This week I have been in Europe attending conferences on the Middle East situation and also a fascinating closed dialogue on Iran, and I recently popped into the region to check the pulse -- not encouraging. On the ground, the trajectory of developments has been predictable. The Olmert government's gestures to the Abbas/Fayyad leadership will be limited and of limited use. Hamas is asserting more effective control in Gaza (witness the Alan Johnston release) than Fatah is capable of doing in the West Bank, and that's even before one factors in the very pronounced continued IDF activity inside "Fatahland." Two important articles have appeared that I want to talk about in this post; but, first, some brief reflections on the latest developments.
On the Palestinian side, Fatah is putting its residual credibility with the Palestinian public at risk. Recent Fatah moves are interpreted by many on the ground, in the Arab media, and in the region as being a gift to future Hamas PR campaigns.
Here are two examples:
- The release of 250 exclusively Fatah prisoners to the Abbas/Fayyad government by Israel is being portrayed as making a sectarian issue of the highly symbolic question of prisoners. Hamas will be able to claim that they have never accepted a prisoner deal on a factional basis, and they will be sure to demand Fatah, Hamas and other prisoners in any exchange deal for Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit.
- Abbas is being attacked in the Arab and Palestinian press for his willingness to meet with representatives of the "Israeli occupation government" at the same time as he refuses to meet with the "Palestinian Brothers" of Hamas.
In general, the charge of Fatah throwing its lot in with Israel and America is a potent one. Hamas has reiterated its willingness to go back to unity talks which continue to be rejected by the Fatah leadership. However, critical voices within Fatah are emerging who are not only criticizing the Dahlan wing of the movement, but also calling for renewed dialogue with Hamas
Most prominent in this respect have been PLO Executive Committee member Hani al Hassan and Fatah leader in Gaza, Ahmad Hils. In the Arab world, the calls for a return to Palestinian unity talks are slowly gathering pace and the initial declarative support for Abbas is already showing cracks. Saudi King Abdullah cancelled a planned meeting with Abbas in Jordan while the Egyptians have committed to renewing their presence in Gaza and Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman is due to meet with both the Palestinian governments. Apparently, an Arab League delegation will also be dispatched to mediate. There are even reports that Jordanian King Abdullah II has voiced support for Arab intervention to bring about reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.
On the Israeli side, new Defense Minister Ehud Barak oversaw a significant military operation deep into Gazan territory at the end of last week which led to the first sustained Qassam rocket launches against Southern Israel since the Hamas takeover. It is too early to predict whether this was a demonstrative cautionary act or the beginning of an ongoing campaign.
The Olmert cabinet has approved the release of 250 Fatah prisoners to Abbas and the gradual return of Palestinian tax monies being withheld by Israel. The response has been predictable: cabinet ministers voted against the prisoner release and Olmert has expended political capital on a move which is of limited big picture significance. Should he choose to, Prime Minister Olmert will also now be able to turn to the international community, as his predecessor Sharon did frequently, with the refrain "if i do much more I will be risking my political survival.
The two articles that I would highly recommend taking a look at are from Efraim Halevy and Ahmed Yousef.
Efraim Halevy, writing in The New Republic online calls for a Plan B for Gaza and echoes much of what I argued in my own earlier version of a Plan B. Unlike myself, Halevy is a former head of both the Mossad and the Israeli National Security Council and has no association with the Israeli peace camp. (We do actually have one thing in common -- we were both born subjects of the British crown.) Halevy delivers a withering critique of the recent Abbas and Fatah record and in particular their call for an international force to take over Gaza. The US is also not spared Halevy's vituperative gaze:
... the United States is similarly in dire straits. Eighteen months ago the democratic path enforced by the United States and implemented by the Palestinian Authority produced a Hamas majority which was contrary to American principles and interests. Subsequently, an American plan to create a viable Fatah force in the Gaza Strip to crush Hamas backfired, and now the United States has decided to repeat the exercise in the West Bank, where the chances for success seemingly appear brighter. Does the United States believe that it can overturn both the election results that gave Hamas a parliamentary majority and the Hamas military takeover of the Strip?
In the best of scenarios as envisaged in Jerusalem, Washington, and Ramallah, further deterioration of political conditions in the Strip may lead to the disappearance of the last vestiges of any Hamas central authority. But this would not bring Fatah back to Gaza; rather lawlessness could deteriorate into chaos and this would be worse than a centralized Hamas administration.
Halevy calls for contacts to be established with Hamas "to see if a long-term armistice with it can be attained," with similar arrangements being negotiated with Fatah. Halevy ends by noting that
... it would be wise to initiate a non-binding dialogue between Israel and the Arab states on fundamental permanent-status issues. These could serve as a beacon for hope for the Palestinians and as an incentive to try and put their house in order. U.S. support for this approach is essential and would serve its interest in the broader context of its current Middle East necessities.
In an article in today's Haaretz, Ahmed Yousef, chief adviser to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, actually breaks new ground. Much of the Ahmed Yousef text is familiar territory -- it confirms the Islamic movement's attempts to avoid conflict with Fatah, places the blame for developments on the American neoconversatives, Israeli (and even some Arab) officials, and milks the credit for the release of Alan Johnston. But Yousef uses a very interesting comparison in reaching out to the Israeli and international audience and in explaining that Hamas will not be imposing a revolutionary, militant, fundamentalist state in Gaza. The analogy he uses is Turkey:
We have learned from the experiences of Turkey, and will conduct ourselves in a manner that reflects the national interest without compromising our principles...
He cautions Abbas and the international community not to repeat the mistake of Algeria in 1991 of the negation of a "moderate Islamist victory." His use of the word 'moderate' is very telling here in terms of how Hamas is trying to portray itself. Yousef places blame for the machination against the Hamas government squarely at the door of US Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams, and he argues that the emergency government is doomed to fail. There is an element of warning, even threat in Ahmed Yousef's assertion that Hamas will continue to be "justified in defending itself."
But there is a potentially very significant meeting point in the piece by Hamas adviser Yousef, and former Mossad Chief Halevy. It begins with the possibility of building a new approach that begins with a ceasefire between Israel and the Islamic Resistance Movement. Yousef is clearly making a statement on Hamas' capacity to deliver when he writes the following:
Hamas was limited in its ability to exercise security controls until recently; however, now that the security apparatus is genuinely geared toward the safety and well-being of the general population, Hamas will pursue all avenues to ensure that thugs and hoodlums, regardless of purported ideology, are neutralized.
Olmert has an influential new-old confidant at his side -- Minister without Portfolio Haim Ramon -- whose responsibility will include being a diplomatic aide to the Prime Minister. Ramon is known for his ability to think in an unorthodox way and for his creativity which has not always been helpful (he developed the separation barrier and unilateral disengagement policies). But if Ramon is listening, then he could be the vehicle for moving Halevy's ideas forward, and he certainly has a track record for making things happen.