Palestinian fantasy vs. reality
IN JANUARY 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections. President George W. Bush had insisted on holding elections on schedule, against the advice of key regional allies. While US officials described the polling as "fair and secure," the Bush administration demonstrated that it loves democracy only so long as our friends win.
In this case, it was hardly "our friends" who won, but Hamas. With the United States in the lead and plenty of arm twisting, the European Union, the UN secretary general, and Russia insisted that Hamas recognize Israel, embrace Oslo, and renounce violence.
The United States was intent to see the Hamas government fail. Not only did it work assiduously to block international funding, but it poured arms and money into militias controlled by the discredited nationalist forces that had lost the election. To add to the pressure, Israel refused to transfer tax revenues paid by Palestinians to the new government.
A prime beneficiary of US largesse has been Muhammad Dahlan and his Preventive Security Force, which was decisively defeated last week by Hamas. Dahlan, who is about as popular in Gaza as Ahmed Chelabi is in Iraq, is Washington's man.
The path from 2006 might have led in a different, more constructive direction if the Bush administration were not so captured by an illusory black and white approach to Hamas and similar Islamist groups. These groups are neither easily shunted aside nor ignored.
A wiser policy would have worked to implicate Hamas in the diplomatic process by insisting on incremental changes that would not only have been more palatable to the Islamist party but permitted it to demonstrate that it was winning some benefits in return for concessions. While the refusal of Hamas to concede the legitimacy of Israel is a core ideological value, the party also endorses a long-term ceasefire with Israel. The Hamas diplomatic position is actually close to that of Israel in terms of accepting negotiations as an incremental process. In contrast, the PLO spurns partial agreements and insists on moving to final status negotiations.
Violence between Hamas and its political rivals has been growing for months. This is why King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia interceded (to the displeasure of Washington) earlier this year. The resulting Mecca agreement created a national unity government between Hamas and Fatah but it could not stop the clashes between rival militia and police groups loyal to Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas.
Having lost control of Gaza, Abu Mazen has issued an emergency edict to establish a government in the West Bank under Salam Fayyad, the respected economist. Israel promptly announced that it will release nearly $600 million in confiscated Palestinian funds. Both the United States and the EU will resume funding to bolster the emergency government.
For the foreseeable future there will be two governments, both claiming legitimacy. With Hamas controlling two-thirds of the seats in the Palestinians' equivalent of a parliament, the long-term legitimacy of the Fayyad government is by no means guaranteed.
The present Washington fantasy seems to be that the "good" West Bank government will become a model of diplomatic accommodation and a voice of non violence, as against the "bad" government under the elected Hamas leader Ismail Hanniyah.
This is a revealing fantasy, but it underestimates the well-honed capability of the Palestinians to see through diplomatic smokescreens. A Palestinian government that can deliver not just bread and jobs but a stable solution to the conflict would win a lot of credit, but a government that is merely a pliant dependency of the United States will soon lose its shine, especially given the absence of a sustained commitment to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Abu Mazen was extolled two years ago by George Bush as a democrat and reformer, but American engagement and support proved to be an empty promise.
Meantime, efforts to isolate Gaza under Hamas control will only reinforce America's abysmal standing in the Muslim world. Eighty percent of the 1.4 million people living in Gaza now live in poverty.
The United States needs to rethink its approach to Palestinian politics and peacemaking, as well as how it comprehends groups such as Hamas. The bloodletting in Gaza is a reminder that unless diplomacy makes room for all the major Palestinian players, the United States will only increase the vehemence and the cohesion of those who are left out of the picture.Augustus Richard Norton is an anthropology professor at Boston University. His new book is "Hezbollah: A Short History."