There is, no doubt, a whole lot of celebrating going on today. For those more afraid of negotiations than of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or any of that violent crew, a collapsing Palestinian Authority with Gaza in absolute chaos and with Mahmoud Abbas weakened almost to irrelevancy is a dream come true.
Gaza has fallen to Hamas. Abbas' Fatah is on the run. Unless a United Nations force (like UNIFIL) steps in, a sliver of territory with a population of 1.4 million, a short drive from Tel Aviv, will become a dagger aimed at Israel's heart and perhaps even an Al Qaeda staging ground. A humanitarian crisis of horrific proportions is a near-certainty.
Whose fault is it? The Palestinians', of course. But hardly theirs alone. As Nahum Barnea, Israel's finest journalist, puts it in today's Yediot Ahronoth:
"The US and Israel had a decisive contribution to this failure. The Americans, in their lack of understanding of the processes of Islamization in the territories, pressured [the Palestinians] to hold democratic elections and brought Hamas to power with their own hands.... Since the elections, Israel, like the US, declared over and over that 'Abu Mazen must be strengthened,' but in practice, zero was done for this to happen. The meetings with him turned into an Israeli political tool, and Olmert's kisses and backslapping turned Abbas into a collaborator and a source of jokes on the Palestinian street."
The failures to which Barnea refers didn't start with the Palestinian elections either, not by a long shot. Back when Hamas was just a gleam in Sheik Ahmed Yassin's blind eye, Israeli right-ringers were implementing a strategy to eliminate the authority of Palestinian moderates by building up religious extremists. These Israelis (some very high in Likud governments) believed that only supplanting Arafat's Fatah with Islamic fundamentalists would prevent a situation under which Israel would be forced to negotiate with moderates.
It was in 1978 when the government of then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin indirectly assisted the start-up of a "humanitarian" organization known as the Islamic Association, or Mujama. The roots of this Islamist group were in the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot, and it soon was flush with funding and political support. The right-wing strategists devised the theory of creating Hamas as an alternative to Fatah because they believed that Muslim Brotherhood types would devote themselves to charity and religious study and passively accept the occupation. They certainly would never put Israel on the spot by offering to negotiate.
Likud governments even deported Palestinian advocates of non-violent resistance (most notably, the Gandhian, Mubarak Awad) at the same time that they were doing everything they could to build the street cred of fanatics who, a few years later, would proclaim themselves Hamas, dedicated to Israel's elimination.
The pro-Hamas tilt accelerated in 1988 when Yasir Arafat himself announced that he favored the two-state solution and that previous PLO demands that Israel be replaced by Palestine were, in his words "caduq" (inoperative).
An Arafat committed to two-states struck terror in the hearts of the settlers and their allies who were and are determined to hold on to the West Bank forever. Their worst fears were realized when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres repudiated this craziness and decided to engage with the PLO in order to strengthen it vis a vis Hamas, which was, by the time Rabin came to office, exceedingly powerful thanks in large part to the Israeli right's support.
We all know the rest of the story. A young rightist killed Rabin in the belief (a belief indoctrinated in him by rightwing rabbis) that stopping Rabin would stop the peace process. As President Clinton told me in 1997, assassin Yigal Amir was successful. Clinton said that unlike almost every other assassin in history, Amir achieved his goal, although not completely.
In this context, it is not difficult understanding how Hamas won the legislative elections in 2006. This is another ugly part of the story. First we demanded that the Palestinians hold elections (Abbas didn't want them), then we dispatched monitors to certify they were "free and fair" which they were, but when we didn't like the election results we rejected them and promised that the Palestinians would "pay." Almost immediately Members of Congress rushed to stop almost all forms of aid not just to Hamas-run institutions but to the Palestinian people at large.
There was another way we might have gone. We could have welcomed Hamas's participation in the election as a sign that Hamas was implicitly accepting the Oslo framework (which it was), insisted on the complete cessation of violence, and then used carrots and sticks to encourage the Hamas-run Palestinian Authority to mend its ways. But we offered no carrots, just sticks. And we didn't even make much of an effort to strengthen Hamas's arch-enemy, President Mahmoud Abbas, with Congress hastening to impose redundant and insulting conditions even on aid that was intended for him.
It was all fun and games, politics as usual. Meanwhile, thanks to the US-sponsored international boycott of the PA, salaries were not being paid and schools and hospitals were collapsing.
Today it is almost amusing to contemplate the professions of horror on the part of right-wing Israelis (and their neocon friends) who scream "bloody murder" about an outcome they helped effect and actually welcome.
The name of their game was, is, and always will be making sure that Israel has "no partner" with whom to negotiate. Their worst fear is of Palestinians like Mahmoud Abbas who is a credible negotiating partner. They were undoubtedly relieved to hear that, as Roni Shaked reported in today's Yediot, "the Prime Minister's advisers [declared] the Palestinian Authority dead, [saying] there is no one to talk to... and that the Bush administration will not put pressure on Olmert at this stage to come up with ideas for renewing the negotiations with Abbas and promoting a diplomatic horizon."
I understand that this is a difficult point to assimilate. But the fact is that Israeli (and American) right-wingers are rooting for the Palestinian extremists. And that is why, today, with Hamas fully in control of Gaza, they are as happy as Red Sox fans when the team is eleven games up on the Yankees on Labor Day.
A new confidential United Nations report confirms how Israeli and US policies have helped Hamas. Not only that, we have prevented the United Nations from using its own credibility to mitigate the situation.
In his report to the Secretary General, Alvaro de Soto, the UN's special envoy to the Middle East, wrote, "Even-handedness has been pummeled into submission in an unprecedented way.
"The steps taken by the international community with the presumed purpose of bringing about a Palestinian entity that will live in peace with its neighbor Israel have had precisely the opposite effect.... With all the focus on the failings of Hamas, the Israeli settlement enterprise and barrier construction has continued unabated." He said "that Israeli policies seemed perversely designed to encourage the continued action by Palestinian militants," whose stance toward Israel he called "abominable."
He blasted the tendency that exists among U.S. policy-makers "... to cower before any hint of Israeli displeasure and to pander shamelessly before Israeli-linked audiences."
And he made clear that the politics-driven American agenda makes it nearly impossible for the international community to move Israelis and Palestinians toward peace. He specifically cites the experience of former World Bank chair, James Wolfensohn, a Jew determined to achieve some semblance of security for Israelis and Palestinians, as someone who finally threw up his hands in disgust when nickel-and-dime micromanaging by politicians became too much to take.
De Soto cites with anger the three conditions imposed by the international community (under pressure from the United States) which the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority would have to meet before it was accepted as legitimate: ending violence, recognizing Israel, and accepting all previously negotiated agreements. He maintains that these conditions were designed to be rejected by Hamas and, in fact, as a pretext for punishing the Palestinians for voting wrong.
He points out that Israel itself has not recognized that Palestinians have a right to a state in the West Bank/Gaza or anywhere else. All Israel has ever done is recognize that the PLO is a legitimate negotiator on behalf of the Palestinian people, no different than recognition by the Palestinians that the government in Jerusalem is a valid negotiator for Jews living in historic Palestine. Asking Hamas to recognize Israel in advance of negotiations, a precondition not demanded of Jordan or Egypt, or of Israel vis a vis the Palestinians, was a non-starter and the authors of the three conditions knew it.
If the conditions were intended as an opening for diplomacy, there would only have been one condition: a full and complete cessation of terrorism. But they were not so intended, and the three conditions accomplished less than nothing.
De Soto does not let Hamas off the hook. But he does not employ the same yardstick to Israel that he does to a bunch of violent religious fanatics. Call that a double standard if you like but it is one supporters of Israel should appreciate. Israel is as different from Hamas as Tel Aviv is from Gaza City. De Soto expects Israel to behave rationally. He is shocked when it doesn't.
Now the enemy could be truly at the gates. We can simply say "to hell with them" and watch Gaza become Hamastan. Or we can get an international force in Gaza to stop the blood-letting, ensure that humanitarian needs are met, and adopt the policy of distinguishing between Palestinians ready to live in peace with Israel, whatever their affiliations, and those who aren't. Above all, we can abandon a policy of starving people into submission, a policy reminiscent of the dictator who threatens that "the beatings will continue until morale improves."
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been a threat to American security, although one that is somewhat indirect. But this week's events make the threat to America (and to Israel, of course) infinitely more direct. Hamas is on the brink of fully controlling territory adjacent to Israel and Egypt. Is there any reason to believe that their Iranian friends will not follow?
A little urgency on the part of the Bush administration is long overdue.