At yesterday’s Capitol Hill panel discussion on “Re-calculating Annapolis” I tried to present the best arguments I could for the US to end its profoundly anti-democratic current practice of working with Israel and others to exclude and crush the organization that won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas.
The US, I concluded, should do whatever it can to promote these short- and medium-term goals:
- 1. A prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas;
2. A working ceasefire between Israel and Hamas;
3. Gaza’s economic disengagement from Israel and its connection to the world economy either through Egypt or directly; and
4. A reconciliation between Fateh and Hamas.
Attentive readers of JWN will be familiar with most of the arguments I made along the way, which I have made here on the blog and in this November 2007 article in The Nation. I also noted that the dedication with which the Bushists have pursued their anti-Hamas agenda since the 2006 elections has very seriously undermined the claims the administration has made that it is somehow (counter to the evidence on the ground) committed to spreading the ideals and practice of democracy around the world, and has made the administration look very hypocritical and opportunistic indeed.
I may or may not have noted in my presentation that the campaign to exclude and crush Hamas– which has included giving full support to all of Israel’s policies of besieging Gaza and undertaking large numbers of extra-judicial executions there and in the West Bank– has actually had the opposite of the desired effect. Hamas has thus far emerged stronger politically than it was back in January 2006. (And meanwhile, the cost that these policies have imposed on the Palestinian people, and also to the Israelis who reside in the south of their country, has been high. In the case of the 1.4 million Gazans, quite horrendous.)
I should have quoted Uri Avnery’s great recent quote that the Olmert government’s actions against Gaza have been “worse than a war crime, they have been a blunder.” But I didn’t have time to. At the very last minute my position on the event’s roster was changed from #5 to #2, so I had to do some very rapid last-minute editing/revising of my comments.
We spoke in this order:
- 1. Andrew Whitley, who runs UNRWA’s representative office in New York;
3. Ghaith al-Omari, Advocacy Director for the American Task Force on Palestine, and a former foreign policy advisor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas;
4. Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group;
5. Daniel Levy of the Century Fund and the New America Foundation.
Two of the other panelists, Malley and Levy, presented broadly the same arguments I was making. Whitley is precluded by the nature of his job as a UN employee from expressing political judgments; but the picture he painted of a besieged Gaza facing “a social explosion and an economic implosion”, and being poised “on the verge of a health pandemic”, was grim indeed.
As for our fifth fellow-panelist, Ghaith al-Omari, he was advocating a path very different from that urged by the rest of us. He spoke right after me, and almost his first words were that, “Elections are highly over-rated.” He argued that trying to deal with Hamas, “is neither doable nor desirable.” He acknowledged that Hamas, “represents a real force in Palestinian society and needs to be taken into account.” But, he said, the question was “On what terms should Mahmoud Abbas be expected to reconcile with it?” His answer was that Hamas needed to be further weakened before Abbas could deal with it.
That seemed to me like a clear invitation to the forces currently seeking to punish and crush Hamas to step up their efforts. And this from someone who, though he is not a Palestinian, works for an organization that claims to speak in some way for the Palestinians…
In Rob Malley’s presentation, which came next, he directly challenged the assumption underlying that last argument of Omari’s. “Hamas is getting stronger and Abbas is getting weaker,” Malley warned. “We should not assume that time is our friend.” He also warned that the very difficult situation in Gaza could well be “the crucible of the next Arab-Israeli war.”
He noted that the attempt to isolate Hamas had been aimed at pushing forward the “peace process.” But he noted that had not happened. (A little later, Levy argued that the Annapolis formula “was the best that Condi Rice could win support for from the White House; but it wasn’t actually a recipe for success.”)
The major point at which Malley seemed to diverge from my views is he said he thought Mahmoud Abbas should mediate both the ceasefire asnd the prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas. Personally I think that’s a recipe for disaster because (a) Abbas is not even on speaking terms with Hamas at this point; (b) There is anyway an existing mediator between Israel and Hamas on these two issues, and that is Egypt; so neither side “needs” Abbas to mediate for them (they could also communicate directly with each other if they wanted; this has happened in some limited ways in the past); (c) from a national-interest point of view, it actually seems very inappropriate for Abbas to “mediate” between Israel and Hamas; and finally (d), the biggest point of all: Abbas is actually increasingly weak and irrelevant.
Levy made a couple of excellent observations. Firstly, that “We now have no fewer than three U.S. generals in the region working on this issue– and none of them is doing anything that would count as de-escalation of the tensions.” Secondly, that what he had been learning from his Israeli compatriots was that Hamas had discernibly been trying to target military installations with its rockets, while it was Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees who had been sending rockets simply into the (populated) general vicinity of the city of Sderot. “Though Hamas,” he added, “has not intervened to stop them from doing that.”
I was encouraged to hear that Levy’s Israeli sources saw clear evidence of an attempt by the Hamas rocketeers to restrict their targeting to military installations. But that guidance certainly needs to be extended to their people undertaking other kinds of violent operations, too. (Hamas credibly claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing that on February 3 killed an elderly woman in Dimona; the two operatives involved reached Israel from the Hebron area, not from Gaza or Egypt.)
It was significant that though the title of our discussion was “Re-calculating Annapolis”, no-one spent much time looking at the actual (and very sad) record of what has been going on in the post-Annapolic negotiations. I made a point, in my presentation, of noting the political impact of the fact that the Syrians— after having taken the bold step of attending Annapolis– had received nothing but a very cold shoulder from the Bushites in return.
But really, none of us spent any time discussing the minutiae of the current formal “peace process.” Partly because so very, very little has been, in fact, going on. And partly because the whole confrontation over– and the recent bustout from– Gaza has completely eclipsed in importance whatever teeny baby steps forward (or backward) the “peace process” negotiations might have taken.
Talking of which, I found it intriguing to note that Salam Fayyad, the man whom Abbas picked as his Prime Minister after the Israelis had conveniently imprisoned a large number of the Hamas parliamentarians, has not been completely acting the role of compliant US/Israeli puppet. Fayyad’s been here in the US, partly doing family things. But he also gave a couple of policy addresses here in Washington, DC. And in one of them he complained openly that the checkpoints that the IOF maintains inside the West Bank– which were supposed to have decreased in number after Annapolis– “have increased, not decreased.”
Oh, and in further related news, on Tuesday Israel’s housing minister, Zeev Boim, announced plans to build more than 1,100 more new apartments in occupied East Jerusalem.
Under these circumstances, is it really any surprise that Abbas is so rapidly becoming weaker?