Saturday, June 21, 2008

Abunimah: Palestine amidst a Region in Flux

In this particularly lucid geopolitical analysis, Ali Abunimah enumerates some of the regional benefits of the Bush administration's lame duck status

Until recently, the administration's belligerent policy towards Iran had led it to refuse to allow its clients to negotiate with any groups it considered allied to Iran, notably Hamas, Hizbullah and Syria. This policy has almost led to civil war both in Palestine and Lebanon, and has created a siege-like situation in Gaza. Recent attempts to negotiate local power-sharing arrangements in Lebanon, and particularly some tentative gestures made by Abbas as well as the new ceasefire in Gaza, have however been tacitly accepted by the administration. These are small but important steps to reducing or eliminating the most acute tensions in the area, and a national unity government in the West Bank and Gaza might be in a better position to end the siege imposed on Gaza by the Israeli, American and European governments. Speaking from the point of view of Palestinian liberation, Abunimah rightly concludes that it makes little sense to wait for the next US President or Israeli Prime Minister in
the hope of a significant change in direction. Nevertheless, those of us with a voice, and especially a Jewish voice, in the two countries have an obligation to try to bring about such a change, and a disproportionate chance of doing so compared to other groups.

This article was mostly written before the recent announcement of an official ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, but the ceasefire obviously fits into the pattern described above. Abunimah addresses this in a new article entitled "Rays of Hope from the Gaza Ceasefire" at:

Alistair Welchman

Palestine amidst a Region in Flux: Signs of Accommodation and Fears of War"
Palestine Center Information Brief No. 163 (17 June 2008)

By Ali Abunimah
Palestine Center Fellow

The waning of the Bush administration is having a marked impact on events in Palestine and the surrounding region. On the ground conditions are as difficult as ever; Palestinians are frequently injured and killed by Israeli forces as their land is seized. A few Israeli communities continue to face harassment, occasional injuries and rare fatalities due to armed attacks by Palestinian resistance groups. The humanitarian disaster caused by Israel's near total blockade on the civilian population in Gaza and severe restrictions in the West Bank is worsening.

Politically, however, the situation is in flux. As regional actors who staked all on support from the Bush administration now recognize how vulnerable this strategy has left them, they are trying their best to rearrange the political furniture and shore up their internal positions. Having failed to dislodge their rivals, U.S.-backed regimes are coming to terms with them. The direction of events points to an erosion of the U.S. effort to corral client states into an anti-Iran coalition anchored by Israel and Saudi Arabia and a realignment according to local interests and compromises.1

Fragile buds of political accommodation are sprouting. The major wild card is whether the Bush administration will allow the long, slow decline in its influence to continue, and these buds to flourish, or whether it may try to dramatically reengineer the situation by, among other things, attacking Iran or encouraging Israel to do so. The U.S. election campaign adds a further element of uncertainty as to whether the situation will continue to improve gradually or dramatically worsen over the next six months.

This briefing surveys some of the key developments with a particular focus on Palestine.

A Hamas-Fateh Thaw?

Earlier this year, a Palestine Center Information Brief noted a shift in attitudes towards Hamas in the wake of the failure of the U.S. efforts to isolate Gaza and eventually overthrow the Palestinian resistance movement, which won the January 2006 legislative elections. Hamas' resilience, including its breach of the border wall with Egypt in January, sparked a general reassessment of policy towards the group by various actors.2

In a dramatic shift earlier this month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called for renewed dialogue with Hamas, apparently dropping his condition that the movement first relinquish control of the interior of the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip to his forces. A year ago, forces loyal to the democratically elected Hamas government took over the Gaza Strip, thwarting an attempted coup by U.S.-backed militias nominally loyal to Abbas's Fateh faction.3 Abbas, for his part, supported by the U.S. administration, had maintained that it was Hamas that carried out a "coup."

Many Palestinians consider national unity to be a prerequisite for an effective strategy against Israel's deepening occupation, blockade and settlement policies, and virtually none believe any peace agreement could be implemented without it.

Since angering the Bush administration by forming a national unity government with Hamas in early 2007, continued U.S. support has been conditioned on Abbas shunning Hamas, which the U.S. labels as "terrorist." Yet in contrast to its traditional position opposing contacts with Hamas, the White House pointedly declined to criticize Abbas's new opening.4

Hamas leaders, including the dismissed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, immediately welcomed Abbas's dialogue call. Within days, representatives of Hamas and Fateh took part in reconciliation talks convened by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade in his capacity as president of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. In Gaza, Ahmed Yousef, a senior advisor to Haniyeh, reaffirmed Hamas' proposals, including the re-establishment of a national unity government; rebuilding Palestinian security forces "on the basis of proficiency" rather than factional loyalty; reforming the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] to include all Palestinian factions; respecting election results and power sharing; and the possibility of new elections.5

While Hamas' position favoring reconciliation has been reflected in statements from the highest echelons down to the movement's spokesmen, Abbas's entourage have sent contradictory signals. Unnamed "informed" Palestinian Authority sources told the media that Abbas was moved to act after the Israelis notified him they planned to invade Gaza, overthrow Hamas and hand the coastal territory over to Abbas's forces. The sources said that Abbas strenuously objected to these plans, would not ride into Gaza on the back of Israeli tanks and thus called for immediate reconciliation talks with Hamas in order to thwart the Israeli plan.6 This incredible claim appears intended to paint Abbas's move not as a climb down but as a patriotic act. By contrast, Abbas's aide Saeb Erekat asserted that "President Abbas' position has not changed," adding, "It is wrong to say that Abbas no longer calls for ending Hamas' coup to end the divisions."7 Other Fateh figures adopted competing interpretations
reflecting the divisions among Abbas's advisors, many of whose personal positions and patronage would be threatened by a return of the national unity government.

Abbas's opening towards Hamas is clearly the product of three interrelated factors: the failure of the peace negotiations re-launched by President Bush at Annapolis in November 2007; the loss of authority of the [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert government in Israel; and the loss of influence of the Bush administration.

The Failure of the Annapolis Process

Annapolis had been part of a U.S.-sponsored effort to boost the credibility of the Abbas leadership by showing it was engaged in serious negotiations which could deliver a final agreement on Palestinian statehood by the end of 2008.

Abbas bet his future on President Bush's emphatic personal pledge at Annapolis "to devote my effort during my time as President to do all I can to help you achieve this ambitious goal." The United States' commitment included acting as a judge that each side would keep to its various obligations and continuing to train security forces loyal to Abbas in coordination with Israel.

However, after meeting Bush in Washington in April, Abbas complained publicly that the U.S. had done nothing to pressure Israel to stop settlement construction on Palestinian land and had ignored key Palestinian concerns. In terms of negotiations, Abbas stated, "Frankly, so far nothing has been achieved."8 Bush further disappointed Palestinian officials when he failed to do anything to redress the imbalance in U.S. policy during his visit to Israel in May.

The director of the PLO's Negotiations Support Unit said in early June at a Palestine Center event that the peace talks had touched on all the key issues "without exception"—borders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees—but that "We haven't reached any agreement yet. We haven't even drafted any papers yet." He added that the backsliding on peace talks was "undermining the credibility of the Palestinian leadership" of Abbas.

Israel's conception of a Palestinian state where it "maintain[s] control over air, land and sea borders," remains a far cry from the Palestinian one according to negotiators. And far from freezing settlement construction, Israel has been accelerating it; in the twelve months up to Annapolis, Israel had issued tenders for 138 housing units in the West Bank whereas 847 had been tendered in the six months after the summit. Israeli plans are underway for thousands more such units across the West Bank.9

It is therefore not surprising that Abbas's chief negotiator, Ahmed Qurai', declared just days before Abbas reached out to Hamas that it would take a "miracle" for the negotiations to reach an agreement by the end of the year.

Israeli Politics in Turmoil

Accelerating settlement construction has all but destroyed the credibility of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government as a serious peace interlocutor. But the government itself, a coalition of Olmert's Kadima party, the Labor party led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the religious Shas party among others, is not united even behind the hardline positions Israel has taken in the negotiations.

The universal consensus is that Olmert's departure is preordained; jockeying to replace him as head of his party is already underway, and the expectation is that national elections will occur within months. Politicians across the political spectrum have emphatically declared that Olmert does not have the authority or credibility to negotiate on behalf of Israel, and his continued participation in talks is seen as an attempt to buy time and distract from his latest corruption scandal.10 The coming electoral campaign, according to analyst Shaul Arieli, a former commander of Israeli occupation forces in the Gaza Strip and former Israeli negotiator, "is liable to cause most Israeli parties to adopt more extreme positions."11

There is simply no prospective Israeli coalition that is likely to be more forthcoming than even the current one, and therefore the chances of negotiations bridging the gaps between the minimalist Palestinian Authority position and Israeli demands remains negligible whether or not Olmert is replaced.

An Israeli-Palestinian Ceasefire

Breaking News: As this briefing was being prepared for publication, it was confirmed that a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip had been agreed by Israel and Palestinian factions, scheduled to begin on Thursday, June 19. The BBC reported, "This stage of the deal envisages a halt to hostilities and a partial reopening of Gaza's borders. A second stage of the plan would focus on the return of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and on a deal to reopen the main Rafah crossing into Egypt."12 The remainder of this section was prepared prior to this announcement.

In a violent rampage in early March, Israeli forces killed 110 Palestinians of whom half were civilians, including 27 children in a series of air and land attacks in the Gaza Strip. These attacks drew worldwide condemnation. In their wake, Israel and Hamas began ceasefire talks brokered by Egypt and others. The talks have yet to reach a conclusion and have stumbled over whether to include the West Bank and the exchange of prisoners.

In the meantime, Israel and resistance factions have maintained a de facto tahdi'a or "calming." Yet this is a somewhat deceptive term. Over 100 more Palestinians, including over 20 children and almost 30 other civilians have been killed in Israeli attacks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since early March. Hundreds of others have been injured, arrested or kidnapped by Israeli forces. In the first six months of 2008, Israeli forces killed almost 400 Palestinians, equaling the total death toll for 2007.13

Israeli officials assert that the massive violence perpetrated against Palestinian communities is intended to prevent rocket and mortar fire by Palestinian resistance factions from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Since the start of the year, four Israelis have been killed in such attacks according to the Associated Press.14

Hamas officials assert that all the resistance factions have agreed in principle to a ceasefire, but it is being held up by Israeli intransigence. In late April, Israel rejected a Hamas proposal for a six-month Gaza-only truce.15 Hamas officials believe that a ceasefire agreement is being held hostage to Israeli internal politics and rivalries.

Israeli leaders appear to understand that they cannot destroy Hamas militarily and cannot re-occupy the interior of the Gaza Strip without paying an unacceptably high price. Yet, they remain unwilling to grant Hamas the legitimacy they fear it would gain by agreeing a formal truce with it. In recent weeks, Israeli leaders have been openly discussing a major assault on Gaza. While this is always a possibility given Israel's brutal record, the current threats have the flavor of bluff for internal consumption or to influence the negotiations.16

Hamas' delivery of a letter from a captured Israeli soldier to his family, through the offices of former [U.S.] President [Jimmy] Carter, was a signal reaffirming Palestinian interest in reaching agreement. Haniyeh advisor, Ahmed Yousef, suggested that in response, Israel could release women and child prisoners it is holding as a reciprocal goodwill gesture.17 A formal truce remains achievable but not guaranteed; it depends on Israel accepting at last that it must deal with Hamas as a peer at least for the purpose of ending violence.

The Bush Administration and the Regional Context

In recent years, the Bush administration explicitly divided the region into "moderates" allied to or supported by the United States and "extremists," who are any movement or government opposing U.S. hegemony or policies in the region.

The U.S. has also attempted to portray local movements like Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine as mere pawns of regional rival Iran. The U.S. vigorously opposed allowing its clients to deal with "extremists" even though that brought countries including Palestine and Lebanon to the brink of civil war.

This "divide and rule" strategy has suffered several recent setbacks. The U.S.-backed Lebanese government and Hizballah-led opposition reconciled their differences and restored power-sharing under a Qatari-sponsored deal last month. Israel, apparently in defiance of U.S. wishes, resumed talks with Syria, brokered by Turkey, and Arab Gulf States have been pursuing a rapprochement with Iran.

As Israel continues to negotiate with Hamas, albeit indirectly, the movement has gained a measure of international stature. Two Nobel Prize winners, former President Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu held high profile meetings with Hamas' leaders. In May, France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner admitted that a former French diplomat had held exploratory talks with Hamas. In reaction to Israeli anger, French President Nicolas Sarkozy promised the contacts would cease, but according to well-informed sources, contacts between Hamas and other European officials are continuing to develop though they have yet to lead to a fundamental change in relations.

These regional developments, as well as the potential Hamas-Fateh rapprochement, are further signs that the Bush doctrine may be losing sway.

Attack on Iran?

The dire consequences of an American or Israeli attack on Iran are incalculable not just for the region but for the world. Recent comments by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz that an attack on Iran was "unavoidable" caused a sharp spike in world oil markets and prompted the United States to emphasize its commitment to "diplomacy." The Israeli government distanced itself from Mofaz's comments and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency condemned them.18

Earlier this year, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran had halted its quest for nuclear weapons, temporarily cooling talk of a military attack. But in recent months, speculation about an attack has escalated.

One line of argument says that U.S. elites are too divided and military commanders too opposed to such an attack, and that it is therefore unlikely.19 Another says that unreformed neoconservative hardliners in the administration, egged on by pro-Israel supporters, believe that it is 'now or never' in the remaining months of the Bush administration. Some neocons have argued that if Democratic Senator Barack Obama is elected president in November, the Bush administration would attack Iran in its remaining weeks. Obama has stated that he would negotiate with Iran under certain conditions.

As evidenced by the emphasis on Iran at the annual policy conference of AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee], key pro-Israel groups are doing their best to heighten U.S. tensions with Iran, which has pushed the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to compete to be more hardline.20 Senator Hillary Clinton, for example, stated in the course of her campaign that the United States could "totally obliterate" Iran if it even considered attacking Israel.

Iran and its allies have taken some steps to reduce tensions; the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, emphasized that his country is not seeking nuclear weapons. In Lebanon, Hizballah, which receives support from Iran but is often wrongly portrayed by the U.S. and Israel as a mere extension of Iran, has emphasized it is not interested in war with Israel but would defend Lebanon if attacked. Israel recently freed a Lebanese captive while Hizballah delivered body parts of deceased Israeli soldiers to Israel.

All in all, a major conflagration in the region remains a palpable risk in the next six months but is most likely to be the result of Israeli or U.S. adventurism, provocation or at least failure to respond constructively to the openings being offered by their adversaries.

The U.S. Election and Palestine

While it is widely assumed that Republican nominee Senator John McCain would continue many Bush administration policies in the region, there is intense speculation among Palestinians and other commentators about whether Senator Barack Obama would take a less pro-Israeli approach. Obama has done his best to dampen such speculation by making hardline pro-Israel speeches, including a major address to AIPAC the day after he won enough delegates to secure his party's nomination.21 This speech elicited dismay among many Arab observers who had assumed that Obama—contrary to his stated positions—was actually pro-Palestinian. (In light of some of the inflated expectations of Obama, it is worth remembering that many observers in 2000 assumed Bush would be more favorable to the Palestinians than his Democratic rival).

Much analysis has persistently underestimated the extent to which every president is constrained by entrenched interests and party establishments and overestimated the extent to which Obama has been willing to challenge prevailing wisdom. He has, for example, emphatically endorsed the Bush administration policy of shunning Hamas. Like McCain and Bush, he is committed to a two-state paradigm that has been rendered irrelevant by the facts on the ground. What is likely to hurt the Palestinian cause most is not a Democratic victory or Republican loss or vice versa but the stunning lack of any serious discussion among U.S. policy elites of alternatives to the failed and outdated peace process paradigm.

In the best case, a new administration, even if it were committed to a fundamental revision of the U.S. policy (admittedly unlikely), will not be ready to engage until mid-2009. Events on the ground will not be static in the meantime. The worst mistake Palestinian leaders could make is to once again pin their hopes on any U.S. administration delivering a state to favored "moderates" instead of developing a broad-based, inclusive and principled vision for regaining Palestinian rights, underpinned by grassroots support and mobilization within Palestine and internationally.

Ali Abunimah is a fellow at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC. He is an expert on Palestine, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and is the author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Abunimah also co-founded The Electronic Intifada, an online publication about Palestine and the Palestine-Israeli conflict, Electronic Iraq and Electronic Lebanon.

The views expressed in this information brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.

1 See Seymour Hersh, "The Redirection; Is the Administration's new policy benefitting our enemies in the war on terrorism?" The New Yorker, 5 March 2007, [].
2 See, Abunimah, Ali, "Shifting Attitudes towards Hamas," Palestine Center Information Brief No. 160 (11 March 2008), [].
3 See Rose, David, "The Gaza Bombshell," Vanity Fair, April 2008, [].
4 "US: No objections to Abbas-Hamas dialogue," Agence France Presse, 5 June 2008.
5 Yousef, Ahmed, "National Unity could aid ceasefire efforts,", 9 June 2008, [].
6 "da'wat 'abbas lil musalaha al-wataniyya ja'at istibaqan li 'amaliya isra'iliyya 'ala al qita'a rafadatha al-sulta," Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 7 June 2008.
7 "Abbas aides say Hamas talks depend on ceding Gaza," Reuters, 5 June 2008.
8 "Abbas: I failed in U.S., no progress in peace talks," Haaretz, 26 April 2008, [].
9 "Defining Progress and Challenges Halfway Through the Annapolis Process," Edited Transcript of Remarks by Mr. Maen Areikat, Mr. Khaled Elgindy and Mr. Rami Dajani, The Palestine Center, 9 June 2008, [].
10 See "Next gov't won't recognize document," The Jerusalem Post, 7 June 2008.
11 Shaul Arieli, "Hamas believes it has the upper hand,", 9 June 2008, [].
12 "Israel and Hamas agree ceasefire," BBC, 17 June 2008, [].
13 These numbers are compiled from the weekly reports of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza which can be found at []; Also see "149 people killed since the start of the year," Press Release, B'Tselem, 28 February 2008, []; "Contrary to Israel's Chief of Staff, at least half of those killed in Gaza did not take part in the fighting,' Press Release, B'Tselem, 3 March 2008, [].
14 "Israel kills 3 Gaza militants after mortar barrage," Associated Press, 10 June 2008.
15 Rory McCarthy, "Israel rejects Hamas ceasefire offer," The Guardian, 26 April 2008, [].
16 Amos Harel, "Defense sources: Talk of major IDF operation in Gaza premature," Haaretz, 8 June 2008, [].
17 Avi Issacharoff, "Haniyeh advisor: Hamas expects gesture in exchange for Shalit letter," Haaretz, 11 June 2008, [].
18 "Defense official: Mofaz remark on Iran strike is not state policy," Haaretz, 8 June 2008, [].
19 "Ex-official Says DoD Nixed Iran Attack," Inter Press Service, 10 June 2008.
20 See for example, Khody Akhavi, "Pledging allegiance to AIPAC," Inter Press Service, 10 June 2008.
21 Transcript: Senator Barack Obama, AIPAC Policy Conference, 4 June 2008, [].

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Shlensky
Rebecca Vilkomerson
Alistair Welchman
Jewish Peace News archive and blog:
Jewish Peace News sends its news clippings only to subscribers. To subscribe, unsubscribe, or manage your subscription, go to

No comments: