Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

"The Mecca Agreement and the persistence of wishful thinking," March 19, 2007.

A couple of years ago, I hosted a Coop radio show called “Peace Watch—Middle East.” about a phenomenon that was nearly unknown at that time in North America—the Palestinian-Israeli peace movement. I spent six months interviewing activists many of whom worked on both sides of the Green Line—Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and Canadians. One of the biggest surprises was that everyone I talked to shared what seemed to me the irrational belief that peace could only come to the Middle East through foreign intervention.

Unlike, the people of Afghanistan who have a tradition of expelling foreign invaders once they have overstayed their welcome, many Palestinians expressed the feeling that the world had forgotten them. They wondered out loud why the international community did not play a more active role in resolving their conflict with Israel. Some suggested that the US Marine Corps was right for the intervention. NATO was mentioned, even UN peacekeepers.

In recent weeks, World Report has resumed examination of UN peacekeeping, an examination that began in June of 2006 when NDP leader Jack Layton expressed the view that Canada should get out of Afghanistan and return to is role as a UN peacekeeper.

Part of that position is the opportunity cost of sinking all our resources into Afghanistan. Overstretching our military in Afghanistan effectively prevents us from going to a place like Darfur where the enormity of the humanitarian crisis is precisely the kind of situation that calls for intervention under the responsibility to protect doctrine. That doctrine is not above challenge, but that is another story.

The West Bank and Gaza is different. But the willingness of many Palestinian people and some of the political class along with the pivotal role of that conflict to peace in the region make the possibility of peacekeeping in the Occupied Territories another opportunity that we lose by being overextended in Afghanistan.

Canadians seldom think about the Occupied Territories as an opportunity to make peace because dialogue about the Middle East is often limited to an exchange of party lines. The opportunity has existed for some years now, but this February the door swung nearly shut, and that may be a good thing.
Back in January 2006, even before he was sworn in as Prime Minister, Stephen Harper jumped at the chance to announce that Canada would not be recognizing the newly elected Palestinian government. Instead, we joined the US and the Europeans in answering Israel's call to boycott Hamas.

In recent months it has come to light that immediately after the Hamas victory, US Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams concocted a scheme to supply arms, ammunition and training aimed at fomenting a civil war and the overthrow the Hamas government.

Meanwhile, Hamas had rejected the West's 3 famous conditions—recognition of Israel, acceptance of previous agreements, and a renunciatgion of violence--but was offering a ceasefire, possibly of indefinite duration instead. The West's vision is evidently that the Palestinian state will be the first to renounce what is widely referred to as the nation state's monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. But that too is another story.

Officials thought that the additional weapons would easily cow Hamas operatives, who would meekly surrender the offices they had only recently so dearly won.

Alastair Crooke and Mark Perry are consultants associated with the Conflict Forum who have in recent months reported in detail on what they have called their “experiment in listening” with representatives from Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and and Pakistan's Jamaat e Islami.

They have pieced together the story of the American attempt to replace Hamas from details they gleaned from the Arab and Israeli press as well as from their own sources.

The idea originated with Elliott Abrams and Dick Cheney and quickly found a home under Condoleeza Rice's wing. It became a project under her “trilateral diplomacy” which replaced the Quartet's moribund Road Map, with Israel, the US, and the Palestinians and a plan for Palestinhian civil war.

It was an ugly baby not much liked by anyone right til the day it died.

According to Perry and Crooke "The Pentagon hated it, the US Embassy in Israel hated it, and even the Israelis hated it."

Egypt and Jordan, the American allies who would end up carrying the ball didn't like it either. Both King Abdullah of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak believed the program would not work.

Even Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense at the time was "enraged" when he learned about it. Rumsfeld tried to convince Bush that the program would boomerang.

It is instructive to note in passing that there has long been a source of ideas inside the administration that is even worse than Bush and Rumsfeld.

In any case, the plan went ahead

By late December, according to Ha'aretz, senior Israeli intelligence officials were telling Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Hamas could not be brought down. They also said Fatah, whose militias would be receiving the weapons, was disintegrating.

“Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin told the cabinet Sunday [December 24] that should elections be held in the Palestinian Authority, Fatah's chances of winning would be close to zero.”

They also doubted whether Hamas could be weakened. They pointed out that since the beginning of the program, Hamas had actually gained strength, in part because its leaders are considered competent, transparent, uncorrupt and unwilling to compromise their ideals. (Perry and Crooke Jan 9 07).

These officials argued that any hope for the success of a US program aimed at replacing Hamas would fail. Olmert gave the plan his unenthusiastic support, perhaps because he felt he had no choice.

Perry and Crooke report that on the same day as the Israeli cabinet meeting, Jordanian King Abdullah “kept Abbas waiting for six hours to see him in Amman. Eventually, Abdullah told Abbas that he should go home - and only come to see him again when accompanied by Hamas leader and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh."

Although neither Abdullah nor Mubarak has any particular love for Hamas, they both had reason to worry if they were seen bringing down the elected Palestinian government. 50% of Jordan's population is Palestinian. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, where the Hamas movement originated, has created a popular opposition party.

Like Olmert, Mubarak and the Jordanian Abdullah agreed to let the boss have her way. The CIA was put in charge of the program, but according to Perry and Crooke, they "didn't like it and didn't think it would work." either.

Meanwhile back in Washington, Abrams worried that his program was being sidetracked; not only was Rice talking about restarting the peace process with Abu Mazen, but the US Congress had put US$86 million of aid to Fatah on hold over fears that some it could be used against Israel.

Saudi King Abdullah's national security adviser and former Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, had devised a plan to extend an invitation that President Abu Mazen of the Fatah party and strategist Khalid Meshaal of Hamas meet in Mecca to sort through their differences and form a unity government.

In January, the situation seemed to be slipping out of control. "Hamas officials had intercepted truckloads of semi-automatic M14 rifles left over from the early Vietnam era and destined to help Fatah forces overthrow Hamas in Gaza. Fatah was embarrassed, but covered themselves with a bluff, saying that the trucks carried medical equipment and tents. Then Fatah spokesmen raised the stakes, announcing that they had arrested five Iranian military trainers helping Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This was proof, they claimed, that Hamas was being armed and trained by Iranian Shi'ite radicals.

Fatah did not produce the Iranian trainers, but Hamas leaders said they would return the "tents and pills" to Fatah - and keep the guns. [Hamas has a reputation for integrity, transparency, honesty while Fatah was known to be corrupt long before it came to be seen as an instrument of American foreign policy.]

Abbas sat on the fence while his party, the Americans, Canadian and European supporters of the Israeli boycott of Hamas waited for the Hamas government to collapse--much in the same way that we are still waiting for the infamous "backlash" against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and dancing in the streets of Baghdad to celebrate the arrival of the American liberators, and the discovery of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. It was a gloomy testamonial to the unswerving persistence of the wishful thinking faction.

Meanwhile Hamas, well into its second year of government, was on the threshhold of a summit in Mecca

Then on the evening of February 1, pro-American Fatah activists torched Gaza's Islamic University. By the morning of February 2, three separate buildings on the university campus lay in ashes. Hamas leaders told Abu Mazen that their grassroots membership viewed the incident as an invasion of a sacred precinct. Fatah had crossed the line.

Hamas ordered the occupation of Fatah-controlled police stations. Three were overrun. Abu Mazen was shaken and finally affirmed that he would attend the Mecca summit. He didn't want to be remembered as the first Palestinian president to preside over a Palestinian civil war.

In Saudi Arabia, Islamic University incident did not play well. The Saudi royal family feared to be seen supporting a program designed to have Sunnis killing Sunnis.

King Abdullah decided to break with the United States. He had given the Americans a year to deliver on the promise that they would transform the Palestinian political landscape, and they had failed.

Support of Egypt and Jordan for America's anti-Hamas plan had been lukewarm. The Road Map was in the glove box and the Quartet was losing the race with an overlong pitstop.

Rice had broken her promise that the Quartet would lead diplomatic efforts to recast the Palestinian political environment. Her announcement that her "trilateral diplomacy" (Israel, US and the Palestinians) would replace the Quartet insulted the EU and Russia. More and more Arab leaders were doubting her leadership, too.

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