Who Exactly Are the Real Partners for Peace?

In his Feb. 3 column, Charles Krauthammer, a dedicated jingoist and a reliable touchstone for neoconservative thinking, wrote that all that was standing in the way of peace in the Middle East was Palestinian "rejectionism," which to him is "the source of a 60-year conflict the Israelis have long been ready to resolve." The only rational response to Hamas' victory in the recent elections, then, would be "cutting off Hamas completely: no recognition, no negotiation, no aid, nothing. And not just assistance to a Hamas government but all assistance."

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that, at the highest levels, U.S. and Israeli officials were considering exactly that approach:

The United States and Israel are discussing ways to destabilize the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again, according to Israeli officials and Western diplomats.
The intention is to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections to the point where, some months from now, its president, Mahmoud Abbas, is compelled to call a new election. The hope is that Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement.
The plan would certainly be consistent with U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East. And by "consistent with U.S. foreign policy," I mean exceptionally stupid and shortsighted.

First, and this is far from controversial, much of the Arab world's resentment towards the United States -- a resentment that only serves the most extreme political elements -- is based on our hypocrisy when it comes to democracy. We talk the talk, but we support repressive oil dictatorships and always have. This is a chance to show that we're not complete liars when we talk about democracy promotion, and we should take it.

Second, if we cut off funding, we lose an important stick, namely the threat to cut off funding in the future. And if the United States and the European Union pull funding, nobody should fool themselves into believing the Palestinian Authority will wither and die. They'll go to regional powers for aid (Iran?), and that won't help.

The Neocons are squawking about how we shouldn't have anything to do with democracy if we can't rig it. Daniel Pipes recently called on the Bush administration to suspend further elections in the Middle East (as if Bush were scheduling them) until outcomes that favored the United States could be assured. Listening to the Pipes of the world would be a grave mistake.

The neocons' view is based on simplistic, black and white, good guy-bad guy binaries that don't hold water in the real world. While civilized people condemn the horrific violence on both sides -- Hamas' armed wing is certainly guilty of a catalog of crimes against humanity -- Israel's legion of conservative apologists have convinced themselves that Palestinian casualties are the stuff of accident and that Israel's policies are meant only to add to its security. They see bias in human rights organizations and consider a balanced condemnation of both sides' terror as some kind of endorsement of "Islamofascism."

Good policy can't flow from such shoddy analysis.

There's an obsessive focus on Hamas' charter, which calls for wiping Israel off the map. But that doesn't reflect mainstream Palestinian opinion (as I'll show shortly) and it ignores the reality of Israeli power. Israel's not going anywhere; it's a nuclear state with a military budget far larger than that of its bordering neighbors combined.

When Krauthammer writes that Hamas is an organization dedicated to "terrorism, rank anti-Semitism and the destruction of Israel in a romance of blood, death and revolution," he ignores that reality and reinforces one of the most despicable anti-Semitic narratives: that Jews are obsessed with their historic victimhood.

That emphasis also distracts us from the serious questions at hand, which are: (a) Is Hamas' victory good for the Palestinian people (remember them?)? and (b) Is Hamas a "partner for peace"?

The first question is unanswerable at the moment. Hamas' victory wasn't all or even mostly about its resistance to Israel's occupation. It ran as a party of reform and as a party that would significantly improve the Palestinian Authority's (PA) social and public services. I know of no serious analyst who denies that Fatah's governance was corrupt and piss-poor. If Hamas follows up on its promises, it will certainly be good for Palestinians' everyday lives.

Is Hamas a partner for peace? There are two issues here. First, many argue that the burdens of governing will be a moderating factor on Hamas. I don't reject the theory out of hand, but I'm quite skeptical. There are too many examples of violent, nonstate actors coming to power and remaining violent. I do think that if the PA and Israel can forge some kind of agreement, Hamas will be better able to enforce discipline on the Palestinian side than the PA was under Fatah.

But I think the question is somewhat disingenuous, as it suggests that Israel, under its current government, is a serious partner for peace itself. The evidence supports the contrary view. As Steven Zunes recently wrote:
Exit polls appear to indicate that had Palestinian voters believed that re-electing the more moderate Fatah movement would have allowed for the resumption of peace talks, they would not have backed the hard-line Hamas. Israel cut off negotiations with the Palestinians when right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came to office in February 2001, just one month after Israeli-Palestinian talks in Taba, Egypt, came tantalizingly close to reaching a final peace agreement. The Israeli government, with apparent U.S. backing, has refused to resume negotiations ever since.
What the media rarely report is the larger context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Specifically, there's been a broad international consensus about what peace will require, a consensus that is consistent with U.N. resolutions.

Whether you look at Oslo, the Saudi Plan, the Geneva Accords or the Road Map, all of them vary in the details but not on the essentials: Palestinians have to renounce terror and the "right of return," in whole or in part, and Israel has to give up either all or most of its settlements and grant the Palestinians sovereignty over a contiguous area more or less delineated by the Green Line (I simplify for brevity).

This consensus is backed by a majority of both populations. More Palestinians support it than Israelis, although polling data fluctuates pretty quickly as events shape opinion. A joint poll conducted by The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in June found that 62 percent of Israelis (including 30 percent of settlers) support dismantling most of the settlements in the territories as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. On the other side, according to polling cited by the U.S. Institute for Peace last month [PDF], 59 percent of Palestinians surveyed oppose attacks against Israeli civilians while 38 percent support them. A 2004 study by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center [PDF] found that even when asked about military operations against Israeli occupation forces, only 41 percent of Palestinians approved.

According to the USIP study:
When Palestinian respondents assumed the existence of a Palestinian state -- recognized by the state of Israel and emerging as an outcome of a peace agreement between Palestine and Israel -- support for reconciliation, between July 2000 and September 2005, ranged between two-thirds and three-quarters.
These data confirm earlier public opinion research (scroll down to "third party initiatives") conducted by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, which found majorities on both sides in favor of the proposals outlined in the Geneva Accords.

The obstacles to peace are the reactionary minorities -- the rejectionists -- on both sides. That includes the Krauthammers of the world.

Israel can't claim to be a serious "partner in peace" as long as it continues to expand its settlements. In December, Human Rights Watch condemned "multiple Israeli announcements of its plans to continue expanding settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories," which "directly contravenes international law and Israeli commitments under the Road Map." The European Union echoed those concerns recently.

The Israeli right is as a formidable obstacle to any serious discussion of peace along the lines long discussed as the most militant of Palestinian rejectionists. When Sharon orchestrated the pullout from Gaza -- which had far less infrastructure and economic value, and far fewer Israelis than the West Bank -- Israel came close to a civil war. In the joint Israeli-Palestinian poll I cited earlier, 71 percent of the settlers and 46 percent of the general public said that it was justified to bring down the government to prevent withdrawal. Seventeen percent among the settlers and 11 percent in the general public said that it is justified to endanger oneself and one's family, and 9 percent of the settlers and 7 percent of the general public believed it justified to endanger other citizens in such a struggle. A few weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune reported:
In the first major showdown with Jewish settlers during the tenure of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, hundreds of club-wielding riot police fought crowds of stone-throwing protesters who barricaded themselves in illegally built homes in a West Bank settlement outpost yesterday.
That was a marginal outpost built recently. And all that doesn't get into the issue of water, which is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that few media stories discuss.

When it comes to the settlement issues, the U.S. government has shown that it, too, isn't a serious "partner for peace." We've penalized Israel for expanding settlements by decreasing our hefty aid by a few hundred million, but the Bush administration has backed away from the forceful stance on settlements that had been U.S. policy for 30 years.

With U.S. insulation from international pressure, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is entering a dangerous new phase. The Israeli right and center-right are talking about abandoning the "Roadmap" for "unilateral disengagement" -- a nice euphemism for an unprecedented land grab.

Earlier this month, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told an Israeli journalist that if his Kadima party is elected in the upcoming polls at the end of March, he'll withdrawal from "all" of the West Bank except for the three largest settlements -- Ariel, Gush Etzion and Ma'aleh Adumim --- and the Jordan Valley, a vital source of Israeli water. According to the Jerusalem Post, 185,000 of Israel's 244,000 settlers live in those blocs.

Not to be outdone, a new party, Tafnit, headed by former National security Advisor Uzi Dayan, proposed a similar plan that would remove only 21,000 of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank and "calls for the completion of the separation barrier so that the vast majority of the three main settlement blocs … would fall on the Israeli side," leaving "a Palestinian entity in the West Bank severed into two by an Israeli corridor which extends east from Jerusalem all the way to the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley." Jerusalem would fall under Israel's exclusive control.

All of these plans would guarantee an endless continuation of the cycle of violence that has plagued Israel and the Palestinians. The Bush administration, to its credit, condemned this kind of blatant land grab, but we've seen before that when the chips are down, they're more than willing to satisfy their Clash of Civilizations base and throw principle out the window.

There's little hope for peace right now. From either side.

Editor's note: after this story was submitted, the House of Representatives voted 418-1 for a resolution previously passed in the Senate calling on the Bush Administration to cut off all funding to the Palestinian Authority. In another development announced Friday, the PA agreed to an administration request to return $50 million dollars in aid that had previously been distributed.

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