Home inFocus Between the West Bank and a Hard Place

Between the West Bank and a Hard Place

Richard Baehr Fall 2007

After Hamas gunmen routed Fatah forces to seize control of Gaza in early June, Washington became convinced that propping up Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas offered the best hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace. While the West releases funds (U.S. and European primarily, plus funds held by Israel) to Abbas for use in the West Bank, now that Hamas is no longer part of his government, Israel is expected to improve the living conditions of West Bank Palestinians. Abbas and new Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a man Washington sees as a genuine reformer, are also working to regain control of the West Bank’s militias, and to change the PA’s corrupt and ossified image among Palestinians.

The current strategy further aims to isolate Hamas in Gaza by limiting assistance to basic humanitarian aid. It is hoped that Hamas will stew in its own juices, and that, over time, Gazans will demand new leadership. In an ideal scenario, Gazans would seek a return to the PA.

In the Middle East, however, ideal scenarios rarely materialize. Several tough choices and potential roadblocks for America and Israel lie ahead.

Assessing Olmert’s Mandate

Working with Abbas has been the strategy of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Kadima party since Olmert assumed power in early 2006 (following Ariel Sharon’s debilitating stroke). Indeed, this has been Israeli policy ever since Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat died in November 2004. When Hamas won majority control of the PA legislature three weeks after Olmert became acting prime minister, that strategy was stymied; it was impossible to provide financial assistance to Abbas without also funding Hamas. With the Hamas-Fatah split, Israel can again attempt to work with Abbas.

Rather than inventing a new strategy, the United States is following Olmert’s lead, shoring up Abbas, and preventing a Hamas takeover of the West Bank. Olmert’s mandate, however, should be a red flag for Washington. The embattled prime minister suffers from abysmal approval ratings (3 percent, according to a June 2007 survey, which also indicated that Kadima would suffer a crushing defeat if new elections were held). There is significant risk that America and Europe are backing a prime minister who is well past his prime. This was the case when President Bill Clinton worked with Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000 and 2001 to secure a peace deal with Arafat, even as Barak’s approval numbers plummeted and his defeat in the February 2001 election appeared certain (Barak subsequently won less than 38 percent of the votes in that election). Washington must avoid mistakes of the past.

Is Abbas Our Man?

While there is general agreement about the dangers of Hamas rule in Gaza, and the potential for even greater danger were Hamas to rule in the West Bank, many high-profile Israeli analysts, notably Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post, and Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, doubt that Abbas is the answer. The loss of Gaza may be an indication that the PA is crumbling. Abbas does not have a solid grip on the West Bank, either. If he loses control, the IDF will be forced to intervene to prevent a Hamas takeover there, too.

Currently, Israel is allowing Abbas time to consolidate his rule, rather than reinforce its positions in the territories. The wisdom of this strategy—waiting for Abbas to succeed—remains to be seen. The longer Israel waits, the more difficult a military intervention could become.

There is also the question of whether American or Israeli support for Abbas would hurt him. In the perverse world of Palestinian politics, the more a leader cooperates with Israel and America, the less he is trusted on the Palestinian street. Thus, Washington and Jerusalem must mute their public support for Abbas, while privately providing him the tools to succeed.

Terror Finance Concerns

Critics charge that funds sent to bolster Abbas will almost certainly meet the same fate as the previous billions in foreign aid to the PA: stolen, or diverted to militias, such as the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a Fatah-linked terror organization. During the second intifada, the al-Aqsa Martyrs launched some of the bloodiest terror attacks against Israel. Notably, the group carried out a suicide bombing at Jerusalem’s Moment Café, which killed 11 Israelis in March 2002.

Even as the West and Israel got behind Abbas in July, no less than 200 members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs announced they would continue “resistance to Israeli occupation.” When these fighters were denied amnesty (Israel released some 179 other al-Aqsa Martyrs as a gesture of goodwill), they formed the new Yasir Arafat Brigade. Will Abbas and Fayyad fund this new squad? Prime Minister Salam Fayyad specifically endorsed the concept of continued “resistance” to Israeli occupation in late July. That terminology has always been understood among Palestinians to mean “violence.”

Clearly, a more transparent record of aid expenditures is crucial. It would also ensure that the new PA does not behave as Arafat did with regard to supporting or condoning violence against Israel. Can the West demand these things while also propping up Abbas?

Can Abbas Change Long-Held Perceptions?

Arab-Israeli violence has continued for nearly 60 years because the Palestinians have always refused to accept the very existence of the state of Israel. Generations of Palestinians have been taught to despise Israel, and that hatred is deeply entrenched. While the exact percentage of West Bankers who feel this way is not known, 70 percent of all Palestinians polled in a recent Pew Global Attitudes Project survey (July 2007) said they approve of suicide bombing attacks against Israel. These views are reinforced by Palestinian Authority-funded imams in West Bank mosques who continue to preach hatred and war against Israel, and in the PA-controlled media.

Can Israel overlook this culture of hate — a culture Abbas cannot reverse overnight, even if he wanted to — in the interest of a stable regime in the West Bank? Israel can take little comfort in the fact that the culture of hate is far worse in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Concessions

Israel has already released 256 Palestinian prisoners, and is considering other gestures of good will for Abbas. This could include removal of West Bank roadblocks, further prisoner releases, and providing weapons to the PA. These gestures could undermine Israeli security if Abbas fails to gain popular support or reform the PA. The IDF might later find it more difficult to retake certain military positions, in the event that Hamas attempts a West Bank takeover. On the other hand, if Israel does not ease some restrictions, West Bankers may challenge Abbas over his inability to get results.

Can Gaza Be Isolated?

Despite the recent Fatah-Hamas battle leading to the creation of two Palestinian proto-states, both West Bankers and Gazans still identify as Palestinian. According to a July 2007 survey by a Norwegian polling organization, no less than 85 percent of all Palestinians seek rapprochement between the two factions. Thus, the two-pronged Western strategy of isolating Hamas in Gaza while jumpstarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the West Bank may run counter to popular Palestinian sentiment.

Looking forward, a contingency strategy will be necessary, should the Gaza isolation policy fail. What happens if Hamas manages to govern capably in Gaza, despite the aid freeze and border shut down? Successful governance by Hamas could persuade West Bankers in a future election that they are better off under Hamas rule than under the PA, especially if the PA is unable to successfully reform itself in the West Bank. Both Washington and Jerusalem must be prepared for this possibility.

Similarly, a plan must be in place for the eventuality that Hamas will not go quietly into the night in Gaza. Islamist movements do not relinquish power willingly. If there were new elections in both Gaza and the West Bank that both parties agreed to, and the PA won a decisive victory, it is highly unlikely that Hamas would cede military control of Gaza and disarm. Thus, even if Abbas manages a successful turnaround of the PA, Hamas will likely retain a strong military presence in Gaza, and perhaps a weaker presence in the West Bank. This will be an Israeli security concern, particularly if rocket fire from Gaza continues. Short of invasion, there is little Israel can do to neutralize this threat.

What Happens If Gaza Gets Worse?

Since the Israeli unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, Gaza has been awash in weapons smuggled from Egypt. Terrorists from various organizations, both Sunni and Shiite, are lining up to assist and train Hamas for violent confrontation with Israel. Numerous reports indicate that operatives from al-Qaeda, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Hizbullah may have nestled in Gaza, or are training Hamas fighters outside of Gaza.

Can the influence of other rogue regimes and terrorist organizations make the tensions between Hamas-ruled Gaza and Israel any worse? Hamas does not hide the fact that it seeks the destruction of Israel, rather than negotiated peace in any form. By allowing additional terrorist elements into Gaza, Hamas has all but guaranteed future violence, perhaps at levels never before seen.

Regardless of which elements launch attacks against Israel—be they al-Qaeda, Hizbullah, or Hamas—Israeli reprisals against the Gaza Strip will almost certainly inspire sympathy in the West Bank and the rest of the Muslim world. At worst, this could lead to an outbreak of fresh violence in the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon, forcing Israel into a multi-front conflict. If either the U.S. or Israel launched strikes against Iranian nuclear sites, a similar multi-front conflict seems assured.

The Way Forward

The consensus following the Hamas victory in Gaza was that a new clarifying moment had arrived for Israel, the PA, and the West. In reality, the situation remains unclear and volatile. The choices will be difficult to navigate. Washington seeks to help foster peace in the region, but is still grasping for a way forward. Israel’s current options must include a combination of caution and military readiness, along with help to the PA.

The Gaza crisis has put both Israel and the West between the West Bank and a hard place. Patience, wisdom, and deterrence will be necessary as Washington and Jerusalem venture forward.

Richard Baehr is co-founder and political director of The American Thinker, a web-based policy journal.