Once upon a time, Israelis and Palestinians looked to the U.S. to intervene at moments of heightened confrontation to mediate between the two sides and contain the damage. The Bush Administration, however, has proved entirely incapable of playing this role, because its own diplomatic efforts are hidebound by the requirements of its own war on Hamas.
Condi Rice is sticking doggedly to that script, even though all the other players are making clear that the game is up. The New York Times tells us, for example, that U.S. officials are worried that efforts to broker a cease-fire to end the carnage in Gaza might undermine Washington’s priority, which is not to restore peace, but to isolate and eliminate Hamas: “Ms. Rice wants to avoid the word ‘cease-fire’ because administration officials believe that a negotiated cease-fire between Israel and Hamas — which the United States and Israel view as a terrorist organization — would legitimize Hamas in the eyes of the Palestinian people,” the Times reports. “The fear, administration officials said, is that a negotiated cease-fire would likely undermine Mr. Abbas and make it look like Hamas is the entity with which Israel and the West should be negotiating, and not Mr. Abbas.”
Ah. Cease-fire talks would “legitimize” Hamas in the eyes of the Palestinian people. Right. That would be the Palestinian people who, in a democratic election voted Hamas candidates into 56% of the seats in the Palestinian legislature. Their legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian people is well-established. (And just look how much talking to the Americans has done for the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas!) A cease-fire would “make it look” like Hamas is the entity with which Israel and the West should be negotiating? What planet are these U.S. officials on? What’s the point of peace talks if they don’t involve the party that, on the Palestinian side, is doing most of the fighting? Mahmoud Abbas commands no forces currently fighting Israel, so, simple logic would dictate that the Palestinian entity with whom a truce will have to be negotiated will have to be Hamas. You know, like, duh!
The naivete that Rice displays in support of a policy that has plainly failed because of its fundamentally flawed premise, can be breathtaking: “We need to continue to work to make sure that everyone understands that Hamas is doing what we expected,” she told the Times. “Using attacks on Israel to try to arrest a peace process in which they have nothing to gain.” Diplomacy .101 would teach you that a “peace process” in which one of the key protagonists has “nothing to gain” is irretrievably doomed. Peace processes only work when it can be demonstrated to each side that it has more to gain from ending hostilities than it could gain by fighting on. The fact that Rice is saying it is in Hamas’s best interest to keep lobbing rockets at Israel is a tacit admission that the peace process envisaged by the Bush Administration is a delusion.
And the fact that Rice and her Administration have nothing to offer in the Gaza crisis is confirmed by former Clinton Administration ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, who endorses the notion that talking to Hamas undermines Abbas, and therefore cannot be countenanced. (Uh, chaps, you may want to consider the fact that Abbas has been fatally undermined not by any conversations anyone has had with Hamas, but by the fact that he has nothing — zero, nada, zip — to show for his years of diplomatic engagement with Israel under the ministrations of the Bush Administration.) No, Indyk tells the New York Times, “Excluding (Hamas) doesn’t work, and including them doesn’t work, either. So what do you do? This is a situation that does not lend itself to a sensible policy.”
No, sir, that’s not true, and throwing up your hands because you won’t talk to Hamas until they formally recognize Israel (which, BTW, Abbas’s PLO did only five years after the Oslo Accords were negotiated, and even then not to the satisfactio of many Israelis) and “renounce” violence, is reprehensible abrogation of responsibility. There is a sensible policy, but it begins by renouncing the flawed premise of the current one, i.e. that Hamas cannot be engaged and must be isolated and eliminated.
It’s not as if Hamas hasn’t declared itself ready for a truce, and made moves to pursue a cease-fire with Israel. And many Israeli officials are pressing Israel to take up the offer. Far-sighted Israelis, of course, don’t allow themselves the luxury of adopting the Bush Administration’s militant outlook on Hamas: A recent opinion poll actually found that two thirds of Israelis actually support negotiating a truce with Hamas. But for Rice and the Bush Administration, such a pragmatic course of action would require acknowledging that Hamas is an intractable reality despite Washington’s best efforts of the Bush Administration to destroy it. And admitting defeat is not something that comes easily to the current White House.
Nor is the current standoff in Gaza a crisis that simply crept up on the Bush Administration; it was a situation created by the failed coup attempt authored by the U.S. last June in the hope of reversing the decision of the Palestinian electorate.
Last May, already, alerted by materials that were surfacing in the blogosphere and the Middle Eastern press, I wrote a post (linked here to a copy from another site, because it got stuck in my migration from one server to another — recovery efforts are underway!) about the coup plan that would have U.S.-backed strongman Mohammed Dahlan topple the elected government. I followed up last June, once the coup had failed, with a piece that concluded:
Now, Hamas has made clear that it is an intractable reality, although the fighting has likely greatly increased the balance within the organization in favor of the more confrontational element. And Dahlan turned out to be a Paper Pinochet.
Still, given their spectacular inability to comprehend the reasons for their defeats in the Palestinian territory, I don’t expect the U.S. to begin engaging pragmatically with the reality of Hamas as an indispensable component of the Palestinian leadership. Instead, given the endless capacity for self-delusion of the people running U.S. Middle East policy, I fully expect to see the U.S. rush resources to Egypt where Dahlan can be reunited with his scattered forces in preparation for his next historic role — at the head of a “Bay of Pigs” type invasion of Gaza.
The nuts and bolts of that disastrous coup attempt, authored by Condi Rice and Elliot Abrams, is now the subject of an outstanding investigative piece in Vanity Fair. David Rose’s piece, based on confidential documents and U.S. and Palestinian sources provides a gripping account of the U.S. effort to reverse the result of an election it had demanded. (My favorite part is how Condi issues orders to Abbas, instructing him to dissolve the elected government, and giving him two weeks in which to do it, settling for four when he asks for more time; then sending an emissary to scold him when he hasn’t met her deadline… And they think talking to Hamas is going to erode this man’s legitimacy! The man has lost most of his legitimacy even within the ranks of Fatah precisely because of the nature of his relationship with the Americans, which Rose reveals in great detail.)
Rose’s account of the botched coup attempt demonstrates exactly why the Bush Administration today has had about as much relevance to the search for a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process as Spongebob Squarepants has to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
As former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, who believes Israel should negotiate with Hamas, puts it, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the only one in which the U.S. is still maintaining an ideological approach.” And therein lies the tragedy.