MJ Rosenberg*


Source: Israel Policy Forum (http://www.israelpolicyforum.org), Friday, June 22, 2007. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service with permission to republish.

People seem to be waking up. Initially following the Hamas takeover of Gaza, conventional wisdom coalesced around the idea of flooding the West Bank with aid to strengthen President Mahmoud Abbas and also teach Hamas a lesson.

This was fine advice which some of us have been offering (without success) since 2005 when Mahmoud Abbas became President following the death of Yasir Arafat. It became even more urgent when it was clear that Hamas was going to mount a serious challenge to Abbas in the parliamentary elections of 2006. Our position was simple: if we wanted Hamas to lose, we needed to make sure Abbas could show the Palestinian people that he could deliver for them.

The response from both Israel and Washington was predictable; as a precondition for serious engagement and aid, Abbas would first have to do this, that, and the other thing. As for Congress, it grandstanded to the skies with Congressmen railing about Palestinian textbooks and indicating that there was little difference between Abbas and Yasir Arafat. Even following Arafat’s death, Congress was still engaged in Arafat-bashing rather than looking for ways to bolster Abbas.

Flash forward to the inevitable Hamas victory over Abbas in the 2006 election. And again Congress rushed to put more conditions on the aid they were so stingy about providing even before. Again there was an opportunity to strengthen Abbas with significant aid but it was rejected with enthusiasm in favour of a Palestinian-bashing field day.

That brings us to the latest crisis. Suddenly the very people who demanded that we treat Abbas as if he was Arafat are urging that we flood him with aid. With Abbas having lost Gaza, we suddenly realize that our policies were wrong all along. At last, we are prepared to do what we might have done when it counted. Better late than never, I guess.

An editorial in last Wednesday’s Washington Post demonstrates the shift in the conventional wisdom. The Post editorial page (unlike its news pages) is a bastion of neo-conservative thinking on the Middle East. There are few editorial pages more hard-line on Israel than the Post’s, and none more unrealistic about Israel’s chances of achieving security absent a deal with the Palestinians.

But on Wednesday, the Post shifted big time. To its credit, it not only moved to the easy way-station of supporting more aid to Abbas while ignoring Gaza (the position Dennis Ross took in the Wall Street Journal), but all the way to the common sense understanding that believing we can freeze out Hamas is downright ridiculous.

Referring to the Bush-Olmert summit, the Post writes: “The most dangerous illusion to emerge from the U.S.-Israeli discussions is the idea that Hamas can be isolated in Gaza while Mr. Abbas is built up in the West Bank. The Palestinian president is unlikely to abandon the 1.5 million people of Gaza to a de facto military and economic siege. If he does, Hamas will use its own forces to ensure that the West Bank also is ungovernable or to start a new war with Israel. As repugnant as its terrorism and ideology are, Hamas won a free election and still has the support of a large part of the Palestinian population. It cannot be abolished by decree, and isolation will only make it more radical and more dependent on sponsors in Syria and Iran.”

Also in the Washington Post, former Clinton Middle East advisers Rob Malley and Aaron Miller (who have been consistently right about US policy) wrote: “We should not be fooled by Abbas’s rhetoric. Sooner or later he will be forced to pursue new power-sharing arrangements between Hamas and Fatah and restore unity among Palestinians… And should a national unity government be established, this time [the Bush administration] should welcome the outcome and take steps to shore it up. Only then will efforts to broker credible political negotiations between Abbas and his Israeli counterpart on a two-state solution have a chance to succeed.”

Unfortunately, Congress is already being heavily lobbied to block Abbas’s ability to bring about Palestinian unity. According to Nathan Guttman in the Forward, lobbyists are pressing Congress to put onerous restrictions on any new aid to Abbas – aid that would make it impossible for him to reach out to more moderate elements in Gaza. For some people, the more things change, the more they are determined not to.

So what should the United States do? First, we should ensure the delivery of aid to President Abbas, starting with the tax revenues which Israel has refused to turn over since Hamas won power. The economic siege of the Palestinians needs to be lifted so that salaries can be paid, infrastructure can be restored and the descent into Third World economic chaos can stop.

Second, we need to send a clear, unambiguous message to Hamas that if they undertake and enforce a full and complete cease-fire with Israel, the United States and the West will re-consider our attitudes toward them. The demand that Hamas recognize Israel in advance of negotiations (which neither the PLO, Egypt or Jordan were required to do) is not a condition, it is rhetoric designed to preserve the deadly status quo. Hamas should also secure the release of Gilad Shalit and BBC correspondent Alan Johnston – actions that would have a powerful effect on public opinion in Israel and Europe.

Third, we need to emphasize, as Secretary Rice stated earlier this week, that the United States has no interest in establishing a West Bank Palestinian state but remains determined to establish a viable West Bank/Gaza state connected by a highway, tunnel or some other device.

Fourth, and most important, the United States needs to sponsor the resumption of final status negotiations with the goal of the establishment of a Palestinian state, with permanent borders, by the end of President Bush’s term.

Fifth, the United States needs to push for the appointment by the Quartet (the US, EU, Russia and the UN) of a mediator who can coordinate the movement from a state of war to a state of peace and who will broker a final status deal. That person could be Tony Blair [editor’s note: Tony Blair has since been appointed] or someone else, but whoever he or she is the mediator needs administration backing rather than being cut off at the knees by officials in Washington who see their role as putting the brakes on the Middle East peace process. The situation is changing and, perhaps, this time an envoy would be allowed to do his job.

Will any of this happen? Who knows? Washington is buzzing with reports that the Secretary of State is determined to salvage the “two-state” policy President Bush announced five years ago Sunday. Word is that top State Department staffers, including the Secretary, are burning the midnight oil in what would be a last ditch attempt to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian agreement by 2009.

It could happen. But, as everyone knows, there are key players in the administration who are determined to torpedo Rice the same way they sabotaged her predecessor, Colin Powell. Although most of the Bush administration’s neo-conservatives have disappeared since it became clear that their Iraq war is the worst foreign policy disaster in American history, there remain a few key neocons who are determined that Israel-Palestinian peace not break out on their watch. And they are watching.

The preponderance of evidence is that change for the better is coming. We’ll know by next week.

*MJ Rosenberg, Director of Policy Analysis for Israel Policy Forum, was a long time Capitol Hill staffer and former editor of AIPAC’s Near East Report. The views expressed in IPF Friday are those of MJ Rosenberg and not necessarily of Israel Policy Forum.