Sunday, July 8, 2007

The West’s Costly Hamas Error

Commentary by Tony Karon:

Hamas represents the moderate current in Islamism that advocates for democracy and electoral politics. The alternative — which the West is effectively chosing – is violent nihilism

First, it’s worth noting that the whole idea that Palestinian “moderates” are being bolstered in order that they will make peace with Israel is just a PR line, or a rather sick joke. The Israelis have left no doubt that when they talk about boosting Mahmoud Abbas in order to strengthen prospects for a two-state solution, they are simply taking the piss — or more correctly, to borrow a line from Mike Leigh’s “Naked,” the U.S. media is giving it away. Nor is it only the media: the Western world’s political elites seem equally comfortable with the charade. Leading Israeli political correspondent Aluf Benn reports that there is now a firm consensus, across Israel’s political spectrum, that there can be no withdrawal from the West Bank for the foreseeable future. Benn writes:

In this atmosphere, it is clear that any talk about a “two-state solution” and the prime minister’s declarations at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit about “new opportunities” and “accelerating the process toward a Palestinian state” are bogus. This diplomatic lip service, disassociated from reality and real expectations, is meant to assuage the Americans and the Europeans and deflect pressure on Israel.

The international community is participating in the show, and gradually is losing interest in the conflict. The postponment of the speech of President George W. Bush, meant to commemorate five years since he presented his “vision” and to offer new ideas for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, suggests that he has nothing to say. As it winds down its tenure, the Bush administration in Washington is toying with fake charms: like the “shelf agreement,” proposed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or the appointment of Tony Blair as the Quartet representative “to build Palestinian institutions.” Does anyone remember his predecessor in that job, James Wolfensohn?

Not only does the Israeli position make nonsense of all talk of peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians — and Blair, rabid Bush sycophant though he may be, must surely be aware that he has signed on for a humiliating postcript to a failed career on the global stage — but it also fundamentally challenges the manner in which Palestinian political rivalries are being cast in the Western media right now. You’d think that the fact that BBC reporter Alan Johnstone was freed by Hamas this week after 16 weeks as a hostage held by a criminal gang that enjoyed the protection of the very Fatah security forces that were recently driven out of Gaza would give some pause for thought. Don’t bet on it. In any event, the idea that the West is backing Fatah as a moderate force for achieving Palestinian national goals is equally derided on the Palestinian side. They know all too well that the regime of Mahmoud Abbas is being boosted in order that it can more effectively play the role of gendarme, eliminating threats to Israel and policing the status quo. Israel simply has no intention of withdrawing to its 1967 borders; there is no “political horizon” to rationalize this policing role, it is simply an end in itself.

Many even in Fatah recognize that what Mahmoud Abbas has signed on for has nothing to do with ending the occupation. That’s why he had to sack his senior presidential adviser Hani al-Hassan last week. Hassan had pointed out that Hamas was not fighting Fatah as a whole when it took over Gaza, but rather a group within Fatah that was collaborating with outside forces against Palestinian interests. Here’s how the Israeli daily Yediot Ahoronot reported it:

The Gaza events were not a war between Fatah and Hamas; but between Hamas and Fatah collaborators who served the Americans and the Israelis, said a senior Fatah advisor on Wednesday.

Hani al-Hassan, the Palestinian president’s senior political advisor and member of Fatah’s central committee said in a TV interview that what was happening in the Gaza Strip was the defeat of to plans of American Major General Keith Dayton and his Fatah followers.

This is only the beginning of the revolt that Mahmoud Abbas is going to face from those within Fatah who believe nothing good will come of the organization throwing in its lot with the Americans and Israelis. I’d venture a guess that Abbas’s inevitable heir to the leadership, the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, would be strongly aligned with this view, meaning that if Fatah is to have any chance of surviving, it will require renouncing and reversing the direction pursued by its current leadership.

But Alastair Crooke, in a must-read piece in the London Review of Books chocful of profound insights, notes that the nature of the confrontation in Gaza — into which Hamas was provoked by U.S.-directed plans to overthrow the elected government — has probably weakened this tendency in Fatah: The humiliation suffered by the organization in Gaza makes it more difficult, inside the organization, to advocate for rapprochment with Hamas. (Crooke also, importantly, savages the Europeans for their inexplicable decision to follow the U.S. line — and having been the EU’s direct liaison with Hamas until the Europeans abandoned their independence, Crooke should know: He writes, “Europeans may wring their hands at what they see on their TVs, but European policy, acting in concert with the US, bears a large measure of responsibility for what has happened.”

Crooke adds:

The West could not have chosen a worse time to try to make Fatah a proxy dependent on Western financial subsidy and Israeli ‘concessions’ to make up for the popular support it patently lacks. The largest Hebrew newspaper, Yediot Aharnot, noted on 14 June that ‘in Nablus, Jenin, Hebron and Ramallah, the people of the Fatah al-Aqsa Brigades are in control, much thanks to the Israeli General Security Services who have jailed anyone vaguely smelling of Hamas.’ European policy-makers – to judge by their public statements – are largely oblivious to the rising tension in the region. Instability is feeding instability; and the American and European imposition of a bank freeze that left the Palestinian government unable to gain access to its funds – including those from Muslim countries – will trigger new and potentially dangerous disturbances in the region.

Western commentators – prompted by Fatah loyalists – are still inclined to see the 2006 election result as no more than a severe rap on the knuckles for the hitherto dominant Fatah on the part of an electorate angered by its corruption and mismanagement. Since 1993, Palestinians have been living under a one-party system: patronage, jobs and government have been in the gift of Fatah, and it is to its members that these benefits have been distributed. The election outcome, however, was not primarily a judgment on Fatah’s corruption, even if this was a significant factor. I recall a leader in a refugee camp in Lebanon saying: ‘You will see . . . what this victory for Hamas represents is the final rupture of the Palestinians’ faith in the international community. We no longer believe that the Americans or the Europeans ultimately can be counted on to do the right thing by us. We know that we must rely only on ourselves now.’ Hamas had recognised for some time that the Palestinian constituency that voted Fatah a monopoly of power and of armed force in 1993, following the Oslo Accords, no longer existed. Hardly any Palestinians now believe that Palestinian ‘good behaviour’ – as promised to Israel by Fatah – will induce the US to ignore its domestic Israel lobby and exert pressure on Israel to withdraw from the lands occupied in 1967. ‘Hamas had predicted all along that Israel would not fulfil its bargain,’ Tamimi writes, ‘and that it was using peacemaking in order to expropriate more land.’

Palestinians have seen their putative state in the West Bank salami-sliced away by settlements, army posts, military zones, fences and Israeli-only roads that cut the territory into enclaves in which 2.5 million Palestinians are confined, their movements heavily curtailed. A map of the West Bank recently published by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs shows that the Israeli system of settlements and protective infrastructure has rendered 40 per cent of the West Bank off-limits to Palestinians. Palestinians have seen the US and Europe do nothing about this. The US and the EU argued that Palestinian violence was the problem; but the Palestinians noted that in periods of quiet more rather than less of their land fell to the Israeli salami-slicer – yet still the international community remained silent. Any optimism from Oslo had long faded by 2006, when the Palestinians voted in Hamas. There is no longer a significant ‘peace camp’ that believes in gradual progress towards a Palestinian state…

One reason for Fatah’s election defeat was its failure to recognise that the Bush administration was different from the Clinton administration. Fatah persisted in its assumption that, at bottom, the Bush administration shared its vision of a Palestinian state based on Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967. The leadership continued to assume that if they pleased the US they would eventually be rewarded by pressure on Israel to concede a viable Palestinian state. It has long been obvious to most Palestinians, including many in Fatah, that the vision Bush shared was not Fatah’s, but that of Tel Aviv, and it sees Israel remaining in the West Bank for ever.

But the breakdown of the Palestinian Authority and the prospect for a two-state solution is only a part of the collateral damage from this reckless U.S. policy promoted by the unchecked extremism that has shaped the Bush Administration’s policies in the Middle East. Crooke is the first analyst I’ve read situating the fate of Hamas in a regional dynamic — as Washington has failed to comprehend — in which Islamism is the dominant political dynamic, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But Islamism, is hardly an undifferentiated political entity, as Crooke makes clear, and on its spectrum, the Hamas leadership is closer to the moderate, democratic tendency of its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, than it is to the jihadist nihilism of al-Qaeda.

The problem for Hamas is that its constituency – the rank and file – and the wider Islamist movement have now embarked on a period of introspection. What is apparent – and this can be ascertained on any number of Islamist websites – is that the mainstream Islamist strategy of pursuing an electoral path to reform is now being questioned. This will have an impact well beyond Palestine – most obviously in Egypt and Jordan. Three events have triggered this reassessment: the sanctions imposed on the Hamas government; last summer’s US-backed war to destroy Hizbullah in Lebanon; and the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which raises not a peep of protest from Europeans. Continued Western hostility towards all Islamists, however moderate their policies, has also frustrated the grass-roots.

At a conference held in Beirut in April, the senior Hamas official present, Usamah Hamadan, was strongly criticised by Fathi Yakan, the leader of Jamaat Islamiyah in Lebanon, for having embarked on the electoral route in the first place. Yakan pointed to the failure – experienced by all Islamists without exception – of those who have participated in their national parliaments. No MP or deputy, from Islamabad to Cairo, or anywhere in between, has succeeded in bringing any significant change to their society. At the same time, young Egyptians in the Muslim Brotherhood have been debating whether their eighty-year-old movement has lost its way. Commentators have been arguing that for it to sit in parliament – while its leaders are being interned, its economic base is being attacked, and legislation is being passed aimed at excluding movements with a religious basis from elections – undermines its credibility and invites derision. The movement, it’s suggested, is too big, rigid and ungainly, and needs to be rethought – and perhaps broken up.

At issue in these discussions is whether moderate Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah will manage to retain their influence over this process of radicalisation; and whether they will survive as a cohesive, disciplined political bloc. Sunni Islamist movements are increasingly concerned at the spread of small Salafist groups that verge on the nihilistic in their disdain for political ideology and in their belief that to set fire to the remnants of colonial power is in itself enough to raise the revolutionary consciousness they hope for. Salafist groups are beginning to make inroads in Gaza, as they have already done in Iraq, Lebanon and North Africa.

If the Islamists are denied a political role, there is, in fact, no prospect for democracy in the Middle East — as the Palestinian experience has now graphically demonstrated. The pro-Western regimes can survive only by repression and patronage, and the momentum is against them. All that Mahmoud Abbas has succeeded in doing in the past month has been to irreversibly associate the PLO leadership with the decrepit autocracies of the region to which it once presented itself as a revolutionary alternative to appealed to the Arab street, not only because of the plight of the Palestinians, but because of the nature of their own regimes. The result has been, in an epic sense, to “blow an opportunity.”

Crooke writes:

When all parties begin to see conflict as inevitable, then the ‘inevitable’ becomes self-fulfilling. Americans are fond of comparing the situation in the region to the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism; but perhaps Europe in 1914 is a better metaphor: the situation is such that some small, unexpected autonomous event might trigger a sequence of events that even the great powers of the region could find it beyond their ability to control. In the past, after all, a car accident (in the case of the first intifada) and a cinema fire (triggering the Iranian revolution) have unleashed consequences that no one could have foreseen.

Israel, too, seems oblivious to its position. It believes that the Palestinian conflict can be sustained, and it continues to enjoy a growing economy and a healthy tourist trade. Israelis have arrived at a modus vivendi with their peculiar circumstances: life can go on, they sanguinely presume.

The Israelis, Americans and Europeans may, however, once again be burying their heads in the sand. Heaven knows, it wouldn’t be the first time.