Hamas of Contradictions

Did U.S. indolence help Palestinian Islamists?


Last Saturday, The Washington Post published an article on how an office of the U.S. Agency for International Development had spent some $2 million to increase the popularity of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) in the period leading up to the legislative elections that took place yesterday in the West Bank and Gaza. With the Islamist group Hamas making a strong showing in pre-election polls, the U.S. government essentially tried to buy support for its rival, the secular Fatah movement that runs the P.A.

This hapless undertaking, which reportedly provoked debate inside USAID, only served as a reminder of how the Bush administration—which made the Middle East a cornerstone of its endeavors after 9/11—has had no effective policy on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since taking office. Instead, it advanced a "road map" to peace that was virtually dead on arrival, allowed the scheme to be exploited to justify unilateral actions, and now finds itself in a quandary with the ascendancy of Hamas, which will soon dominate the P.A. and will very probably pursue the armed struggle against Israel.

Thursday's results showed that a revolution had taken place in Palestinian politics, with Hamas winning 76 seats in the 132-seat parliament. That means Hamas will form the next government, although it will probably do so in coalition with Fatah (which took 43 seats) and others. At the least, the Islamist movement has ended the 40-year domination of Palestinian politics by secular parties. But beyond that, Hamas is now in a position to overhaul the way Palestinians deal with Israel. And that is where the uncertainty comes in, because Israeli officials have already made it clear that they will not negotiate with Hamas if it doesn't renounce violence.

How responsible is the United States for all this? An innovation of the administration was to argue that its ambitions in Iraq did not first require reconciling Palestinians and Israelis. In the buildup to the Iraq war, there was a resolute murmur from a coalition of liberals, Palestine sympathizers, some political realists, and even prominent politicians like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who insisted that the fate of the Palestinians was at the very heart of the Middle East's tribulations. Each side sought to address this for separate reasons: Blair thought it would neutralize Arab distaste for military action in Iraq; others thought that Israeli-Palestinian peace would make an American invasion redundant, since the region's longstanding cancer would go into remission, regional amity would blossom, and radicalism would shrivel up like a rose in mid-winter.

President George W. Bush disagreed, arguing that the central problem in the Arab world was an absence of liberty. He was right, but he overstated his case: Iraq never had much to do with the Palestinians; but the Palestinians are on the verge of inheriting a failed state in the West Bank and Gaza. A satisfactory end to their problem may not be as indispensable to regional harmony as some might think, but it is necessary, and the U.S. has offered precious little by way of new ideas to achieve this.

One can trace the American poverty of ideas back to two events: First, the May 1, 2003 road map, sponsored by the U.S., the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia. The plan built on a June 24, 2002 Bush speech calling for an independent Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel. It proposed an interlocking "performance-based" process of mutual measures that was supposed to lead to comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians by 2005. The second event was the growing refusal of the U.S. to deal with P.A. President Yasser Arafat, culminating in his complete cutoff from the administration in early 2003, and his appointment, under outside pressure, of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian prime minister in July of that year.

The combination of these developments ensured the road map would swiftly become irrelevant. Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leadership saw any real stakes in the plan. Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, had already made clear that his preferred solution to the dispute with the Palestinians involved Israel's giving up less occupied land than the road map would have brought about. Sharon sought a long truce in lieu of peace, so that he could create facts on the ground and impose a territorial settlement benefiting Israel. He shrewdly embraced the road map, since it would have been impolitic to do otherwise, but he then used it as a smokescreen to take unilateral action, building his "separation wall" throughout the West Bank, along a path he saw as the semi-final contours of separate Israeli and Palestinian states.

Sharon had much help from the Palestinians on that score. Arafat was both unwilling and probably unable to end Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israel, and had no incentive to endorse a peace plan preparing his political elimination. Though the U.S. naively placed all its hopes in Abbas, he was easily outmaneuvered by the PA president, and resigned only two months into taking office. This inaugurated an extended period of disintegration in Palestinian areas, where an increasingly secluded Arafat presided over a corrupt and discredited administration until his death in November 2004.

The Bush administration, taken up with the situation in Iraq, continued adhering to the fiction of the road map, even as Sharon extended Israel's wall, arguing that he was merely defending Israeli citizens. That the route of the wall failed to follow the 1967 borders, which the U.S. considers the boundary line between Israel and occupied Arab territory, and actually cut deeply into the West Bank, underlined how Sharon was being permitted to single-handedly delimit Israel's borders. The U.S. protested, but never put any muscle into its dissents. The flip side of Sharon's strategy was to get rid of areas he felt Israel could not control indefinitely, particularly Gaza, with its large Palestinian population, but also parts of the West Bank.

Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who inspired Sharon's "unilateral disengagement" concept, reaffirmed its underlying philosophy on Tuesday, declaring in Herzliya: "The choice between allowing Jews to live in all parts of the land of Israel and living in a state with a Jewish majority mandates giving up parts of the Land of Israel. We cannot continue to control parts of the territories where most of the Palestinians live." Olmert also noted, "Israel will keep security zones, main settlement blocs, and places important to the Jewish people, first of all Jerusalem, united under Israeli control."

Sharon's coup was that he gave the international community, particularly the U.S., something to applaud at a time of deadlock in the peace process, even though, once finished, Israel's withdrawals will undermine the principle of mutuality implicit in the road map, but also in the previous Oslo Accords. And now the price tag has come: Sensing that they will have no say on their future state because Israel will impose its dimensions, discouraged with the mediocrity of Fatah's secular leadership, fed up with their grinding poverty, many Palestinians yesterday voted for Hamas, which they see as combining nationalism, military effectiveness, and Islamic morality.

The rise of Hamas may momentarily prove right those Israelis who insist there is no Palestinian partner to talk to, allowing people like Olmert to continue unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank. But at the end of the day, the nature of a neighboring Palestinian state will be as important to Israelis as the amount of occupied land they manage to retain. A truncated, suffocated Palestine will be one where popular dissatisfaction will surely lead to more violence being directed against Israel—if only as a means Palestinian parties will use to compete with each other for power in their budding entity. Optimists argue that participation in decision-making may make Hamas more moderate. But isn't the movement much more likely to stick to the armed militancy that won it such popularity?

This doesn't bode well for Israeli-Palestinian relations. You should certainly blame the Palestinians for supporting suicide attacks against Israeli civilians, and wonder how Israelis can believe that forcibly assimilating occupied Palestinian land into their state will lead to a permanent settlement. But what of the Bush administration? It is guilty of undermining the very principles it advanced to resolve the quarrel between Israelis and Palestinians. It helped create a Palestinian wasteland and desperately wanted to call it peace. Now Hamas is calling the shots.