Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

"New hope for peace in the Middle East?" August 6, 2007.

Kathleen Christison, a former CIA analyst, was right when she claimed that the language used to describe the recent conflict between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza strip had the situation backward.

Even CTV has called it a coup, CBC said it was a “violent takeover” by Hamas, and the National Post referred to the “loss” of Gaza by Fatah forces. These events are held to provide an altogether “new hope for peace.”

As Christison points out, whether we like it or not, Hamas was the legally constituted, democratically elected government of the Palestinians. So in the first place Hamas did not stage a coup but rather was the target of a coup planned, as it happens, by a minority of Fatah funded by the US.

Alastair Crooke, who helped facilitate a number of Israeli-Palestinian ceasefires between 2001 and 2003, and was a member of the Mitchell Commission on the causes of the Second Intifada, says

“Hamas’s action was conducted with the aim of removing the influence of just one of Fatah’s security forces in Gaza, the militia controlled by Muhammad Dahlan, Abbas’s national security adviser. Hamas has insisted that this has not been a conflict with Fatah in general, and it was notable that neither the Palestinian security forces – effectively the Palestinian ‘army’ – nor the police in Gaza were targets of the recent violence” (LRB Vol. 29 No. 13, 5 July 2007).

Christison's view coincides with that of senior Fatah political advisor and former Palestinian Authority interior minister Hani Al-Hassan. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Al-Hassan accused Dahlan of trying to assassinate him.

Following the interview, representatives of Dahlan's forces demanded that Abbas fire Al-Hassan, while masked gunmen opened fire on Hassan's home in Ramallah. (Al-Ahram 5-11 Jul 07)

Although Fatah's coup attempt failed in Gaza, it succeeded overall when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in a move of questionable legality, ended the Palestinian unity government, and named a new prime minister and cabinet.

The plan to foment civil strife between Palestinian factions, as discussed in the March 19 World Report, was the handiwork of the United States in the person of Elliott Abrams, a well-known figure from the Reagan era who was convicted (and later pardoned) on charges related to the Iran-Contra scandal.

But backroom power-brokers like Abrams quickly yield center stage to the prospect for a political resolution of the daunting Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the new hope for peace.

Is this for real? Hardly anyone thinks so.

The key to understanding the widespread skepticism about this so-called new hope for peace lies in the weakness of all three leaders.

Bush, with an approval rating that hovers just below 30%, has had effectively no policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until now and little that could be called an outright foreign-policy success. North Korea, Ukraine, and Georgia have to count as accomplishments whose merits remain to be proven. Now suddenly he has decided that the time is right to buy the Palestinians at a bargain price.

As a follow-up to Abrams failed coup, Washington has urged Israel to release hundreds of millions of dollars in tax monies, said it would work toward the creation of a Palestinian state, pressured Israel to ease travel restrictions in the West Bank, awarded the Abbas government economic and security aid in the tens of millions of dollars, urged Arab nations to support Abbas’s political program, called on the EU to take similar actions, dispatched a team of experts to assess Palestinian needs, called for an international conference to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and conducted high-level talks with Arab nations to make certain their support for these programs was assured.

As Christison points out, the tax monies are trickling in and, in the end, will be just a small fraction of the money owed. The release of political prisoners applies to 250 individuals of an estimated 10,000 currently detained in Israeli prisons.

Back in the March 19 World Report I presented Abram's attempt to foment civil war between Fatah and Hamas as “an ugly baby” that had “died” with the agreement in Mecca to form a unity government. As I saw it Saudi King Abdullah believed that in coming to Mecca, Abbas was rejecting Abrams' program of civil war against Hamas.

If that is what he thought, he was clearly wrong and some tension is already showing in the relation between the US and the Saudis. After talks with Condoleeza Rice last week, Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said his country favoured a peace conference dealing with "the substantive matters of peace, the issues of real substance and not form or insubstantive issues."

He went on to say that if this--dare we say improbable--condition were met, “we will look very closely and very hard at attending the conference."

Abbas, for his part, is seen not only as weak but as a reluctant occupant of his office. Still, in the wake of the failed coup, like Bush he has been a busy man.

President Abbas cut ties with Hamas, declared an emergency government, suspended the workings of the Palestinian Legislative Council, arrested dozens of Hamas legislative members, clamped down on anti-government protests, purged critics in his own Fatah movement, and announced he would begin immediate talks with the Olmert government.

According to Mark Perry a co-director of the Conflicts Forum with numerous political contacts inside the Occupied Territories, Palestinian society is not divided. He believes that Hamas is still popular and is gaining strength and that it truly represents mainstream Palestinian society. Perry sees some hope in this as he believes that Hamas is not innately or irrevocably wedded to violence—a view not shared by many in the West.

On the other hand, Perry shares the broad consensus that Fatah is broken from top to bottom. The political battle being waged in the West Bank now is being waged inside of Fatah. Citing posters in the West Bank that portray Abbas as a Palestinian Pinochet, Perry concludes that Abbas is becoming increasingly isolated.

Perry adds that the Egyptians and Saudis have repudiated the Americans' program to overthrow Hamas, and instead have urged Fatah and Hamas to reconcile. Even Colin Powell has called for talks with the Hamas leadership, while Israel’s support for Abu Mazen remains predictably indifferent.

Perry imagines Israelis

“quietly laughing into their tea and shaking their heads: we’re going to support Abu Mazen? We’re going to send him guns? We’re going to conduct talks with him and calculate that he will be able to produce competent and uncorrupt administration — and one that has the support of his people?”

Olmert, for his part, is unlikely to remove any settlements from the West Bank, which is fundamental to the creation of a Palestinian state. Sharon had difficulty enough removing settlers from Gaza, but Olmert is not Sharon, and the West Bank is not Gaza.

In Israel, the West Bank is often referred to as Judaea and Samaria to emphasize its biblical significance. Gaza was a spoil of the 1967 war with good beaches.

If Bush is a lame duck, a role he has already played for nearly a year, Olmert is barely surviving on life support, and the Israeli public are ready to pull the plug. 8 percent of Israelis say Olmert is the right man for the job. That leaves 92% who think not. Keep in mind that Netanyahu, the current Israeli favourite, put the Oslo peace process on ice last time he was PM.

There is nothing charismatic about removing settlers. It will not restore Olmert's popularity. He never was really popular in the first place, and no one is competing with him for the task of deleting settlements.

Sharon guessed correctly that he could get away with boldly removing settlers from Gaza. Sharon was a military hero with rare political skills. Moreover, he was widely loathed by Palestinians, which was probably one of his assets when it came time to remove settlers from Gaza.

Olmert, on the other hand, was a Captain in the IDF and a former mayor of Jerusalem. He would not be likely to retain the loyalty of either the army or the settlers if he tried restoring the 1967 borders for such a questionable deal.

Sharon was probably the only Israeli politician—other than Moshe Dayan—who could evacuate any settlements, and he was ready to stop with Gaza.

No one obvious has either the charisma or the boldness or the credibility with the militant settlers to finish what Sharon started. Not Netanyahu, not Peres, not Barak. Then who?

North Americans who think that Israeli settlers look like hippies need to keep in mind one key difference. There is no bohemian class of people anywhere, including hippies, that ever received the kind of support from their government and indeed the whole establishment that Israeli settlers have received from theirs.

One Israeli general was provoked to object that using tanks to escort settler children to their music lessons is a waste of resources. No hippy kid ever had it so good.

It is also common to differentiate between political settlers, who see themselves as armed agents of the occupation, from economic ones, who were attracted by cheap land.

This view ignores that the Israeli political class created the settlers one and all and will likely expect to use them, if necessary, to further its own objectives. Yesterday's heroes may be tomorrow's bargaining chips.

This is a composite view that begins as a search for hope and ends in what look like many signs of desperation.

If all this seems to tarnish the bright new hope for peace, it is best to remember that peace itself is one of the imponderables. In 1973, Richard Nixon negotiated the end of the Vietnam war. That's still hard to believe.

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