The U.S. Should Support Palestinian Unity

By Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. (THE WASHINGTON POST, 13/02/07):

Last week’s Mecca Agreement, brokered by Saudi Arabia, tries to patch over Palestinian differences and stem violence between Fatah and Hamas. The United States government doesn’t want a compromise; instead, it is seeking a decisive confrontation between the two sides. While there will be plenty of intra-Palestinian confrontations to come, there will not be a decisive victor in this battle. The United States should support Palestinian unity, not because it brings peace, but because it moves us significantly further toward stabilizing the conflict than a Palestinian civil war would. That war would create more bloodshed for Palestinians, increase terror attacks against Israel, and fuel hatred for the United States across the region. Rather than encourage an armed showdown, the U.S. should quietly encourage the steps started in Mecca.

The U.S. strategy has a great deal of appeal, especially in theory. Iran and Syria aid Hamas and other militant organizations; in response, the U.S. backs “moderate” forces, in the hope the moderates will prevail. This is not a new policy. Since the Oslo period, the U.S. has trained and equipped the security forces of Fatah, urging them to confront Hamas. Excluding Hamas from the Israeli-Palestinian political process was a main feature of the Olso process. Hamas deepened its own exclusion. Through numerous suicide operations and murderous attacks, its violent efforts to derail a process in which it had no stake sealed the organization’s fate as a spoiler.

Yet Hamas did not grow weaker during its political exile. Even before the Mecca deal, there were few signs that the boycott of Hamas and its confrontation with the West had weakened its popular standing. Millions of dollars in cash continue pouring into Hamas coffers. Its officials are free to travel abroad, and receive red carpet treatment in many of their destinations, including among U.S. allies. Meanwhile, the “moderates” tainted with years of corruption and mismanagement grew weaker through their own failures and association with the United States. Hamas is less isolated than we think, and European states are growing restless with the boycott, recognizing its ineffectiveness and the harsh effect it has had on working class Palestinians. As time goes on, Hamas is growing more politically secure, not less, because it defends Palestinians and is steadfast in the face of the West’s boycott. They posture and speechify. U.S. policy is helping them consolidate their rule instead of weakening it.

In the meantime the United States continues the mantra of strengthening President Abbas and his “moderate” forces. These are the same Fatah cadres that did not hesitate to fire their guns on Israeli troops and civilians in the fighting that erupted after the breakdown of Oslo. That has been overlooked now, as millions of dollars flow to Fatah military forces, and tens of millions more are expected. Yet, U.S. allies in this battle have discredited themselves with a long record of ineffectiveness and corruption. Their supporters remain passive, disorganized and consumed by infighting. President Abbas remains weak, and will remain so. His command over Fatah is tenuous at best, and the latest rounds of violence have weakened him further. While Fatah may be strong enough to hold on to some power, they will not be strong enough to win. Even if Fatah was to regain the official levers of power through a coup or new elections, it will be unable to guarantee security or implement any agreement as long as its own conflict with Hamas continues.

Rather than expect Fatah to impose order, the goal of U.S policy should be to force Hamas to make the hard choices it is desperate to avoid making — choices that challenge the very nature of the organization, the goals of its violence, and the trade-offs for an end to confrontation. Obviously, there is no guarantee that Hamas can be maneuvered into playing a constructive role. Its price for doing so may be too high. But without acknowledging Hamas’ role and interests there is no chance of moving forward and stopping the bloodshed.

Hamas is not about to issue a clear renunciation of violence as a prelude to any sort of engagement with the West. The organization sees it as their most valuable card to play, and one they have to husband carefully. Yet, despite its rhetoric, there is every reason to think that some sort of minimal accommodation can be reached with Hamas, and that this accommodation can be expanded over time. The Israeli government has recognized this through its own informal understandings with Hamas, including an informal ceasefire in Gaza. The chorus of Israeli voices calling for rethinking Israel’s boycott of Hamas is growing louder. It is the United States government that insists on an ideologically rigid approach to the organization. The U.S. should not give financial aid to a Hamas-dominated Palestinian government. At the same time, we need to recognize that Hamas is a dynamic and adaptive organization. We need to explore options for ways to force Hamas into playing a constructive rather than destructive role.

The Saudi-led efforts to bridge the gaps between Hamas and Fatah through a unity government are an important step. It is not likely that a unity government will actually reconcile the deep divisions and animosity between Hamas and Fatah or even stop the violence that has engulfed the two factions. But without a basic accommodation among Palestinians there is no chance for a renewed political process between Israelis and Palestinians. The United States is exacerbating this internal Palestinian power struggle by enticing Fatah with delusions of regaining power, along with shipments of equipment and cash. It is a dangerous game that can only lead to more bloodshed for both Palestinians and Israelis.