Pointers for the Obama Administration in the Middle East: Avoiding Myths and Vain Hopes

Pointers for the Obama Administration in the Middle East: Avoiding Myths and Vain Hopes

carnegieendowment:    The incoming Obama administration is faced from its opening days with a difficult dilemma. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has forced itself onto the diplomatic agenda, but there is no obvious path of action. On the one hand, the new U.S. leadership can pick up where the Bush administration left off, going through the motions of a peace process and whistling past the graveyard of past efforts. Alternatively, it can acknowledge that the ground has shifted so fundamentally that the diplomacy of the past two decades has died without leaving any legitimate heir.

Immediately before taking office, Obama himself seemed to feint in both directions, telling the Washington Post that “most people have a pretty good sense about what the outlines of a compromise would be” while acknowledging “That doesn’t mean we close a deal or we have some big, grand . . . Camp David-type event early in my administration.”

Neither choice is promising. The first has been tried and only helped deepen the problems. It is now time to try the second.

After years in which pundits and policy makers learned to mimic the phrase that “the solution is known”—a solution involving mutual recognition and a permanent settlement between two states, Israel and Palestine—that solution has been tossed aside by the actors who are supposed to agree to it.

Both Israelis and Palestinians—and increasingly the backers of peace between them—despair of a solution. In the past, the claim that the conflict was insoluble came from those who did not want it solved, at least according to the emerging two-state formula. Now the claim is beginning to come from those who believed in a two-state solution but no longer see a way to get there.

And there is all too much sense in their despair. There will be no comprehensive solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict any time soon. The task for the incoming Obama administration is to use diplomacy to manage the conflict and steer it back into directions that will make it possible to live for the present and, at a later date, move back toward a solution.

As it sorts out its approach to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the Obama administration will have a rare luxury (perhaps more than slightly curtailed by the fighting in Gaza) of thinking before reacting. It should use the opportunity to take a hard look at current realities. But when it does so, it will be met not with easily identifiable lessons and opportunities but a set of myths that may provoke some early mistakes and a set of vain hopes that have been offered by some observers as easy ways out of current difficulties.


Let us begin with a first myth that is already coming close to driving policy decisions.

Myth 1: The United States rushed the Palestinians to elections in 2006.

Perhaps the one lesson Washingtonians learned from the disappointments of the Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda” is that it is a mistake to push elections too soon. There is frequently talk today in policy circles of the need to focus instead on the rule of law, a free press, and the cultivation of civil society. Indeed, in his inaugural address, President Obama already subtly signaled in that direction. He echoed his predecessor’s claim four years earlier that “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one” by stating “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” But he then quickly described those ideals as “the rule of law and the rights of man,” without mention of elections or even democracy itself.

Elections are hardly a panacea for the deep problems in the Middle East, but there are several problems with learning the lesson that they need to be postponed until other virtues are given institutional expression and protection. First, it is often understood as a mask for the real policy preference of ensuring that elections only be held if the right side wins. And indeed, that is precisely what it generally does mean. The desire to postpone elections may be accompanied by a modest upsurge in more traditional democracy and governance programming, but the main result is just to shove democracy far down the policy agenda and make it the business of low- and mid-level bureaucrats rather than high-level decision makers. The euphemistic approach convinces its own users but has fooled few in the region.

Second, the lesson rests on the surprisingly widespread assumption—obviously erroneous only when stated openly—that the United States government schedules elections in other countries. Only in a few cases does U.S. policy affect the timing of elections. In Palestine and Iraq, diplomatic, military, and security conditions gave the United States some say over timing.

Third, in those exceptional cases when the United States could influence timing, it has long acted in accordance with the “lesson” that elections should wait—and the Bush administration was little different. The attitude of the United States government has been precisely to postpone elections until the right conditions emerged and the correct results seemed likely. This approach was used repeatedly by the Bush administration but hardly invented by it.

The Palestinian case illustrates this pattern perfectly. While the United States supported the Palestinian elections of 1996 for the presidency and the parliament, those elections produced a victory for the favored candidates du jour. The Clinton administration then happily held its tongue as Yasser Arafat continuously delayed municipal elections (because Hamas might win). The president and parliament elected in 1996 were supposed to serve only for an interim period ending in 1999 with a comprehensive Israeli–Palestinian agreement. When that deadline came and went, the Clinton administration ignored calls by some Palestinians to hold new elections—a position enthusiastically embraced by the Bush administration, which feared that Arafat (now the villain du jour) would renew his mandate if any balloting were held. (Similarly in Iraq, the Bush administration opposed local elections and was forced into national elections only when its clumsy political maneuvering led the Shi‘i clerical establishment to insist on them.)

Not until Arafat died did the United States swing behind Palestinian presidential elections, assured that its favored candidate, Mahmoud Abbas, would win them. And when Abbas moved toward parliamentary elections as well, the United States followed, convinced Fatah would win. It did so even when Abbas renewed a project begun by Arafat of working to coax Hamas into the Palestinian Authority by running candidates in the election. Abbas managed to convince the United States (not the other way around, as Washington legend sometimes has it) that it would be better to have Hamas as a minority within the parliament than totally on the outside. Israel does not seem to have been quite so easy to convince, but it reluctantly went along with the Palestinian–U.S. project and allowed the elections to proceed.

As a result, a full ten years passed between Palestinian parliamentary elections, during which the United States had all the time in the world to favor the rule of law, a free media, the development of political parties, and all the prerequisites—according to the emerging Washington consensus—of good elections. These projects were not ignored, but they were hardly priorities during the Clinton and Bush years.

The United States can be held responsible for rushing Palestinian elections in one case only—the third round of parliamentary elections, whose date was firmly fixed for January 2010. Fixed, that is, until Hamas won the 2006 elections. Immediately after the 2006 polling turned out so disastrously for U.S. diplomacy, the Bush administration reacted not by hunkering down for four years but by backing Abbas in an attempt to rush the clock. And that haste may have made it impossible to hold any elections any time soon, even when they are actually due in 2010. The first trick was to call for a referendum in order to box Hamas into policy positions—but Abbas had no authority to call for such balloting. The next trick was to call for early parliamentary elections, something that was clearly and explicitly unconstitutional. Abbas’s threat to impose early polling was fully backed by the United States and was one of the factors prompting Hamas to launch its preemptive coup in Gaza. In short, the United States rushed into elections only by showing contempt for established democratic procedures—and the result contributed greatly to the resulting constitutional breakdown in the Palestinian Authority.

The final irony is that those who have “learned” to postpone elections will get their way. Palestinian elections cannot occur until there is some minimal agreement between Abbas, Hamas, and Israel to hold them—and that seems unlikely to happen soon.

Myth 2: In Gaza, it is possible to work with the Palestinian Authority and avoid Hamas.

Journalists and pundits routinely refer to the split in the Palestinian polity as one that pits the Palestinian Authority against Hamas. This is not so much a myth as a partisan view—and one that leads to a series of misunderstandings.

The Ramallah-based government does indeed claim to be the legitimate Palestinian Authority in both the West Bank and Gaza. But so does the Gaza-based government. So a more neutral way to phrase the struggle as one between two rival claimants to be the legitimate Palestinian Authority, one based in Ramallah and one in Gaza.
Of course, Palestinian politics generally—and Hamas specifically—rarely spark efforts to remain politically neutral. And the PA versus Hamas framing has become common enough for an occasional Hamas leader to lapse into it by mistake. But there are other reasons to avoid the framework.

In a legal sense, Hamas started out with the far stronger claim. It is true that neither side has been notable for punctilious legalism in the past year since their battle turned to open warfare in the streets of Gaza in June 2007.
So more important than the law is reality. In a practical sense, Palestinian Authority institutions in Gaza largely answer to the Gaza-based government. The Ramallah-based government keeps a hand in things only by paying most salaries. But policy and decision- making authority over institutions in Gaza lies firmly in Gaza. And the Israeli military campaign targeted PA institutions in Gaza—ministries, police, and parliament—recognizing that they owed no allegiance to Ramallah.

So when policy makers state that they want aid to Gaza to go through the Palestinian Authority rather than Hamas, it is not clear that they know what they mean. If they mean funds can never leave the control of the Ramallah-based government, how can that be accomplished when that entity has no effective presence on the ground in Gaza? It might be possible—with the Gaza-based government’s agreement, which it has so far withheld—to have Ramallah-loyal forces at the border crossing. But a handful of border guards, even if they were allowed in, would still leave Ramallah in no position to oversee an ambitious rebuilding or assistance program. If the assistance is to go through regular PA channels, those answer to Hamas. Even if rebuilding and assistance is the task not of the PA but of international actors, those can only operate with the permission and cooperation of the Gaza PA.
There is also another reason to remember that the Gaza-based government sees itself as the legitimate PA—it is important to understanding a bit of the dynamics within Hamas. The movement has continued to try to marry governing with its concept of “resistance” since it won the 2006 elections. And in many ways, it has prioritized governing over violent, military, and terroristic means for the present. Referring to the intra-Palestinian conflict as one pitting a government against a movement leads observers to miss how governing has become an uneasy but essential part of Hamas’s self-identity.

Myth 3: The “West Bank First” strategy of building up the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority is working.

After the split in the Palestinian Authority in 2007, the Bush administration quickly adopted a strategy dubbed by others “West Bank First”—build up a prosperous, secure, and well-governed West Bank that makes real progress in negotiations with Israel and Hamas will be left behind, offering only bloodshed and despair. The Bush administration may have left, but “West Bank First” is still a favored policy option for many.

This approach had some unusual virtues, at least in theory—it focused on the long term, took Palestinian institutional development seriously, and relied not on the quick ouster of Hamas but instead on making its path steadily less relevant. These are all important elements of a policy based in reality rather than wishful hopes.
But the plan left gaping holes. Why would Palestinians see the costs and benefits offered to them the same way as American policy makers did? What if there were no visible diplomatic breakthrough—and whatever slow progress occurred meant little to an increasingly cynical Palestinian population? What if Israel were unwilling to do more than dismantle a few roadblocks and curtail incursions into Palestinian cities—modest improvements for Palestinian to be sure but hardly sufficient to make Hamas appear bankrupt? What if settlement construction were to amble along unimpeded?

And there were problems with execution. It turns out that the main institution the United States wished to build was the security apparatus; some Fatah-dominated municipalities and a few other parts of the Ramallah-based PA received some attention as well. But much of the PA edifice built during the 1990s has fallen into neglect.
Most of all, the approach seemed based on the hope that Hamas would simply wither away, come to its senses, or fall from power. But how was a vague popular sense that Hamas offered a less attractive path supposed to be translated into ousting the movement from power? What elections was Hamas supposed to lose? And why would Hamas hold still without taking the initiative to change the equation as it has done so often in the past?
After more than a year and a half, the “West Bank First” approach has delivered modest improvements in living standards, a modicum of increased security in some West Bank cities, and harsh restrictions on Hamas activity. And little more. In some areas—such as democracy, accountability, and political freedoms—the period has seen a stark retrogression. Overall, residents of the West Bank may have seen some mild changes for the better in some areas, but they have seen no sign at all that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank will end, that movement within the West Bank will be unimpeded, and that access to the outside world will ever be controlled by Palestinians rather than Israelis. Most residents of the West Bank encounter stark reminders of grim political realities if they venture more than a few miles (sometimes much less) from their front door. The situation on the ground in the West Bank is markedly worse than that prevailing in the 1990s and hardly seems to be forming the kernel of a Palestinian state.

And Hamas in Gaza has not been willing to play the role quiet spectator, helplessly waiting to become irrelevant. It has entrenched itself in Gaza more deeply and engaged in a military confrontation with Israel that riveted the attention of the world.

Myth 4: Hamas decided to celebrate Christmas by crucifying people.

Didn’t hear this one?

It is an odd story and one that is not central to diplomatic efforts. But it can illustrate the treacheries of finding one’s way in the conflict.

Different versions of this story has spread around the world—propounded most recently by a member of the Australian Senate.

If you have not read about it, that is because of what you choose to read. If you rely on the New York Times, the story would be news to you. If you choose the Washington Post, you may remember it popping up in Charles Krauthammer’s column. It turned up at least twice in the Washington Times. In the UK, it was asserted by a columnist for the Times but by none in the Guardian. Aficionados of English-language Israeli press would have read it a couple times in the Jerusalem Post but never in Ha‘aretz. It was featured in blogs connected to the New Republic, the National Review, and Commentary, but not the Nation or Mother Jones. It was pushed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center but not pursued by other mainstream Jewish organizations.

Oh, and by the way—it’s not true.

Here is the real story. Some officials of the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Justice (answering to Hamas) have been drafting a new criminal code based on Islamic criminal law. They have not released its work (at least outside of Gaza), but they did hold a workshop to discuss a draft. A copy of this document fell into the hands of a reporter for the Arabic daily al-Hayat. While that newspaper is generally reliable enough, the reporter made a significant mistake: he thought the draft had been fully and finally passed by the parliament, not that it was the subject of a small group discussion. And he quoted from some passages in the law—including the title of a section dealing with categories of punishment that mentioned crucifixion (a legal category in Islamic criminal law). There was no evidence that the law went beyond using the term as a legal category. And since the reporter did quote some fairly strong provisions in other areas it seems unlikely that he would have missed the opportunity to mention any actual provisions for crucifixion.

The small (and mistaken) article in al-Hayat was picked up by the Jerusalem Post (it also circulated in some Arabic media outlets) which—in perhaps the only glimmer of responsible journalism in this strange episode—added that it could not confirm the report. But that qualification got lost. So did the explanation from Hamas legal officials that no law had been passed. One Israeli activist working hard to circulate the charge (Itamar Marcus) actually went so far as to cover up his mistake by claiming that the Hamas denial (which was actually quite accurate) was simply a “lie.” Normally, this would not be an effective way to compensate for a mistake, but in this case it worked. Marcus’s notoriously unreliable record on Palestinian affairs is routinely overlooked in the halls of the U.S. Congress (where Hillary Clinton herself, while serving as senator, personally gave him a platform to present his “findings” on several occasions).

And so columnists (generally on the right side of the political spectrum) began to claim that Hamas had legislated crucifixion—in the more lurid report—for any “unbelievers,” “enemies of Islam,” or even Christians. And few could resist mentioning that the timing coincided with Christmas.

Those on the right hardly form the only echo chamber on Israeli–Palestinian issues. But the entire episode is an exemplary case study of how quickly dubious facts become accepted by partisans in this contentious field. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s oft-quoted admonition, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts” simply does not seem to apply when it comes to Israelis and Palestinians.


We move now to the future to consider a group of possibilities offered by some observers—hopes that, while not impossible to realize, are so unlikely that they should not serve as a basis for any policy decision.

Hope 1: Hamas soft-liners will split off from the movement.

Hamas is a movement that contains many tendencies and orientations. And that has led some to hope that those members willing to endorse—or at least accommodate themselves to—a two-state solution can be enticed to bring their parts of the organization with them. Richard Haas wrote recently: “elements of Hamas might conclude that their only hope of realizing a Palestinian state is by trading in their guns. Those willing to embrace this approach could become part of a Palestinian coalition government.”

But playing off Hamas factions against each other is a difficult game to play. Hamas leaders do indeed argue about strategy and tactics. But their divisions do not break down between hardliners and soft-liners, nor do they lead to schism. Those who seek to split the movement will find much evidence for variations in opinions but they are unlikely to realize any success.

The divisions within Hamas tend to be ones of perspective and priorities. Palestine looks different from the various vantage points of Gaza, the West Bank, and Damascus. Further, as an organization, Hamas presents many faces: nationalist movement, paramilitary force, religiously-inspired association, social service agency, and governing party. These different perspectives and orientations do not necessarily lead to contradictory strategic visions but they do lead to different choices on short-term and tactical matters. How should the movement balance its commitments to “resistance,” governing, diplomacy, and defense? How should it react to diplomatic arm twisting from Egypt or pressure from the Palestinian public not to deepen the divide between the West Bank and Gaza?

The recent Israeli military campaign did not create divisions in the Hamas leadership so much as it forced them out into the open. Instead of hammering out decisions and positions in private consultations, representatives of various parts of Hamas converged in Cairo with only limited opportunities to arrive at a common agenda in advance. But when the arguing was done, Hamas was able to make a decision—to follow Israel’s unilateral cease-fire with its own—that stuck.

And that fits the Hamas pattern. Indeed, it fits a larger pattern of Muslim Brotherhood movements who often squabble but rarely splinter. In Hamas’s case, open disagreements are rare, fissures almost nonexistent. And when arguments do break out, they are generally not over abstract, long-term, strategic, or ideological issues but about immediate practical decisions—whether to agree to a national unity government with Fatah or whether to run candidates in parliamentary elections. A splinter group did leave the movement in 1995 in order to run candidates when the movement as a whole balked, but that small group has since disappeared.

Confronted with a stark, unavoidable, and fundamental choice about its ultimate goals, the movement will likely have a hard time coming to a decision and may indeed split. But nobody should count on such a possibility.

Hope 2: Elections can be used to outmaneuver Hamas.

Many in Washington now realize the problems that the existence of two shaky Palestinian Authorities causes for any sort of diplomacy. Some forget how they dismissed a unity government when it did exist. Thus, the realization of the problem has come far too late; it will be very difficult to patch Palestinian politics back together. If the task is accomplished it will be on much less favorable terms than were available earlier.

Some—both in Washington and Ramallah—have fixed on elections as a device to heal the rift in Palestinian ranks, defeat Hamas, or approve an agreement with Israel. Such proposals are very promising—from the vantage point of 2006. They are no longer realistic.

Three sorts of elections have been trotted out as a means for rescuing Mahmoud Abbas and the peace process. First, new elections for the presidency and the parliament have been promised by the Ramallah leadership. But the problem is that having threatened to break the rules on these elections so many times, they will find that they have broken the election machinery itself. Ramallah might be able to push through elections in the West Bank (perhaps with some disruption from Hamas supporters and sullen cooperation from the relevant bodies because such polling would be seen as politicized and likely to deepen the West Bank–Gaza split). Israel might be persuaded to permit elections in Jerusalem as well. But they could not be held in Gaza without Hamas’s consent. So elections cannot be used to oust Hamas unless Hamas agrees to them. And even if Hamas’s consent is obtained, there is no guarantee that Hamas will lose—and those outsiders hoping to put their thumbs on the electoral scales should note that heavy-handed last-minute assistance to favored candidates has not been all that effective in the past.

A second electoral device is a referendum. The most recent incarnation of this idea is that Abbas would negotiate some sort of agreement with Israeli leaders and then present it to the Palestinian voters. But a referendum raises even more difficulties than parliamentary elections. First, there is no sound legal basis for it, making it a bit more difficult for Abbas even to pull Palestinian bodies in the West Bank along. Second, Hamas would not cooperate with a referendum, again making it impossible to hold in Gaza—and likely saddling Abbas with the blame for deepening the unpopular split in Palestinian politics. Third, it would be politically difficult to deflect the argument (advanced most recently by Hamas) that such a referendum should really involve all Palestinians throughout the world, not just those in the West Bank and Gaza.

A third electoral idea—hatched in Ramallah rather than Washington—is to hold elections to the Palestinian National Council (PNC). The PNC is the oversight body for the PLO and is sometimes called the “Palestinian parliament in exile” since it represents Palestinians throughout the world. It meets rarely—the last time was almost a decade ago when it convened briefly in Gaza. Membership in past PNC meetings has been determined on a basis that might charitably be described as ad hoc. The current chair of the PLO executive committee (Mahmoud Abbas) is now reportedly considering plans for genuine PNC elections, hoping to produce a body that will give him greater authority and legitimacy to negotiate and face down Hamas. PNC elections raise all sorts of practical difficulties. Would Palestinian Jordanians feel comfortable voting or feel that they are risking their Jordanian citizenship? Would Israeli Palestinians be allowed to vote or would this be viewed as an irredentist move? Which host governments would allow the PLO to conduct elections on their territory? But the obstacle is as much political as it is practical: Hamas is boycotting the PLO until an agreement is reached to incorporate it. In other words, an elected PNC would give Abbas little leverage over Hamas that he does not already have.

Hope 3: Fatah can reform itself.

The Fatah movement has persevered impressively in adversity and undergone several transformations. A small band pressing military confrontation with Israel became a larger movement that took over the PLO. This movement then became the governing party in the PA, taking on some of the features of authoritarian political machines in the Arab world. In 2000, some parts of the party went back to its armed roots; in 2006 it restyled itself as an electoral machine. None of these transformations was complete nor were all fully successful. But the most recent transformation that Fatah has been asked to make—to become an opposition party—has been a stunning failure.

Rebuilding and reforming Fatah after its 2006 electoral rebuke was hardly a hopeless task. The party had real assets—it retained many committed activists (some still enthusiastic and a few even idealistic), strong international connections, pockets of political power, guns, and historical legitimacy. But it was difficult to deploy these assets simultaneously; they often pulled the party in different directions. And so it has steadily drawn down on each of them over time, atrophying rather than reforming.

The task of rebuilding the party, especially as an election-oriented organization, required a long-term focus. Neither the party’s leaders nor its international sympathizers had any patience for the task. The senior leaders have used the past three years to maneuver their way back into power (largely unsuccessfully, since the party now controls only the presidency on the West Bank and has seats in neither the Gaza nor Ramallah cabinets) and jockey against each other. The party’s international backers have rooted quietly and largely passively for reform but focused their attention elsewhere (such as on rebuilding the security services).

On those rare occasions when the matter has received high-level attention, only quick fixes have been floated, such as releasing Marwan al-Barghuti, or convening a party congress. Such steps might be important touchstones of party reform, but their utility is fading and they would accomplish little for Fatah unless accompanied by serious and sustained attention to the party organization. But the arduous task of party reform is not a priority for any major actor.

Can this process be reversed? Perhaps, but a vital period has been lost and there is no sign that either Fatah’s leaders or their friends take the matter sufficiently seriously to ensure the process begins.

Hope 4: A viable “third force” in Palestinian politics can be formed.

If Fatah is focused on petty, short-term maneuvering and Hamas offers Palestinians only interminable, if intermittent, struggle, can a third party arise? Will anyone work to speak for Palestinians who feel abandoned by Fatah’s corruption and Hamas’s bloody-mindedness?

Not any time soon.

There is no shortage of independent voices in Palestinian society. There are impressively articulate leaders, like Mustafa al-Barghuti and Hanan Ashrawi; there are respected international figures like Salam Fayyad. But none of these (with only the partial exception of al-Barghuti) has shown much interest in the hard work of building a party.
Translating good ideas and eloquent speeches into a political force is the work of those who know how to organize communities, build networks, reward and motivate followers, coordinate with others, and attract foot soldiers. None of these skills are much in evidence.

Fatah and Hamas each emerged over a generation. If a third party is to join them, the work has to begin now and the payoff may not come until its youthful founders are middle aged.


This sober analysis of closed doors and missed opportunities may provoke despair. Is there really no hope of meaningful Israeli–Palestinian negotiations?

In fact, meaningful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are taking place right now. But they specifically exclude mutual recognition and permanence.

The real negotiations are taking place not between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, but between Israel and Hamas. The talks are indirect but deal with some familiar issues—the terms of Israeli withdrawal, the nature of the cessation of hostilities, the role for international forces, the release of prisoners, the flow of goods, the patrol of borders, and the supply of weapons. But they are doing so in some unfamiliar ways. Negotiations are now integrated with violence rather than posited as an alternative; and the two parties proudly proclaim their rejection of the other’s legitimacy.

There may be no Nobel Prize to be had here, but making sure these real negotiations succeed—and then immediately worrying about the next step—is a far more promising approach than pretending that the parties can be cajoled, muscled, and jawboned into a final and comprehensive settlement under current conditions.

This commentary is reprinted with permission from  Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.