Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The failed strategy on Hamas


Something unusual is happening. World Report listeners will be familiar with Bitterlemons, a monthly internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific controversy and attempts to maintain organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides. It does this by presenting four articles, two by Israelis and two by Palestinians.

This month, the issue of concern is entitled “Reassessing the strategy on Hamas.” In keeping with its usual format, the editors--one a Palestinian, the other an Israeli—present their positions first.

For those who may be uncertain what the “strategy on Hamas” is, Ghassan Khatib, the Palestinian co-editor of BitterLemons, who is currently vice-president of Birzeit University in Ramallah, explains.

"The strategy has been articulated in different statements and speeches by US President George W. Bush, advocated verbally by Israel and pursued by both the US and Israel as well as the PA. It comprises several components. Overall, the strategy seeks to make the "West Bank model" more attractive to Palestinians than the "Gaza model". The idea is to do this by imposing political and economic sanctions on Hamas in Gaza and at the same time providing increased economic aid to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and, possibly, through the PA to Gaza. Finally, the strategy is to re-launch a political process of the kind that would empower Abbas politically, partly by reducing Israeli restrictions in the West Bank to improve the conditions for Palestinians there.

"Hand-in-hand with the strategy came a proposal by Abbas that early elections should be held before national unity and order could be restored. This, of course, was assuming that the above strategy would work to shift public opinion and ensure victory for the opponents of Hamas." (Khatib Mar 31 08)

There is not much to contest about this description. For a variety of reasons, not everyone agrees that it is the best policy or even a little bit good. But it is generally understood to be the “strategy on Hamas.”

What is unusual this time around is that all four writers believe that the strategy has failed. In the last couple of years, balance of Bitter Lemons has shifted somewhat since the election of Hamas in 2005. Khatib was formerly the Minister of Planning in the Palestinian Authority. Naturally, his sympathies align most frequently with the PA led by Abbas and Sayyad rather than with Hamas.

So it is significant that he concludes the strategy on Hamas is “self-defeating,” “failing” and “needs to be revised from its fundamentals.”

Khatib's co-editor, Yossi Alpher, was special adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and a former director of the Jafee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. “That the boycott has failed,” he says, “is painfully obvious. The economic depravation [sic] of Gaza has not brought Hamas to its knees.”

In the West Bank, he says,
“the other half of the western/Israeli strategy--bringing prosperity and stability to the population in order that the contrast between the two geographic parts of Palestine persuade the population to support the Abbas/Fayyad leadership and reject Hamas--has also failed.”

Similarly, Gaza-based journalist Safwat Kahlout writes that “after two years, the attempt to undermine Hamas' popularity has failed.”

Like Khatib and Alpher, Kahlout has in mind recent public opinion polls by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, which he says “show an increase in support for the movement [i.e., Hamas].” But it's not just support for Hamas that is growing. As Khatib points out these polls “show that the long-term trend of increased public support for Hamas and decline in support for Fateh and the peace camp continues.” [Emphasis added -jlt]

Alpher adds that “Hamas is more popular than ever, not only in Gaza but in the West Bank as well.”

While noting that “Palestinian opinion polls, and particularly the latest Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research poll ... have become a potent instrument for influencing policy,” Alpher warns that
“This is not always a good thing: opinion polls, assuming they are accurate, are a snapshot reflecting the public's reactions to specific events but not necessarily its inclination to respond to inspired leadership or breakthrough developments or, for that matter, the best policy options.” [link added -jlt]

The fourth BitterLemons writer—and the second Israeli—does not appear to be responding to public opinion polls. Nimrod Novik is also a former prime ministerial advisor, a businessman involved in larg Arab-Israel joint ventures and chairman of the Economic Cooperation Foundation, an Israeli NGO that has been involved with all peace efforts since its founder Dr. Yair Hirschfeld launched the Oslo process.
He is at the same time more detailed and more sweeping in his criticism of the strategy on Hamas.
"For several decades now, Israeli policy toward the Palestinians has been all too frequently governed by false assumptions. These include the presumption to "produce" an alternative Palestinian leadership that is more amenable to Israeli preferences and an equally condescending claim to "reeducate" Palestinians to alternative thinking.

"All such attempts have failed. They began with the promotion of the village leagues as an alternative to the PLO in the 1970s and efforts to create an "authentic local leadership" for the same purpose in the '80s. They continued with the declared intention of 'strengthening Abu Mazen' that mostly left him empty handed when we failed to follow up, or portrayed him as a collaborator when we did act but sought public credit for it. From the patronizing 'we shall enshrine in their consciousness' of the early 2000s to the recent equally delusional attempt to 'undo the Hamas electoral victory via Mohammad Dahlan', all ended in failure.

"The common bottom line has been a resounding reiteration that we Israelis are very poor manipulators of intra-Palestinian politics."

Unexpected agreement on this point comes from Alpher who laments,
the failure of the strategy of favoring the West Bank over Gaza to make the peace process attractive is but the latest in a 40-year series of abortive Israeli carrot and stick policies that mistakenly assumed it was possible to significantly influence Palestinian political behavior through economic means. You'd think we'd have learned.

Kahlout joins the chorus, quote “By refusing to grant Abbas even the smallest achievement to show for his efforts, the Israelis have convinced Palestinians that Abbas is weak and that Hamas is right when it says that Israel is not serious about peace and negotiations are thus a waste of time.“

Khatib notes that “Israel in fact has no interest in empowering Mahmoud Abbas or the Palestinian peace camp. Nor has Israel any interest in encouraging an effort that would reverse the political and geographical split that now exists between the West Bank and Gaza.”

Novik goes a step further: Cutting Hamas off from international sources of political and financial support made the movement more dependent on Iran, strengthened its hold on Gaza, and increased its popularity in the West Bank.

He warns plausibly that “the next step will not be via the ballot box. If Hamas fails, the alternative will likely be further radicalization, from an Islamic-nationalist movement to a "jihadi-globalist" one allied with Al-Qaeda.

“At that point,” Novik warns, “there will indeed be no common ground between them and us.” endquote

For those who believe that Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda are all one entity, engagement with Hamas has always been unthinkable. This particular avenue to peace has always appeared to be closed.
For those who believe that Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda are all one entity, engagement with Hamas has always been unthinkable. This particular avenue to peace has always appeared to be closed.
For those who do see the differences, the clear failure of the “strategy on Hamas” means that reconciliation between Hamas and the PA is a prerequisite for fruitful discussions between Israel and the Palestinians.
Novik believes “the trend may yet be reversed.”

He proposes “a less presumptuous approach.” First, Israel needs to concede that it is not able to select Palestinian leaders and adjust its policy accordingly. Second, he argues that Abbas cannot be effective as a representative of only half of his people.
Both Khatib and Novik argue that Palestinian reconciliation is a necessary first step.
“For that to happen,” according to Novik, “Israel and the United States need to free Abbas of the threat to boycott him and his government once he reengages Hamas.”
As the leader of a unity government, Abbas would probably have a different negotiating platform. So Novik urges the parties to seek “lesser objectives” than a final status agreement.

Alpher holds out a faint hope that Olmert and Abbas may yet hammer out a peace deal though he doubts that either man could rally his people to support it. He concludes that Israel should beware of “dramatic policy changes that further weaken Abbas as long as there is any chance at all of a peace breakthrough.

Safwat Kahlout believes “The international community would do well to reconsider its underlying assumption that economic sanctions will do anything to move the Palestinian people from its fundamentally principled support for Hamas.”

And Novik concludes that “...the most difficult adjustment of all entails recognition that 'undoing Hamas' is not an option and must give way to engaging it, however indirectly” (Novik).

BitterLemons doesn't represent all the extremes of Israeli and Palestinian politics. But it does represent a broader range than most. Consensus is rare; agreement, uncommon.

Given the rare unanimity on this point, it may be time to the strategy of isolating Hamas a failure.

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