Bush's Greater Middle East Initiative: A victim of reality
Betting on the defeat of Hamas, by Gilles Paris
LE MONDE | 02.05.06 | 13:36 . Updated on 24.05.06 | 17:12
The Palestinians are paying a heavy price for the outcome of their 25 January elections. The victory of Islamic Resistance (Hamas) was accompanied by the drying up of Palestine's meager financial resources provided by Israel and most of the international community. This has rendered the running of their institutions impossible. After five years of scarcity, the effects of the embargo have been felt nearly immediately by the Palestinian population, particularly in the domain of healthcare. This situation is to endure. The assistance allowed by the Quartet –the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations– on 9 May will be merely relative; only the most hard-pressed will receive assistance. The goal of Israel, supported by the United States, is clear: To do anything at all to bring about the defeat of the Islamists.
The positions defended by Hamas seem to argue in favor of Western intransigence. How does one support a government unable to denounce attacks targeting civilians, especially when they are Israelis? How does one cooperate with a movement whose founding charter declares the totality of ancient Palestine to under Islamic mandate, where the least concession constitutes a sin and a crime? The demands of the Quartet appear to be legitimate.
Renunciation of violence, the recognition of Israel and the acceptance of treaties concluded in the past seem reasonable conditions to Europeans and Americans who are supporters of a negotiated settlement of the conflict, based on a two-state solution. Except that these preconditions, established as non-negotiable rather than policy objectives on 30 January, 5 days after the Hamas victory, lend themselves to the perpetuation of this dangerous impasse.
This is not an unpredictable consequence. Although Hamas has benefited from the rejection of Fatah, the nationalist movement founded by Yassir Arafat but identified with a Palestinian Authority viewed as corrupt and inefficient, it also derives its strength from the long and deep-seated tradition of religion and charitable institutions within that society.
At the end of the day, the analyses made by Hamas of the Palestinian-Israeli power balance appear to have been borne out by the facts. Among the Palestinians populace, no one doubts that the Israeli evacuation from Gaza is the product of determined harrying, mainly from Islamist armed groups, which on this occasion constituted proof of its superiority to negotiation.
Inasmuch as this may be true, the radicalism of Hamas can be questioned. There is a contest between two theories. The first, which relies on a strict interpretation of the Hamas Charter, protrays the Islamist movement, created in 1987, as fundamentalist and almost jihadist. The second, focusing on overtures from some Islamists leaders --most recently from those imprisoned in Israel--, sees Hamas as an organization that is capable of pragmatism.
The first theory leaves eradication as the only recourse. But this is an objective that is completely illusory because the movement is deeply implanted within Palestinian society. On the other hand, the second theory allows the scenario of progressive conversion of the Islamists to a two-state solution, for which the first step would be the adoption in one form or another of the 2002 Arab League initiative that provides for total normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state demarked by the borders of 1967.
If this suggests a political gamble, it would not be the first for the Palestinian side. Hamas is following a course embarked upon twenty years ago by PLO, led by the chief of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, the only Palestinian spokesman recognized by the international community.
A TRUCE IN ARMED OPERATIONS
By participating in the 25 January elections, Hamas, despite what is said, acknowledged the Oslo Accords, which led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority. More disciplined than Fatah, which has unable to acquire control over all its troops for ages, Hamas has observed a truce in armed operations for more than a year. This has been a major factor in the significant reduction of anti-Israeli attacks.
But Hamas has received practically nothing in return for these two decisions, taken after lengthy internal consultations, which constitute both its strength and its weakness. Although Hamas has always required time before arriving at a position, more and faster decision-making is being required of it. Destabilized by outside pressures and facing an emergency caused by both the Israeli and international boycotts, Hamas has stiffened over these last few weeks. Within its core, pragmatic actors yearning for notoriety and international recognition who had argued for the truce and for participation in elections are losing more and more ground to radical elements.
The boycotts conveniently pave the way to Israeli unilateralism, despite the reservations of the international community, which has completely swallowed the fantasy of its peace plan: The Road Map. Israeli Prime Minister Ehout Olmert has issued a six-month ultimatum to the Palestinians, prior to drawing the borders that Israeli desires on the West Bank. It is very unlikely that Hamas will have recovered by the end of this period from the current crisis that has stirred rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, which not only runs a near monopoly on the security services but a portion of its membership has never accepted the verdict of the ballot box.
The Israelis are not alone in profiting from an Islamist defeat in the short term. The Egyptian and Jordanian authorities, under pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood, in which Hamas is rooted, certainly do not hope that the case of Palestine –the first regional changeover resulting from a pluralist election–, succeeds in setting a precedent. Moreover, Jordan has just accused Hamas of planning a terrorist campaign targeting its territory –an gross accusation that radically departs from the pattern of behavior demonstrated by Palestinian Islamists over the last two decades.
But it is sure that options for elections and democracy would suffer long-term damage through the defeat of Hamas, and the clash between East and West would be accentuated. There is always time to isolate the Palestinian Islamists if they show themselves to be incapable of accepting reality. But do Europe and the United States seriously have an interest in getting rid of Hamas in such a hurry?