Since the violent Hamas takeover of Gaza some nine months ago, the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have all seemed to follow roughly the same strategy to reverse both Hamas' control over Gaza and the parliamentary election results of two years ago. This strategy has simultaneously sought to weaken Hamas and empower the Palestinian "peace camp" led by Fateh and President Mahmoud Abbas.
The strategy has been articulated in different statements and speeches by US President George W. Bush, advocated verbally by Israel and pursued by both the US and Israel as well as the PA. It comprises several components. Overall, the strategy seeks to make the "West Bank model" more attractive to Palestinians than the "Gaza model". The idea is to do this by imposing political and economic sanctions on Hamas in Gaza and at the same time providing increased economic aid to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and, possibly, through the PA to Gaza. Finally, the strategy is to re-launch a political process of the kind that would empower Abbas politically, partly by reducing Israeli restrictions in the West Bank to improve the conditions for Palestinians there.
Hand-in-hand with the strategy came a proposal by Abbas that early elections should be held before national unity and order could be restored. This, of course, was assuming that the above strategy would work to shift public opinion and ensure victory for the opponents of Hamas.
Nine months on the strategy needs to be revised, with all indications showing that it is failing. Hamas has been able to survive not only by depending on the use of force, but also because it has pursued policies and practices that have earned the movement public support.
For a start, the sanctions on Gaza were just that. Rather than target Hamas, they targeted all Gazans, thus forging solidarity between the people and the movement. In addition, the sanctions were easily fingered by Hamas as the primary cause of Gazan misery. Finally, when the siege became too draconian, Hamas masterfully orchestrated the breach of the Egyptian border, something that afforded the movement immense public goodwill.
At the same time, Israel consciously stymied any success of the "West Bank-model", and the occupation has instead embedded itself deeper there. The failure of the Annapolis process to achieve any tangible results, as well as the continuation of Israeli measures to consolidate the occupation of the West Bank by expanding settlements, restricting movement and fragmenting the territory, have in fact almost reversed the stated aims of the above strategy. Public opinion polls show that the long-term trend of increased public support for Hamas and decline in support for Fateh and the peace camp continues.
The strategy therefore needs to be revised from its fundamentals. The alternative is to go back to the Mecca model and pursue an inclusive, rather than exclusionist, strategy. Had the Mecca agreement been pursued properly, this inclusive strategy could have maintained Palestinian unity and kept at least the relatively moderate elements in Hamas closer to the PA and the peace camp.
More importantly, an inclusive strategy would have continued the trend of moderation in the political thinking and positions of Hamas that was already evident. Witness the difference in the platform of the unity government and that of the Hamas government that preceded it. The unity government endorsed the Arab peace initiative and committed the government to already signed agreements. There is little doubt that the survival of the unity government would have resulted in a much healthier situation than the present one.
In analyzing why the relevant parties instead chose to pursue a self-defeating strategy, the motives of the most important party, Israel, must be investigated. Perhaps the key to understanding what went wrong is to realize that Israel in fact has no interest in empowering Mahmoud Abbas or the Palestinian peace camp. Nor has Israel any interest in encouraging an effort that would reverse the political and geographical split that now exists between the West Bank and Gaza.
This in mind, the international community and the Palestinian Authority need to devise a strategy independent of Israel, one that seeks to encourage, or at least not oppose, a Palestinian-Palestinian dialogue. Such a dialogue should reduce the negative domestic effects of the current split and go some way toward improving the internal political situation. That, in turn, is a prerequisite for any progress in the peace process.- Published 31/3/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Hamas appears to have survived the boycott imposed by the Quartet, Israel and some Arab states, at least to the extent of generating widespread interest in a reassessment of the efficacy of the boycott policy. The US State Department website recently posted a suggestion that American diplomats reexamine whether engaging Hamas is good or bad for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. PLO and Hamas representatives met in Yemen to discuss the possibility of reconstituting a Palestinian unity government (the talks proved abortive). And a growing Israeli lobby composed of figures from the left and the right is advocating an attempt by Israel to talk to Hamas.
That the boycott has failed is painfully obvious. The economic depravation of Gaza has not brought Hamas to its knees. Hamas is more popular than ever, not only in Gaza but in the West Bank as well. There, the other half of the western/Israeli strategy--bringing prosperity and stability to the population in order that the contrast between the two geographic parts of Palestine persuade the population to support the Abbas/Fayyad leadership and reject Hamas--has also failed. Palestinians in the West Bank enjoy painfully little prosperity and stability, and where they do the experience has not turned them against Hamas or made them enthusiastic supporters of President Mahmoud Abbas and the peace process he is identified with.
By the by, these developments warrant two insights concerning the conflict. First, the failure of the strategy of favoring the West Bank over Gaza to make the peace process attractive is but the latest in a 40-year series of abortive Israeli carrot and stick policies that mistakenly assumed it was possible to significantly influence Palestinian political behavior through economic means. You'd think we'd have learned.
Secondly, Palestinian opinion polls, and particularly the latest Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research poll with its striking findings regarding rising support for Hamas and its leaders as opposed to Fateh and Abbas, have become a potent instrument for influencing policy. This is not always a good thing: opinion polls, assuming they are accurate, are a snapshot reflecting the public's reactions to specific events but not necessarily its inclination to respond to inspired leadership or breakthrough developments or, for that matter, the best policy options.
Were Abbas and PM Ehud Olmert to produce a dramatic new framework peace agreement tomorrow, would this enable Abbas to rally Palestinian public opinion and win the day over Hamas? Probably not--after all, Hamas is not likely to voluntarily give up power and might not permit free elections in Gaza if the objective is to vote it out of power. Yet precisely such a development is the desired corollary or end-product of the Quartet/Israeli/Abbas strategy and in this sense the strategy appears to have been flawed from the outset in its understanding of Hamas and that movement's aims. But a new peace agreement has not (yet?) been unveiled, hence we cannot unequivocally deem this approach a total failure. (In Israel, incidentally, the public would probably reject an Olmert-Abbas peace "breakthrough" at the polls; but that is another matter touching largely on Olmert's perceived shortcomings as a leader.)
Yet even without the test of a peace breakthrough end-product or payoff, the strategy appears to be coming apart at the seams. Broad international, Israeli and Palestinian concern over the apparent failure of the current strategy appears to be growing. Hamas in Gaza has not been discredited; Abbas' leadership has failed yet again; Israeli outposts and checkpoints have combined with Fateh corruption, Fayyad government security lacunae and American mismanagement to give the peace process a bad name. The latest Israeli security concessions in the West Bank are not likely to make a difference. Hamas, with Syrian and Iranian backing, can be counted on to sabotage progress.
It is indeed time to look seriously at alternatives. We need a new strategy, but the prospects are grim. Are Israel's best options military or diplomatic? Do they lie in Damascus or Gaza City? Certainly, we should beware of dramatic Israeli policy changes that further weaken Abbas, as long as there is any chance at all of a peace breakthrough. - Published 31/3/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former special adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
A fundamental misconception
by Safwat Kahlout
Ever since Hamas overwhelmingly won parliamentary elections in 2006, the international community has been trying to reverse a result that neither it nor Hamas expected.
At first the international community, led by the US, tried to include Hamas in its designs for the region by offering it three conditions to enter the regional order. Once those were rejected, Washington instead opted to isolate Hamas and ignore the elections.
Israel, happy to play along with this strategy, was given a free hand to escalate at will and tighten its closure on Gaza to undermine the already fragile economy there in an effort to bring Gazans into the streets against Hamas.
The strategy had some initial success. Many voted for Hamas in the first place in order to punish Fateh for the corruption of preceding years. Once sanctions hit, people were heard to lament, "better to be led by the corrupt if they put bread on the table". But the fundamental perception remained the same: Hamas were clean and Fateh corrupt, and it is this fundamental perception that has lingered.
After Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip in June of last year, the international community adopted a modified version of its original strategy. With the Palestinian people having divided themselves into two, the international community decided it would try to strengthen the West Bank under President Mahmoud Abbas by shoveling money at the Palestinian Authority there, while continuing to isolate the Hamas-led Gaza Strip.
But after two years, the attempt to undermine Hamas' popularity has failed. Opinion polls, on the contrary, show an increase in support for the movement. There are several factors at play here.
First, while economic sanctions have hit hard, Palestinians have never had much to lose. Indeed, an argument can easily be made that Palestinians hold their dignity much dearer than their limited wealth. Hamas thus has become the symbol of the struggle for Palestinian pride.
Second, the Israeli escalation against Gaza, which was countered by the Palestinian resistance in general and Hamas' Izzedin al-Qassam brigades in particular, left the public with the clear perception that it is Hamas that is willing to fight and die for the Palestinian people. This perception is only strengthened when the sons of Hamas leaders are killed on the frontlines.
Third, the choice by Abbas to pursue negotiations as the only option to regain Palestinian rights, after 15 fruitless years of the PLO doing exactly that, has only presented Israel with more time to create more "facts on the ground". By refusing to grant Abbas even the smallest achievement to show for his efforts, the Israelis have convinced Palestinians that Abbas is weak and that Hamas is right when it says that Israel is not serious about peace and negotiations are thus a waste of time.
Fourth, with international funding to the Palestinian Authority at an all-time high, people are looking to increased transparency to see where that money goes. In Gaza, people are asking why none of that money is coming to them, since the PA is supposed to be for all its people. Furthermore, the international community does not seem to understand what should be obvious to any public relations analyst: that anyone vocally supported by Israel and the US is treated with the utmost suspicion by Palestinians. The reverse is also true, thus offering Hamas another source of support.
Finally, the internal split in Fateh is further bolstering Hamas. For as long as Fateh, or anyone else for that matter, does not present a clear and viable alternative to Hamas, its perceived fiscal probity and organizational unity, Hamas will continue to flourish in opinion polls. Fateh did not seize on its defeat in parliamentary elections to re-evaluate and restructure itself, while Hamas has only grown more united in the face of adversity.
The US-inspired strategy to undermine Hamas has thus failed. The international community would do well to reconsider its underlying assumption that economic sanctions will do anything to move the Palestinian people from its fundamentally principled support for Hamas.-Published 31/3/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Safwat Kahlout is a Gaza-based journalist.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Israel's tough choice
by Nimrod Novik
For several decades now, Israeli policy toward the Palestinians has been all too frequently governed by false assumptions. These include the presumption to "produce" an alternative Palestinian leadership that is more amenable to Israeli preferences and an equally condescending claim to "reeducate" Palestinians to alternative thinking.
All such attempts have failed. They began with the promotion of the village leagues as an alternative to the PLO in the 1970s and efforts to create an "authentic local leadership" for the same purpose in the '80s. They continued with the declared intention of "strengthening Abu Mazen" that mostly left him empty handed when we failed to follow up, or portrayed him as a collaborator when we did act but sought public credit for it. From the patronizing "we shall enshrine in their consciousness" of the early 2000s to the recent equally delusional attempt to "undo the Hamas electoral victory via Mohammad Dahlan", all ended in failure.
The common bottom line has been a resounding reiteration that we Israelis are very poor manipulators of intra-Palestinian politics.
With such a record it is no wonder that our success in cutting Hamas off from all international sources of political and financial support enhanced the movement's dependence on Iran. Similarly, our resolve to send the Hamas djinn back into the bottle by siege and by force served to strengthen the movement's hold on Gaza and seems to have increased its popularity in the West Bank. Concurrently, the Israeli-American strategy of choking Hamas in Gaza while demonstrating that moderation in the West Bank is rewarded remains at best an empty slogan.
Still, absent a change in attitude, the worst is yet to come. When the Fateh way did not work, Hamas was elected; but the next step will not be via the ballot box. If Hamas fails, the alternative may not be "back to moderation" but more likely further radicalization, from an Islamic-nationalist movement to a "jihadi-globalist" one. Splinter groups first, followed by more substantial popular sentiment, will slide in the direction of al-Qaeda-like aspirations and conduct. To avoid a split, Hamas may opt to capture that niche and become its own more extreme alternative. At that point there will indeed be no common ground between them and us.
Even though this process has already begun, and although our policy of castrating the more pragmatic forces in Hamas serves to accelerate it, the trend may yet be reversed.
For that to happen, we need to adopt a less presumptuous approach on more then one front. First, we need to concede our inability to select the Palestinian leadership and adjust our policy accordingly. A strong, peace-oriented leadership makes the pursuit of a permanent status agreement worthwhile, indeed a must. But in the absence of such leadership, lesser objectives should be sought.
Second, we need to recognize that while President Mahmoud Abbas is among the most sincere, consistent, persistent and courageous advocates of peace, insofar as he represents only half his people he is not a potent interlocutor. Representing a broad consensus--he could be. Yet for him to represent a broad consensus, Palestinian national reconciliation is called for. And for that to happen, Israel and the United States need to free Abbas of the threat to boycott him and his government once he reengages Hamas.
Representing a Hamas-Fateh national unity government, Abbas' negotiating platform may not be the same. The goal of a permanent status agreement will probably have to be replaced with yet another interim agreement. This third adjustment involves a decision to shift the focus away from the Annapolis process. While it is quite obvious that this process will not produce a permanent status agreement before the end of the George W. Bush presidency, it may yield a last minute declaration of principles, produced by next autumn by Abbas and PM Ehud Olmert or by winter as American bridging ideas. Forgoing these possible benchmarks is no minor decision, given their potential long-term relevance to future efforts and short term effect in serving as Olmert's platform for early elections and in changing Abbas' intention not to run for another term.
Obviously, the most difficult adjustment of all entails recognition that "undoing Hamas" is not an option and must give way to engaging it, however indirectly. Once a new Palestinian national unity government is formed, Israel can choose to engage it on day-to-day matters while confining political negotiations to those who qualify: Abbas and the PLO.
Israel's tough choice seems somewhat less ominous when the range of alternatives for dealing with Hamas is spelled out. A policy of contained but continuing violence is not sustainable. Even if the Israeli political system (and moral code) could live with it, it will not take long for things to get out of hand and for escalation to ensue. Indeed, even if all else were to remain equal--which is never the case--basing a national strategy on our ability to restrict the range of rockets from Gaza is unrealistic and irresponsible.
Fortunately, the option of a major military operation in Gaza "to undo Hamas once and for all" or at least "to send a decisive message regarding the price of misbehavior" is dreaded. This is not only because of the inevitable heavy casualties on both sides, but also in view of the absence of an exit strategy that improves the reality on the ground as well as the justified concern that initial international restraint or even support among all those hostile to Hamas will give way to pressure to end the bloodbath once television images change attitudes on Arab streets and elsewhere and before the elusive objective is attained.
The present Egyptian initiative to create a ceasefire can evolve into something far more important. While not all the cards are in our hand, we are powerful enough to play ours humbly.- Published 31/3/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Nimrod Novik is a former prime ministerial advisor, a businessman involved in the largest Arab-Israel joint ventures and chairman of ECF, the Israeli NGO that has been involved with all peace efforts since it launched the Oslo process.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.