Washington places before him, because once he gives up hope of a U.S. mediated solution, his own political role is over.
Curiously enough, in this instance the interests of the U.S. Administration and those of the corrupt and self-serving Fatah warlords and bureaucrats coincide entirely. So entrenched was the sense in Fatah’s leadership of entitlement to rule over the Palestinians that its activist leadership had been pressing Abbas, from the moment the election results were announced, to move to topple Hamas. The fact that Fatah had been repudiated by the people would have demanded a thorough reorganization and democratization, a political “long march” in which the organization restored its standing among ordinary Palestinians by standing by them, working for them, listening to them and articulating their aspirations, as Hamas had done so successfully. Instead, the Fatah leadership demanded that Abbas make a coup and reinstate them, restoring their power of patronage.
And Condoleezza Rice, in her typically callous arrogance (remember those “birthpangs of a New Middle East” that shook Beirut last summer?) supported them: The Palestinian people would have to pay for their folly in defying her and electing Hamas, and would have to keep paying until they were ready to recant.
Malley, who knows Abbas well from his own days as a Clinton Administration official at Camp David – one who declined to drink the self-serving Kool Aid his old boss offered by way of explaining the all-too-predictable failure failure of those talks — makes clear that Rice’s strategy actually contradicts Abbas’s own preferences, but that he’s being forced to play along or else reconcile himself to oblivion.
Although [Hamas] is not willing to formally renounce violence, it is prepared to abide by a comprehensive cease-fire, and has proved its ability to implement it when Israel fully reciprocates.
Hamas is willing to deal directly with Israel on day-to- day matters, indirectly on more substantive ones. It will acquiesce in negotiations between Abbas and Olmert and abide by any agreement ratified by popular referendum.
Hamas will not, however, recognize Israel. That’s unfortunate. But is it really worth plunging the region into greater chaos because Hamas will not confer upon Israel the legitimacy the Jewish state is granted by virtually every nation in the world?
This alternative is one Abbas advocated from the start, which is why he chose to promote the Islamists’ entry into political life in the first place and why he courageously resisted repeated pressure — foreign but also, sadly, domestic — to violently confront Hamas. His resistance, apparently, may be running out. Faced with Western inflexibility and Islamist obstinacy, he is being forced down a violent path for which he was not made and from which he is unlikely to survive as Palestinian leader.
The rational thing to do after Hamas won was to accept the verdict of the electorate and try to engage – by setting red lines based on actions rather than empty declarations for continued funding. Instead, Rice opted for setting conditions that Hamas would regard as symbolic surrender, and which would be meaningless anyway (frankly, Israel routinely engages in this kind of stunt where it demands things of the Palestinians precisely because it knows they won’t do them, and uses that as an excuse to explain the absence of peace, whereas Israel is not held to account for its own refusal to withdraw to its 1967 borders, which remains the only basis for an internationally recognized peace settlement).
Abbas, still mindful of the national interest, sought a unity government with Hamas, based on a compromise document forged between Fatah and Hamas prisoners held in Israel. But Rice was having none of it — it didn’t require Hamas to grovel sufficiently and apologize for disrupting the Bush administration’s somnambulent stroll in Middle Eastern fantasy — and pressed Abbas to abandon the plan, and instead seek national unity on terms less acceptable to Hamas.
And then, together with the venal warlords and corrupt bureaucrats of Fatah, Rice finally prevailed on Abbas to threaten to call new elections — which he did three weeks ago, touching off the latest bout of violence. Hamas is unlikely to accept the call — why would it, since it has been forced on the Palestinians from outside — and any election held without their participation would be meaningless. No matter, the U.S. appears to be pressing ahead in forcing Abbas into a violent confrontation with Hamas. (Was it just a Freudian slip that Abbas made clear on Saturday in declaring Hamas’s militias in Gaza “illegal” that he had, earlier in the day been on the phone with Condi?) So, Gaza will bleed. And it will starve. And it will burn. Until the Palestinians are ready to rue the day they ever dared to choose their own leaders over those chosen for them by Rice, and Bush and Blair.