I have a lot of respect for Dennis Ross, and for his decade-plus of efforts with the peace process as an official. He is thoughtful and sincere, but his op-ed in today's Washington Post, "The Specter of Hamastan," has some serious flaws that should not go unchallenged. The bottom line of Ross's argument is to work with Fatah in order to defeat Hamas, specifically that a coalition of donors, American and Arab, help "remake Fatah" so that they can "compete socially, economically, and politically."
While he might be right that more should be done to counter the Islamists, he is several years too late in reaching this conclusion, and, remarkably, he downplays the impact of the ongoing conflict with Israel. Ross is wise to explain that any military bolstering of Fatah in Gaza should not be a prelude to a bloodbath against Hamas, and he cautions against Israel reoccupying the Gaza Strip. His suggestion that Egypt do more to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza is a sensible one.
But there are real cracks in Ross's argument. First, it is extremely problematic that Ross is only speaking to Fatah, and elements within Fatah at that. It is very understandable, but also very damaging to good analysis when serious policy thinkers like Ross continue to see Hamas almost exclusively through the eyes of Israelis and members of Fatah, whose job it is to try to reverse the results of the Jan. '06 Palestinian parliamentary elections.
Hamas is clearly a problem, but it is also not some militant jihadist cell hiding out in the caves of Palestine. Hamas took a political decision to join the democratic process, and then won a democratic election. Ross makes the common reductionist error of lumping all the Islamists together when he suggests that his "Hamastan" would provide "a new haven for Islamists of all stripes." Don't get me wrong. I would also prefer my secular nationalist Fatah friends to return to power, but remember, trying to pick winners in the Arab world, in the way that Ross seems to be proposing, is part of the wrongheaded policy that led us to this mess in the first place. One of the Hamas campaign slogans in the last elections was "Israel and America want you to vote Fatah. What do you want?"
The key point is this, and it surprises me: in the world of Dennis Ross's op-ed, the occupation in the West Bank has apparently ceased to exist. In suggesting how Fatah could be strengthened at the expense of Hamas he makes no mention of the impact of settlements, the construction of the separation barrier, the checkpoints and closures (see the latest World Bank report here), and the lack of a political horizon of hope for ending the occupation . And that is a fatal flaw in his argument. Since the Oslo process began, Fatah's claim to leading the Palestinian movement was that their negotiated approach, and not armed resistance, could deliver an end to occupation and real Palestinian statehood by building an alliance with the West - especially the US - and by engaging with Israel. The credibility of that claim collapsed when the peace process was put in the deep freeze (or formaldehyde), when Israel embraced unilateralism, and when the US disengaged. It is unlikely that Ross doesn't recognize this part of the story, and it is perplexing that he omits to mention it. Failure to address these political questions means we have learned precious little, and we are unlikely to either improve Fatah's prospects or really test the Hamas capacity for flexibility.