Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Discussion: Undermining Abbas

No matter how many angles I look at the Israel/Palestine conflict from, it seems I always come back to the conclusion that the Israeli government is completely divorced from reality. Hamas, a group that I generally regard as being politically astute, made a serious error with their last bus bombing. By the brutal calculus of this conflict, they were entitled to some degree of retaliation after Israel continued their assassinations after Hamas agreed to a cease-fire. However, it seemed they had accomplished that in a proportional way after a couple of minor bombing attacks that only killed 2-3 people. Then they followed that up with an attack killing a score of people and wounding scores more. It was obviously out of scale and not justified, and necessarily would trigger a response from Israel. I wonder if the last assassination did some real damage to Hamas' leadership, as the man assassinated was regarded as a leader in the political side of things and one of the architects of the cease-fire. His death, and the manner of it, may have pushed control into the hands of more militant and aggressive elements of the organization. I hope this is not the case, as the apparent mainstreaming and politicization of Hamas over the last 3-5 years has offered, I believe, the best opportunity for a resolution to this conflict.

In any case, it is the current response of Israel that concerns me. From the beginning of the roadmap they have insisted that Abbas not work cooperatively with Hamas to disarm them, but that he aggressively dismantle the organization. And now they are demanding this in stronger terms and they are making an effort to do it themselves at the same time. This is having the effect of causing a rebellion within the Palestinian Authority against Abbas as they do not want to participate in this action under these terms, and maybe not under any terms. Abbas now has the two great pillars of political power in Palestine, Arafat's faction of the PA and Hamas, both set against him, with Israel, backed on this matter by the US, not willing to budge on anything. Abbas was hand-picked to lead the Palestinians by Israel and the US. He was elected as Prime Minister by the Palestinian parliament simply because the US and Israel insisted that no negotiations could take place unless this was done. He has no military or police power to speak of, and no clear political mandate from the Palestinian people. He has no tools with which to combat Arafat's faction, which controls what little military capability the PA has, nor Hamas which has their own military force. Alienating him from these two groups leaves him as a powerless figurehead. And yet that is what Israel appears to be intent on doing. It strikes me as bizarre that they would set up their own chosen leader of the Palestinians for such prominent failure. They cannot be so blind as to not see what they are doing, and yet I can figure no rational reason for them to do it...

Hamas, I believe, is the key to this whole situation. I do not believe that a real resolution can be negotiated by Palestinians in a position of complete weakness, as Abbas is. Nor without strong support from the public and the militant groups, which I don't necessarily think Abbas has. Hamas has strength and has the support of a Palestinian public sick to death of feeling powerless and disenfranchised for that reason. Despite massive, desperate, efforts by the Israeli military to put Hamas out of business they remain as dangerous as ever. They have, in recent years, become more involved in humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people, running hospitals and schools and the like. And they have backed off their initial stated goal (the complete destruction of Isreal) and become more willing to participate in negotiations. They are the foremost militant organization, and their word would carry substantially more weight with the other militants than does Abbas. I believe they have all the necessary elements to negotiate a real settlement with Israel. They have the strength to negotiate as equals, the support to bring the public on board and the power and creditibility to make the other militants fall in line. The US needs to insist that they be brought to the negotiating table, rather than setting up Abbas for obvious failure by insisting he do battle with them. Unfortunately our over-the-top rhetoric against terrorism makes this impossible, and will doom any efforts by the Bush administration to resolve this conflict.

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