June 26, 2007
Hamas’ Coup in Gaza Makes Mid-East Peace a Remote Fantasy: It’s Time for a Change in U.S. Policy
Dear Friend of FLAME:
I’m sure the irony of last week’s flurry of Mid-East “peace initiatives” was not lost on you. Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert have been invited to a summit meeting in Egypt that will include Condoleezza Rice and representatives from Egypt and Jordan. And they will discuss what exactly? Only the most naïve Mid-East observer would claim that the conditions for peace between Israel and the Palestinians have improved over the last three months or six months or year. To the contrary: Overall, the Palestinians as a group have become less interested in and less capable of forging a peace deal than ever in the history of the conflict.
Start with the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA): Two weaker figureheads for either party have never existed since Israel’s founding in 1948. Olmert’s approval rating is significantly lower than George Bush’s, who himself is itself setting low popularity records for a modern U.S. president. Abbas and his “ruling” Fatah party have virtually no control over the PA’s factions and surely none over Hamas. (On the other side, Hamas’ leader Ismael Haniya has little influence over Islamic Jihad or the Army of Islam, which is holding BBC reporter Alan Johnston, in Gaza.) Then there’s control on the ground: While Israel’s security is solid, the PA just lost Gaza, presumably forever, and has only a tenuous hold over the West Bank. Indeed, without the presence of Israeli troops in the West Bank, chaos---or civil war---would likely break out there as well.
But the supreme irony of today’s international focus on Mahmoud Abbas is that in comparison to Hamas’ chief terrorist Haniya, Abbas actually starts to look like a good guy. Don’t be fooled: The thought of Abbas governing a Palestinian state is a nightmare. Forget the fact that Abbas has shown himself to be fully incapable of governing even his own Fatah party. Forget the fact that his Ph.D. thesis was research attempting to prove that the Holocaust didn’t happen. Forget, too, the fact that Abbas’ official Palestinian Authority media issue a flood of anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, pro-terrorist propaganda in the West Bank every day. No, bad as they are, these are not the scariest problems when we try to visualize Abbas as head of the first Palestinian state.
The biggest problem is that philosophically and in practice Abbas is no different than Arafat---the man who to his dying day insisted to Arab audiences he was committed to driving Jews out of Palestine and returning the relatives of Palestinian refugees to their ancestors’ land. Other similarities: Both Arafat and Abbas have endorsed and used terrorism to achieve their goals; neither has ever renounced it.
Because of these realities, Barry Rubin’s article below calls for an urgent and dramatic rethinking of U.S. policy around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East in general. It is not just Israel that can’t afford another Gaza---it is the United States. Rubin is a prolific commentator on Mid-East politics, director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and author of "The Truth About Syria" (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007). I think you’ll find his analysis provocative and useful in understanding the critical crossroads we’ve reached.
The seizure of the Gaza Strip by Hamas opens a new period in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Middle East. A new Islamist state is being established and it doesn't bode well for the West or regional stability.
And yet we can hope that something will be learned from this experience. Israel's left-leaning Ha'aretz expresses the lesson with what some would call British understatement: "Anyone in Israel still contemplating the question of a Palestinian partner might also need to do some rethinking. In Gaza, at least, it seems there is nobody left for Israel to talk to."
In 2000, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat turned down President Bill Clinton's offer of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem and an opening offer of $23 billion in aid. Ever since then it has been clear that there is no diplomatic solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Arafat's renewal of terrorist violence only reinforced this point.
The problem was not just Arafat, but the overall strategy of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian movement. Since the peace process began in 1993 with the Oslo Accords, that leadership made hardly a single effort to move Palestinian society toward peace and moderation. Fatah did have an attractive alternative it could have offered: We will get a state, return the refugees to live in it, develop our economy and culture and enjoy large-scale international aid in exchange for ending the conflict.
Instead it continued to glorify violence, spread hatred of Israel and America, and raise a new generation with a belief in eventual "total" victory and the extinction of Israel. After Arafat died, Fatah remained incompetent and corrupt but lacked a strong leader. Unable to obtain a state, unwilling to make peace and uninterested in governing well, Fatah dug its own grave. Why should anyone be surprised that Hamas replaced it? At most, Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and American pressure to hold fair elections only accelerated this process.
There has been another important lesson in this recent history: Most of the Arab states and movements need the conflict to continue. After all, what would mismanaging dictatorial regimes do without having Israel as a scapegoat? If, for example, Syria made peace with Israel in exchange for getting back the Golan Heights, it would be the beginning of the end for that regime. Within weeks, its people would be demanding human rights and free-enterprise economic reforms. The regime could not use anti-Israel and anti-American demons as an excuse to continue the dictatorship, deprive its people of rights and material well-being, and mobilize support. The same applies to radical Islamist movements seeking to gain power.
So let's get this straight: There is no near-term solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is no Palestinian side with which a compromise agreement can be negotiated. Many Arab states seek to exploit the conflict. Others would like to make peace but are too scared, and it is to the West's discredit that such states don't believe that it can or will protect them.
There are several key policy conclusions to be drawn from the Hamas triumph. First, Western and especially U.S. policy must get beyond an obsession with solving this conflict. It is going to go on for decades. Peace plans will go nowhere. Hamas will not be persuaded to moderate -- why should it when it expects victory at home and appeasement from Europe? Hamas is the enemy, just as much as al Qaeda, because it is part of the radical Islamist effort to seize control of the region, overthrow anything even vaguely moderate, and expel any Western influence.
Second, since Palestinian politics have clearly returned to a pre-1993 status, so must Western and U.S. policy. This means no Western aid and no diplomatic support until their leaders change policies. The Palestinian movement can only earn financial help and political backing on the very distant day when it accepts Israel's right to exist, stops endorsing and using terrorism, and is serious about negotiating a real two-state solution.
Third, it is time to support Israel proudly and fully. Israel has done everything possible for peace, taking great risks to do so. But the idea that evenhanded, confidence-building behavior can broker peace is regrettably dead.
There are wider strategic implications for U.S. and Western interests in this dramatic yet predictable development. The radical forces have gained a major new asset that will encourage the recruitment of new cadre. Iran, Syria and Hezbollah will grow more confident and aggressive.
We are now in the middle of the third great battle with totalitarianism in living memory. As with the struggles against fascism and communism, this conflict can only be won by a mobilization of Western resources and resolve. What has happened in the Gaza Strip is a lost battle in that process. There is not room for too many more of these defeats.
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