Monday, January 30, 2006

Hand-Wringing and Indignation Over Hamas

Hamas' victory in Palestinian elections will no doubt injure the peace process and bring further suffering to both Israel and Palestine. Try as one might, it is hard to peer ahead and see a good future outcome from these events. Even so, the tone of U.S. and European news coverage of Hamas' electoral triumph is benighted and egregiously biased. Again and again one reads of the "mistake" Palestinian voters have made and how they must be shown that their choices have "consequences." As if they can possibly be in the dark on that score.

Responsible international governments will not be able to negotiate in good faith with a Hamas-led government as long as it remains constitutionally committed to the destruction of Israel. Hamas' victory thus gives them an effective veto over the peace process, unless and until Hamas reforms its charter all progress along the "road map" is halted. Pundits and magi across the globe are shaking their heads and decreeing that Palestinian voters should have known as much, now they will have to reap the whirlwind. But Palestinians went into voting booths having read the same newscasts that the rest of the "shocked" world had, declaring that though Hamas would poll strongly Fatah would emerge with a ruling majority, so interpreting this last election as a popular anti-peace mandate is a fallacy.

Moreover, no one that I have read or heard has even contemplated putting some of the blame for Hamas' victory where it obviously belongs- on the Bush and Sharon administrations. Ariel Sharon's bold realignment of the Israeli political field demonstrated that he was earnest in his moves toward Palestinian statehood. Even so, his policy of unilateral disengagement sent a clear message to Palestinians to which they were obviously paying attention- it does not matter who is in charge on the Palestinian side, Israel will pursue whatever policy it deems best. If the composition of Palestinian leadership can have no influence on Israel's actions, then Palestinian voters can not be wholly blamed for disregarding how their vote might impact the peace process in the long term.

In more instrumental terms the Sharon policy helped engineer Fatah's defeat through cloaking it in a mantle of impotence. To the extent that pundits around the world will grant any rationality to Palestinian voters at all, they bemoan the fact that Fatah's inveterate corruption has led to this dark day. Corrupt Fatah is, but I challenge anyone to find a living member of Fatah who can compete with Jack Abramoff for sheer unscrupulousness. However corrupt Fatah may be, their poll returns might have been much higher had the recent Israeli pullout from Gaza not shown them to be totally irrelevant to that process. Indeed, the unilateral nature of the pullout made it a PR bonanza for Hamas, enabling them to go from hiding underground to parading armed through the streets overnight, thus taking credit for an event in which Fatah was given no "sound bite" presence whatsoever.

The U.S. Bush administration must share in this blame, for though they trumpet the value of democratization in the Middle East they have done very little to proactively nurture it (and yes, I am counting the policy in Iraq). If democratization is truly a cherished Bush goal, they should have understood that a Hamas victory could be disastrous to that end and taken a much more active role in Israel/Palestine affairs much earlier. Instead, the Bush administration created no genuine Israel/Palestine policy of its own but gave its imprimatur to every Israeli policy that have helped bring about Fatah's electoral defeat. Hamas is now in a position not only to derail the peace process, but to set back the cause of democracy in the Arab world by decades. If, having cast their ballots in one of the most democratic elections the Arab world has experienced in recent years Palestinians are then made to suffer (as is inevitable should Hamas prove intransigent), what other message can Arabs around the world possibly receive but that democracy is a pointless charade?

In the end blame for Hamas' victory extends beyond the Bush and Sharon administrations and the Palestinian voters themselves. Blame falls on all of us who have been observing events in the Middle East and have failed to perceive that this might occur. The lesson of the Palestinian election is the same as that of other events in the region- unilateralism is a failed policy and a doomed approach to reform. If the U.S. and Europe want to engage the Middle East in a way that will bring progressive and meaningful change it must do so in concert with autonomous and independent partners in the Arab community. Depriving Middle Eastern people of agency will produce the same negative results as would occur if the U.S. or Europe were treated with corresponding paternalism.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Critical Moment for Israel

The stroke which has so severely incapacitated Ariel Sharon this week is a tragedy not only for him personally but for all of Israel and Palestine. Flawed as they may have been, Prime Minister Sharon's policies had restored forward momentum to a peace process that was fatally stalled, and his centrist Kadima Party seemed poised to win an electoral mandate to continue that progress. The sudden departure of Mr. Sharon from Israeli politics creates a crisis of uncertainty that could set the peace process back years.

By all reports, the Bush administration is sensible to the urgency of the situation. Secretary of State Rice has canceled planned overseas trips to remain in Washington and monitor the evolving Israeli scene. The loss of Mr. Sharon will hopefully shock the Bush White House out of the passivity that has marked its orientation toward Israel/Palestine since assuming office. U.S. influence is limited at this juncture, but it is critical that the White House use all of its powers to carry the peace process forward through this perilous transition.

What can the U.S. do, and what should U.S. policy be at this point? The U.S. cannot guarantee that Sharon's centrist Kadima coalition will remain intact or that its leadership will remain committed to Sharon's policy line should it do so. It can and must, however, continue to assert its traditional role as broker in the Israel/Palestine peace process to assure that the principles laid down at Oslo are not entirely abandoned.

The urgency of the crisis engendered by Prime Minister Sharon's affliction is exacerbated by the imminent and critically important elections to be held within the domain of the Palestinian authority on January 25. These elections are already clouded by doubts on many counts, some of which are beyond the control of the U.S. or Israel. Hamas seems likely to draw a substantial portion of the vote, an outcome that cannot bode well for the peace process.

Nonetheless, this likelihood does not make it wise or right for the Israeli government to obstruct the elections in any shape or form. Whatever success Mr. Sharon's unilateralism has enjoyed, Israelis will ultimately require a legitimate and authoritative Palestinian counterpart if the peace process is ever to produce a stable and postive outcome. Moves by the Israeli government to prevent polling in East Jerusalem are destructive of that end. Negotiations up to this point have established that East Jerusalem will and must be part of a future Palestinian State if it is to be geographically, demographically, and economically viable. To behave now as if the status of East Jerusalem is still in play is to throw the peace process in reverse and to undermine the legitimacy of the Palestinian authority just when the peace process most requires that it be bolstered.

The U.S. should use any and all influence it can bring to bear to ensure that Palestinians are allowed to poll in East Jerusalem on January 25. A decline in the unity and focus of the progressive forces on the Israeli side of the peace process requires that there be a countervailing rise in unity and focus on the Palestinian side. Preventing polling of Palestinians in East Jerusalem will only erode the legitimacy and efficacy of the Palestinian authority at a moment when both Israel and Palestine can least afford such a contigency.