The Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip changed many perceptions and dynamics in the region. But it is also the constants that must be borne in mind by the Olmert government as it enters into closer cooperation with Mahmoud Abbas and the Fateh-led West Bank.
First and foremost, Hamas is a dedicated Islamist organization with close ties to Iran. It represents Islamist objectives that are totally antithetical to Israel's values as well as those of moderate secular Arabs in Palestine, Egypt and Jordan. If Israel boycotted Hamas prior to the Gaza takeover, it has all the more reason to do so now, with the sole exceptions of humanitarian aid, prisoner exchange and a ceasefire.
On the other hand, both Fateh/West Bank and Hamas/Gaza continue to believe firmly in the unity of the two territories. Ehud Olmert will never be able to negotiate a permanent status agreement with Abbas about the West Bank alone. Nor is the Hamas/Fateh political estrangement necessarily a permanent feature of the new landscape. There is sentiment in Riyadh and some inclination in Cairo to yield to Hamas' entreaties and try and put a Palestinian unity government back together.
Yet the Hamas takeover in Gaza and the Fateh reaction also reflect strong and clearly incompatible core elements, Islamist and secular, in both camps. Moreover, Hamas' new political and military concentration solely in Gaza in some ways makes it an easier target for a regional secular coalition seeking to isolate and weaken it.
Ongoing Palestinian devotion to West Bank-Gaza unity is not the only reason Olmert-Abbas talks cannot in the short term produce an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Both leaders are weak; Abbas' leadership problem was particularly evident in the Fateh collapse in Gaza. Since then he has displayed a tougher side toward both Hamas and Fateh's own armed gangs in the West Bank. Certainly he is Olmert's only conceivable ticket to a Palestinian/regional "agenda" with which to prove his government's viability.
Hence the Abbas/Fateh/West Bank track appears, by default, to provide a useful avenue for regional diplomatic activity--but only if Abbas, Olmert, President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan are willing and able to take certain vital preliminary steps. This is what they will hopefully discuss today in Sharm al-Sheikh.
In order to have any chance at all of success, Abbas must consolidate security control in the West Bank by a single Fateh/PA force in much the same way Hamas has cleared the streets of Gaza of armed militias. He must reform his own movement's leadership institutions by replacing the "dinosaurs" from Tunis with new blood. And, at least for now in view of his weakness, he must resist the temptation of a renewed unity government. Olmert can help him by permitting the training and arming of forces loyal to Abbas and by releasing funds and prisoners. This could be the right time to release Marwan Barghouti in order to support the younger generation of Fateh leaders.
Mubarak has to seal off Egypt's border with Gaza much more effectively than Cairo has done so far. Hamas in Gaza must be genuinely quarantined if its military buildup is to cease and the threat it poses to Israel and Fateh--as well as to Egypt itself--is brought under control. And Abdullah has to offer closer economic, political and security support for Abbas' consolidated regime in the West Bank.
The objectives of this coordinated effort should be modestly and realistically defined, and unrealistic illusions and delusions dispelled. Both Abbas and Olmert know that it was not the absence of a peace process that brought about Hamas' rise to power, but Fateh corruption and disarray. Thus there will be no new and dynamic peace process, no Jordanian-Palestinian union, no strategic wedge driven between West Bank and Gazan Palestinians, and no international force sealing or quarantining the Gaza Strip.
Rather, we can aspire to Israeli-Palestinian success in creating new tools for confidence-building and conflict management; perhaps, under the best of circumstances, a new phase of Israeli withdrawal from additional West Bank territory can be contemplated sometime in the next two or three years. If all parties concerned, with Washington's and Brussels' backing, can stay focused on such limited objectives, they may have a chance to succeed despite the risks involved.
And risks abound. For Israel, the danger of releasing funds and prisoners and facilitating Palestinian security activity in the West Bank is considerable but nevertheless manageable. Abbas and Fateh risk being branded by Hamas as collaborators.
Both sides have dealt with similar risks in the past--and ultimately failed. Today, hopefully, they are both wiser and more desperate, if only because they are running out of alternatives. This is the default option for getting back on track toward an eventual two-state solution that will include Gaza . Olmert and Abbas--both survivors despite their mediocrity--are the default leaders. If they fail to register even modest progress, we may all end up confronting radical and potentially less friendly options.- Published 25/6/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have different and contradicting interests and consequently their responses to the recent confrontations in Gaza and Hamas' takeover there will diverge. In addition, the consequences of these developments affect the two very differently.
Israel has for long now been pursuing tactics to weaken the power of the peace camp in Palestine led by Abbas. The continuing consolidation of the occupation through the expansion of settlements, the concomitant fragmentation and disintegration of the Palestinian territories and the empty verbal support for Abbas are examples of such policies.
Here it is important to bear in mind that despite its image of being a centrist government, the Kadima-led Israeli coalition is in fact a right-wing government that disagrees with any attempt at solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the basis of international law. International law is the measure that all peace proposals have adopted as the basis for any just settlement to the conflict. Since the Israeli government's survival depends on it continuing to oppose international law, indeed pursue measures that contradict international law, chances of any political progress with this current government are slim to non-existent.
This is before any account is taken of developments in Gaza. After Hamas' take-over there, two questions have been repeatedly asked. One is whether the same thing could happen in the West Bank. The other is whether what happened in Gaza could be reversed. Either way, the questions are really probing whether the two geographically divided areas of Palestinian territory that will make up the future Palestinian state can be reunited politically.
Several factors led to the infighting and Hamas' eventual take-over of Gaza. Beyond the poor performance of and fragmentation within Fateh, the major factors were Israel's forced separation between the West Bank and Gaza as well as the strategy of targeting ordinary Palestinians through the economic boycott, a strategy that only encouraged extremists and weakened moderates.
In the West Bank, Israel is the effective power. It has been using this power to weaken Hamas militarily and Fateh politically. Thus the political separation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is likely to continue. A repeat of what happened in Gaza cannot take place in the West Bank, but Fateh has no political momentum to reverse the situation in Gaza. On the contrary, having won one election, Hamas may well win another, should it be held.
Why has this happened, and what can be done?
What outsiders apparently find so hard to understand is the inseparable connection between internal Palestinian politics and the Israeli occupation. For as long as that occupation shows no sign of ending, any support for Abbas from Washington, "moderate" Arab countries and Israel puts him in a very awkward position. Indeed, the policy espoused in Washington of isolating Hamas and strengthening Abbas with money will only work to discredit the Palestinian president.
Unless the Sharm al-Sheikh summit brings the unexpected--an Israeli commitment to end the occupation and an American undertaking to ensure this commitment--Abbas and the Palestinian peace camp are likely to emerge as weaker rather then stronger, money or no money. Simply put, the problem is not Fateh and Hamas; it is the Israeli occupation, the continued loss of land to Israeli settlements and the continued lack of resolution of the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people.
There is only one way to support Abbas and weaken Hamas and it is the one thing Olmert will never accept. Abbas needs to show real and serious progress toward ending the occupation to demonstrate that negotiations can indeed lead to a just two-state solution. Absent this, the current measures Washington is proposing to bolster Abbas will in fact do the opposite.- Published 25/6/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The way countries are supposed to function
by Barry Rubin
In completely objective, totally detached terms there is a really great Palestinian policy available in the aftermath of Hamas' seizure of the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian Authority and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas and his Fateh-dominated government in the West Bank could present their people with an attractive alternative. Cease terrorism, really purvey moderation (as an actual policy and not just in interviews with western correspondents) and make a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel to create a Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem. Huge amounts of aid are pledged internationally, the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip is isolated, and everybody--outside of the Gaza Strip at least--lives happily ever after.
Sounds good. But of course it isn't going to happen even though one might well argue that it "should" happen. And the reason it won't happen is not due to anything Israel and its government thinks, says or does.
It isn't going to happen for reasons that should be, but sadly aren't, obvious to anyone. Abbas is still weak and passionately committed to the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, a sign of bad intentions and a deal-killer in itself. The PA is still incompetent and corrupt. Fateh is still in love with extremism, most of it deeply committed to total victory and Israel's destruction and wedded to terrorism and violence as its principal tactics. To a large extent, Fateh is still Hamas without the Islamism.
Is this terrible shock of humiliating defeat enough to begin a transformation into something else? It should be, but it is rather doubtful that Palestinian politics work that way. After all, this was hardly the first humiliating defeat, exactly of the kind that outside observers keep predicting will bring change.
Indeed, that concept was precisely the one at the root of the failed peace process that only brought more war and suffering. Remember, it was Arafat's backing for Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the cutoff of Arab aid to the PLO and the defeat of Iraq that were supposed to provide the humiliating defeat and near-death that would make Fateh and the PLO become moderate. And in the end, it was the peace process itself that brought disaster.
This dose of reality brings us to Plan B. Forget about grandiose plans and don't be intoxicated with wishful thinking. It is in the common interest of the West, Israel and certainly Fateh itself to keep the current regime in power in the West Bank. (Of course, this is premised on the reality that there is nothing better available as an alternative since there is no real moderate force of any importance in Palestinian politics.) The problem is whether Fateh will once again act in a suicidal manner, a pattern that has characterized its history.
What is needed is limited cooperation based on practical issues. The message should not be: "Let's save that wonderful moderate Abbas who is eager for peace." But rather: "Mr. Abbas and colleagues, you are on the verge of extinction. Give us some reason to save you if you want our help."
The way this issue is being presented in Washington and Jerusalem, however, would make one believe that Abbas is so wonderful that he is doing everyone a favor by accepting their money and support. Such a fantasy will lead to a continuation of Fateh's habitual blindness and smugness, guaranteeing its intransigent behavior and eventual downfall.
Aid should be contingent. Stop incitement in the PA media that Abbas controls, act decisively to stop cross-border attacks, and on that basis help can be provided.
One of several elements of chronic stupidity in forming Middle East policies also to be factored in here is the response to enemies that are sure to seek to sabotage those policies. No doubt, Hamas and Islamic Jihad will redouble their efforts to launch terrorist attacks on Israel in order to sabotage Abbas' survival. If Israel and the United States are patronizing about this--poor guy, he just cannot help it--the situation will spiral into a new catastrophe.
It is for Mr. Abbas' own good that he be held accountable. He must clamp down on the terrorists (including members of his own group) and the incitement that makes people become suicide bombers or get the same treatment that Hamas receives.
And that brings us to another key element of strategy. Hamas, which Abbas now himself labels as terrorist, must be isolated, denied aid, and treated severely. If, after all, the West coddles and seeks engagement with Hamas, this would show Palestinians and other Arabs that the Hamas way works and one can have an anti-Jewish charter, terrorism and intolerant Islamism along with success and western acceptance. If that is true, who needs Abbas and Fateh?
The choice for policymakers, including Abbas, is between naive wishful thinking and a tough-minded realism in which cooperation is based on deeds and not just words. That's the way countries are supposed to function, isn't it?- Published 25/6/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center in Herzlia and author of the just-published The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Money will do nothing
an interview with Abdel Jawad Saleh
bitterlemons: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has promised to release funds to the Palestinian Authority. Will this strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas?
Saleh: This depends on the results of the summit at Sharm al-Sheikh. If Olmert accepts to work toward ending the occupation, then yes. But if the money is really intended to bolster Abbas in order to fight Hamas, this could destroy Abbas.
It's not a question of money; it's a question of the occupation.
bitterlemons: What steps might Israel take to help Abbas?
Saleh: Look, the American plan is nothing but an embellishment of the occupation. Removing the odd checkpoint here and there, or any other measure that does not attempt to solve the root of the conflict, is nothing but window dressing. After 40 years, it is time for this occupation to end and along with it all its appendages and measures.
bitterlemons: Washington is now talking about easing checkpoints and releasing funds in order to bolster Abbas vis-a-vis Hamas. Is this helpful?
Saleh: Of course not. Abbas is now in his third year and at no time before has anyone tried to empower him. All Israeli steps until now were really meant to mock him, to show him up as a leader not capable of solving Palestinian grievances.
The same thing happened when he was prime minister. When Yasser Arafat realized that the Americans were not really serious about helping him, he kicked Abbas out.
If they want to help Abbas, they need to help the Palestinian people. And this can only really happen if there is a serious commitment to end the occupation. To this end, a proper timetable for the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza must be set.
bitterlemons: Is there not a danger that the more help Abbas receives from Washington and Israel the more likely he is to be seen as a collaborator among Palestinians?
Saleh: Yes. If the fruits of this summit are only a release of funds, it is clear that he will be seen only as a man who is ready to fight Hamas on behalf of the Israelis.
bitterlemons: Does it make sense to isolate the Gaza Strip?
Saleh: No. I wish Abbas had solved the problem in Gaza before going to this summit. He could have addressed Hamas and again made an attempt at building real institutions of state with Hamas, not as Hamas or Fateh, but institutions that serve the Palestinian people, to which people are hired on merit, not factional loyalties.
These institutions must be based on the democratic process and there must be a clear-out of the dead wood. It is clear that when security leaders are receiving American money to fight Hamas there is a war of proxy taking place.
There must be ways and means to rebuild not only the institutions but the atmosphere of the first intifada: a united people and volunteering and working for each other rather then for themselves.
bitterlemons: But the reality is almost the opposite. Abbas has fired the government and seems to have moved closer to Washington. Will these measures create a deeper split with Hamas?
Saleh: People will look at Fateh as a proxy power in the hands of the Americans and Israelis. This will undermine Abbas' position. Every Palestinian is against internal fighting, because this will be our end.
bitterlemons: But Hamas did resort to violence to impose control. Even if they claimed they were punishing criminal gangs, they did not follow any judicial procedure. Is it not justified that some punitive measures are undertaken?
Saleh: All people involved in these crimes from both sides have to be punished. There needs to be a neutral committee to investigate the whole story from the beginning. People responsible for leading our society into internal strife need to be put on trial and be punished.
bitterlemons: Are you hopeful that now that money will flow into the PA things will at all improve?
Saleh: Promises have been made so many times. US President George W. Bush said he would build a Palestinian state in five years. These were empty promises. Nothing will change now.- Published 25/6/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Abdel Jawad Saleh is a former mayor of al-Bireh, a former member of the PLO's Executive Council and a former PA minister of agriculture.
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