David Drelinger and IPF Staff*

Source: Israel Policy Forum Focus (http://www.israelpolicyforum.org), July 11, 2007. Distribued by Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org.) with permission to republish.

Israel and the Bush administration appear to have settled on a strategy to deal with the new situation in Gaza: build up Fatah in the West Bank as an alternative to Hamas, while isolating the new regime – politically and economically – in Gaza. In time, they suggest, a strengthened and reorganized Fatah will be able to take over Gaza as Hamas’ popularity plummets.

At the same time, many observers of Israeli-Palestinian relations and the dynamics of internal Palestinian politics are coming to the opposite conclusion: they argue that Hamas as a political force is here to stay, and that they will eventually have to be brought into the political process if any progress is to be made. Many claim that a strategy based on strangling the Hamas government in Gaza in the hopes that its residents will demand a more moderate regime is fantastical at best.

Stacie L. Pettyjohn, a Research Fellow at the Brookings Institution, argued in a Daily Star op-ed that “In order to find a lasting solution to intra-Palestinian violence, not to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States and Israel must accept that Hamas is a significant force in Palestinian politics, one which cannot be left out of the political process.”

Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post wrote incredulously of an Israeli official’s assertion that isolating Palestinians in Gaza would impel them to embrace moderates: “In other words, Israeli policy is counting on Gaza’s impoverished… population to stage the first popular revolution against a domestic government in the modern history of the Arab Middle East. It also assumes that people suffering from extreme privation will respond by demanding a more moderate government.”

Diehl’s point is instructive: when Israel and the Quartet slapped sanctions on the PA after Hamas won legislative elections in 2006, Palestinians – who bore the brunt of the suffering – did not blame Hamas for their troubles, but rather the outside forces who they perceived to be orchestrating their economic collapse. Today, as Steven Erlanger reported in the New York Times, the renewed isolation of Gaza is drying up even more international aid and hundreds of thousands of jobs and salaries. Is there any reason to believe that this policy will lead to a better result than last time?

Instead, these analysts argue that the international community should lower its blanket isolation of Gaza to give moderates – be they members of Hamas or not – a chance to emerge. According to these observers, the international community would do well to give Hamas a chance to govern, which would force its leaders to make difficult choices, while at the same time not standing in the way of a power-sharing deal with Fatah, something they believe is inevitable anyway.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect arrangement either. Giving Hamas control over Gaza’s border with Egypt – the source of arms smuggling – is one obvious issue. Similarly, there is no way to be certain that Hamas is even capable of governing, and that Gaza will not devolve into a strip of territory run by warlords or clan-based mafias.

That is why the policy of strengthening Abbas and Fatah is not a bad idea. Abbas is still the President of the PA and is a partner for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – it makes sense for Israel to build relationships and coordinate actions with him. Furthermore rebuilding the social and political institutions of the PA in the West Bank, while providing Fatah with the political space to reform itself and eliminate some of the corruption in its ranks, is in Israel’s long-term interest. But this will require major initiatives beyond what the Israeli government seems capable of taking; it is highly unlikely that the release of 250 (out of a total of about 13,000) Palestinian prisoners will turn the tide in his favour and weaken the appeal of Islamist elements.

Strengthening Abbas is important but it is not enough, and that’s the reason the United States needs to think beyond short-term tactics and develop a long-range strategy. As Washington prepares for what looks to be an inevitable redeployment of most US troops out of Iraq, efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will become a central front in the United States’ effort to regain influence and respectability in the Middle East.

Building up Abbas with major prisoner releases, a settlement freeze, the removal of roadblocks, and negotiations must be part of this strategy, but it certainly can’t be everything. A carrot and stick approach – perhaps one that offers Hamas some form of international engagement in exchange for a comprehensive ceasefire with Israel and the release of the captive soldier Gilad Shalit – could force Hamas to make difficult choices about the movement’s direction and is probably the least-bad way to deal with the unfortunate situation created by Hamas’ election victory last year and recent take-over of Gaza.

Hopefully working on a constructive and long-term strategy to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is what Secretary Rice’s upcoming visit to Israel and the West Bank next week is all about. And the tools to make a difference are available. Tony Blair, the Quartet’s Special Envoy, is beginning his efforts to reform the PA and, though it’s not explicitly stated in his mandate, he has declared his interest in mediating political dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis.

The Secretary’s effort might also get a boost from the Arab League, which sent its first official emissaries – the Foreign Ministers of Egypt and Jordan – to Israel to discuss the Arab League Initiative on Wednesday. This is a positive development, though it may not be the grand symbolic gesture (i.e. Saudi King Abdullah holding a photo-op with Prime Minister Olmert) that Israeli politicians feel they need to get public backing to move forward on the initiative.

The Arab countries are unlikely to make any large gestures without feeling confident of a wholehearted US commitment to the process. So far in the Bush administration, that commitment has been absent, but Secretary Rice, perhaps with a push from Tony Blair, can start to change that. The logic of engagement may have become too compelling to ignore.

*David Dreilinger is a member of the US-based Israel Policy Forum. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at <http://www.commongroundnews.org&gt;