Judging by the reaction of American and Israeli officials to the Hamas takeover of Gaza, one would think that it ensures peace in our time.
Ehud Olmert, Israel’s hapless prime minister, declared the event “a new opening” in an interview with the New York Times. He suggested, now that Fatah had assumed control of the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank, Israel would release $562 million of tax receipts that have been withheld since Hamas swept into power. “To give it to a Hamas government is reckless. To give it to a Fatah government is an opportunity.”
As Olmert prepares to meet with President Bush today, Washington is equally giddy. With Mahmoud Abbas at the helm of an emergency Palestinian government, the Bush administration announced on Monday it was ending the economic and political embargo that had been in place while Hamas was part of the coalition government.
Ever since Hamas won the parliamentary elections in January of 2006, there has not been a viable Palestinian peace partner, because Hamas would not renounce violence or back off its goal of destroying Israel. But Israelis and Americans believe that they can deal with Abbas.
“What’s important is, you have to have a partner who is committed to peace, and we believe that President Abbas is,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said. “And therefore we are committed to working with this new emergency government.”
In addition to negotiating peace with Abbas, the thinking goes, Israelis and Americans could help deliver aid and foster economic development in the West Bank, which would prove a model for the rest of the Palestinian territories, and weaken the hand of the extremist groups, most notably, Hamas.
“I think the government and the authority that Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) holds in the West Bank can create an opportunity for an entirely different way of living for those who live in the West Bank,” Olmert said. “That can be the platform upon which a somewhat different Palestinian realization of what’s good and what’s bad, what’s preferred and what’s not, can emerge.”
If Abbas’s Fatah were coming off a huge military victory over Hamas in which they consolidated their power over the Palestinian territories, perhaps there would be reason for such optimism. In all this euphoria, however, the American and Israeli leadership seems to be missing one obvious point: Abbas was trounced.
In just days of fighting, Fatah was swiftly ejected from Gaza. Hamas took control of Fatah’s military, intelligence, and security headquarters in Gaza, executing its leaders — and even allegedly stealing Yassir Arafat’s Nobel Peace Prize medal.
Abbas was left with no option but to retreat to the West Bank, dissolve the coalition government, and appoint an emergency one. But it remains to be seen whether such a government has any legitimacy on the ground. Ismail Haniyeh, the ousted Hamas Prime Minister, has already said that the new Fatah-dominated emergency government “has no basis in law.” There’s also a good chance that Hamas would again emerge victorious whenever new elections are held to replace the emergency government.
It’s hard to understand why American and Israeli officials are so eager to restart the peace talks with Abbas, when Hamas is unlikely to sit on the sidelines and give Abbas a free hand to negotiate with their enemy, especially on the heels of a military victory. Furthermore, it’s hard to see how, practically, Abbas would be able to use money obtained from Israel, the U.S. and EU strictly in the West Bank areas controlled by Fatah, while neglecting Palestinians in Hamas-occupied Gaza.
Beyond the political obstacles to the peace process, Fatahâ€™s defeat in Gaza now means that, in addition to facing Iranian-backed Hezbollah to the north, Israel now shares borders with a terrorist state to the south, which also receives aid from Iran. Both terrorist groups are beefing up their military capabilities, and in addition to threatening Israel with daily rocket attacks, they can act as proxies for Tehran when the Islamist state chooses to assert itself in the region, and could be used to stage a retaliatory strike against Israel were Israel to launch a preemptive attack to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
None of this is to say that America and Israel shouldnâ€™t aim for peace in the region. But with the political situation in Gaza and the West Bank so unsettled, now is not the time to bet heavily on a Palestinian leader with a precarious hold on power.
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