Palestine on Hold 12.5.2006

Palestine on Hold

Today, Singapore, 12/05/2006

Surprisingly and hardly noticed, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently mentioned that he has no intention to run for a second term of office. Considering that presidential elections are scheduled for 2009, it’s a little early for such an announcement and one can legitimately ask why he felt the need to publish his intentions already and set the clock running. While we must not rule out that he has had enough of the thankless job, the fact that he has not resigned yet (although he threatened to do so often enough) is an indication that he believes he can still contribute and advance his people politically. Maybe he thought that a little pressure might help.

 Mahmoud Abbas continues to be Israel’s and the West’s fig leaf whose very existence permits them to pretend that there is somebody to negotiate with and something to negotiate about. But he presently is hardly in a position to negotiate – like a Republican US President with a Democratic Congress, there is little he can do without bipartisan support. A Hamas government will not let President Abbas pursue policies that are not in tune with the aims of Hamas. And Abbas’ powers of conviction, with no real record of achievement other than his own survival, are limited.

 While Abbas and Hamas are still trying to develop collaboration that would permit the Palestinian Authority to interact with Israel and continue functioning, Israel’s PM Ehud Olmert, when introducing his new cabinet, just reconfirmed his conditions: Hamas must renounce terror, recognize Israel and honor agreements previously signed by the PA. One of Olmert’s aides said that Israel will give the Palestinians only until the end of this year to make the necessary policy changes. If the Hamas-PA won’t come around, Israel will withdraw and determine its borders unilaterally. 

 What Olmert failed to mention is that in the meantime, Israel will work very hard, together with the US and the West, at bringing down Hamas by applying coercive economic sanctions. This policy is now undergoing major modifications to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in the PA but the objective remains the same.

 For some reason (wishful thinking may have a lot to do with it), Israel and the West believe that subjecting Hamas to pressure while causing collateral damage among the population will bring about greater Palestinian willingness to accept Israel’s terms. This harsh approach has no support in the Arab and Muslim world which is gearing up to sustain Palestine no matter what. The fallout of a contest by which Israel and the West want to bring down a democratically elected Hamas while the Muslim world is trying to prevent this will further hurt the Palestinian population, invigorate the more radical terror organizations but most importantly, strengthen Hamas.

 As member of a legitimate government, Hamas will probably continue to refrain from terror but will find itself unable or unwilling to prevent terrorism committed by more radical Palestinian groups. Israel in any case will hold Hamas responsible, being in charge in the PA, but will have increasing difficulty making Hamas pay – there aren’t many valuable targets left and extending targeted killings to members of a legitimate government that itself is not pursuing terror is not yet an option.

 So we are looking at a status-quo of mutual non-recognition, continued terrorist activities by Palestinian groups other than Hamas, retaliatory Israeli attacks and an occasional damaging contribution from Al-Qaida if the group succeeds at establishing itself in Palestine, quite likely in view of the radicalization that the territories are undergoing these days.

 Abbas’ announcement that he will not run again makes it possible for contenders to start their campaign early and establish their public profile. Hamas, provided it survives in government and shows real economic achievements by the time of the presidential elections in 2009, will surely run a candidate. If the movement fields an attractive figure, it may very well be able to complete its take-over of the Palestinian Authority. Such a development will not only delay further the creation of a Palestinian state, it will also leave the conflict with Israel active enough to continue and extract a heavy price from the occupying power. That off course, unless the unilateral withdrawal that Olmert envisages in his vague convergence plan is truly all-encompassing and puts Israel’s borders very close to the 1967 lines demanded by Hamas.

Without massive US pressure on Israel, improbable during the remaining term of the Bush administration, this is not likely to happen. Divine inspiration might help.

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