Monday, June 25, 2007

A Close Encounter with Ehud Olmert: The Hamas Revolution in Gaza
June 25, 2007

By Gidon D. Remba

I had the opportunity hear Prime Minister Ehud Olmert address the American Jewish leadership last week on the eve of his encounter with President Bush. So many are excited about Olmert and Bush’s new plan to support and re-start peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, while isolating and pressuring Hamas and Gaza. Condi, Bush and Olmert are swooning all over Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the new Palestinian prime minister. Olmert is falling all over himself declaring Abbas to be his long-lost Palestinian peace partner.

Olmert is interested in exploiting the recent Hamas takeover of Gaza from Fatah to forge a new opportunity for the future, an opening, he says, for “more moderate forces under Abbas in the PA to build up a solid basis for a Palestinian state in the territories.” Now that the Palestinian government in the West Bank is free of all traces of Hamas, Israel will unfreeze tax revenues and take steps to improve the quality of life in the West Bank. “We want to project to the Palestinian public,” suggests Olmert, “ that when they refrain from terror, they have a chance for a different kind of life.” Israel will talk with Abbas, whom Olmert now calls “a genuine partner,” about a “political horizon to create the basis for an eventual Palestinian state.”

Olmert took pains to stress that “George W. Bush is a great partner in our war against the extremists,” and that the new Israeli policy is fully in sync with the Bush Administration's "war on terror." “With terrorists you fight, with others you make peace; this will be the agenda of my government,” announces Olmert, grateful to have found the agenda he lost on the way out of Lebanon. In short, the new Bush-Olmert policy, into which even the EU has bought, is: do business with Abbas and his government in the West Bank, while isolating and pressuring Hamas—“cauterizing” the cancer, in Bibi Netanyahu’s mixed metaphor on CNN—employing appropriate military force against Hamas in Gaza. In short, the West Bank first, Gaza later—or two states for one people, as the motto of the week had it.

Olmert even made sure to tell his audience that “the Saudis can play an important role in supporting moderate forces in Arab countries.” And of the Saudi-inspired Arab League Peace Initiative he declared: “I won’t say no to any initiative whose outcome is the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state in the Middle East”—a right which, for all its virtues in reversing the three noes of Khartoum, the Arab Peace Initiative does not affirm. And Olmert reminded his audience that “there are many Palestinians who genuinely want to make peace with Israel.”

These are, of course, welcome noises from Olmert. Olmert’s happy peace talk sounded like sweet music to the ears of progressive Jews, and no less so to the broader Jewish community which pines for a ray of hope in a seemingly hopeless region. Indeed, a number of left-of-center policy wonks, including former Clinton Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk (writing in the Washington Post) and IPCRI (Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information) co-CEO Gershon Baskin, have endorsed some version of the new Olmert-Bush nostrum for reviving a peace process with the de-Hamasified Abbas.

But there is a dark lining inside this silver cloud. A policy of isolation and coercion against Hamas harbors a logic of escalation within. Hamas will not sit idle, and will redouble its efforts to blow up Olmert’s neat panacea. Israel’s hand may be forced in Gaza by escalating rocket fire on Sderot and Ashkelon, and the IDF could be compelled in time to launch a costly ground incursion. Remember what happened the last time Israel retaliated in Gaza with a big operation? The North erupted.

Ha’aretz reported today that “Hamas is planning to carry out suicide bombings in order to undermine the efforts by Israel and the West to bolster Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas…and to prevent any support from reaching Abbas and Fatah, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin told the [Israeli] cabinet yesterday. Diskin also warned that the impression that Fatah is powerful in the West Bank is only an illusion… The Shin Bet head also warned that Fatah is a divided organization, and without a strong party it will be impossible for Abbas' forces to prevent terrorism in the West Bank.”

Déjà Vu

The Prime Minister was asked by several Jewish leaders what kind of economic aid he will provide to Abbas to strengthen him. Olmert deftly batted the questions aside. “What will I tell Abbas,” he quipped, “if I tell it all to you?” Olmert’s sympathizers chortled along with him. But I would wager that Olmert will tell nothing of any consequence to Abbas or anyone else. In short, Olmert’s new policy will soon be revealed for the cruel hoax that it is.

By refusing to countenance any return to a national unity Palestinian government with Hamas, Olmert is giving Hamas every incentive imaginable to become the great spoiler. The hoax will, in the end, be on Olmert. The only question will be whether the war that Olmert brings in Gaza—and then in the North—will be a bigger fiasco than last summer’s. And will Labor will be saddled with half the blame, as the Israeli public shifts further to the right, believing that if militarism is needed, better to bring in the real thing than a pale facsimile? Thanks to Olmert’s new fiasco, Bibi Netanyahu, darling of the right, may be crowned King of Israel once again.

Lurking behind Jewish leaders’ skeptical queries of Olmert was the deeper question: after squandering two previous opportunities to bolster Abbas, when neither the US nor Israel took the necessary steps to help him show the superiority of his way to the Palestinian public, what will Olmert do differently this time? We’ve been here before, with everyone proclaiming a miraculous turning point that can be exploited to advance the cause of peace, and Olmert leading the cheers.

Who can forget the death of Arafat and the appointment of Abbas as president? Aluf Benn has written of that period: “Israel's willingness to help Abbas was at best half-hearted. It never went beyond token moves and empty gestures.” (“Spinning The Disaster In Gaza,” Spiegel, June 20, 2007). Who can forget the momentous unveiling of the Road Map on the eve of the Iraq war with Bush clutching Abbas and Sharon at Aqaba, promising to ride herd on both to insure that they fulfilled their commitments? Who would ride herd on George W. Bush to insure that he and the United States lived up to their commitments?

Olmert, the Rabbi and the Goat

What will Olmert do to strengthen Abbas? Olmert’s reply to this question put me in mind of the tale of the rabbi and the goat. Unfreezing the tax revenues to Abbas and Fayyad’s PA is a necessary step—but as Olmert himself said of the sanctions on Iran—it is a positive step, yet insufficient, in this case woefully so. It behooves us to recall the tale: After complaining of life in a single cramped room with his large family of nine, a man is told by his rabbi to take a goat into the room. A week later, he returns to the rabbi more distraught than before. The rabbi counsels him to let the goat out. One more week goes by, and the man returns to the rabbi, exclaiming "Life is beautiful! We enjoy every minute of it now that there's no goat -- only the nine of us!"

Just what is Olmert’s bold new economic aid policy for relieving West Bank poverty, suffering and joblessness and bolstering Abbas against Hamas? Now that West Bank Palestinians have lived in the cramped sanctions room for a year, Ehud Olmert will let the goat out: he will give back the tax revenues Israel collected on the PA’s behalf from the time they began their flirtation with Hamas. And Olmert expects Abbas to exult over how much his “family” enjoys living in the cramped little room now that the goat is gone and the tax revenues are back.

And how will Olmert provide Abbas with a political dividend to demonstrate the superiority of Abbas and Fatah’s way of negotiating with Israel over Hamas’ way of terror and violent “resistance”? Olmert will “talk” to Abbas—often even--about a “political horizon” to create the basis for an “eventual Palestinian state.” Are you getting excited already? One can only imagine the fever that will overtake the Palestinian public now that Olmert will stop boycotting the moderate Abbas and actually start talking to him about a possible future state perhaps somewhere over the horizon, after letting the goat out of the room.

Condi Rice has proposed that Israel proceed to negotiate a final agreement with Abbas outlining the permanent borders of a Palestinian state, creating a palpable “political horizon” for which Abbas and his Fatah party will receive credit. The agreement would not yet be implemented, Rice suggested, until the moderates gained strength, acquiring the ability to deliver more effectively on security. The deal would instead serve to build confidence and support for moderates on both sides. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni reportedly backs this approach. Olmert has rejected it.

It took former Mossad Chief Ephraim Halevy to ask (in Ynet) the obvious question that seems to have eluded Olmert:

“What is needed on Israel's part in order for Abbas not only to survive but also to establish himself as an authoritative and recognized leader both in his country as well as across the Arab world? Is this price worthwhile? Is it possible to pay it in practice? Is the return guaranteed?”

But of course this question has not really eluded Olmert. It is strategically avoided because the answer is unwelcome. Olmert wants a process, not peace; he wants the sizzle, without the steak. As long as there is a process pointing somewhere over the horizon, and all Olmert need do is talk, offering some gestures to Abbas (after removing the goat), he has his agenda: a roadmap that never reaches its destination and keeps on going as long as Olmert remains in office.

Wiser heads—including Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller (in the Washington Post), and Daniel Levy (whose views are articulated on his Prospects for Peace blog and quoted in the New York Times last week)—are already forecasting the collapse of the new Bush-Olmert gambit.

The moral of the story is this: Coercion and force will not work against Hamas in Gaza. The only path to build a stable Palestinian neighbor next to Israel leads through a revived Fatah-Hamas national unity government. If the two movements attempt to reconcile, the US and Israel should refrain from actions which undermine Hamas. This is the paradox of peace. Those who profess to be for peace, promising to engage the moderates and crush the extremists, are actually disserving the cause of peace, rendering Israel less secure; whereas those who engage both Hamas and Fatah, co-opting Hamas into attainable pragmatic security and political arrangements to Israel’s benefit, without insisting on impossible conditions that no other Arab party has had to fulfill, are the true champions of peace.

The US and Israel should cease all covert arming of Fatah forces, a Bush-Olmert strategy which provoked Hamas to engage in preemptive attacks against Fatah in Gaza, leading to the Hamas takeover and the collapse of the Hamas-Fatah unity government, an outcome both Israeli and American leaders had sought. Bush and Olmert were indeed fomenting civil war in Gaza and hoping, as has been long reported, to bring about regime change in the Hamas-led PA. For the moment they may seem to have succeeded; but their success is built on quicksand.

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