The Green Elephant in the Room: Dealing with the Hamas Party-State in Gaza

The Green Elephant in the Room: Dealing with the Hamas Party-State in Gaza

Barack Obama is the first United States president since Jimmy Carter to take office determined to make Arab–Israeli peacemaking a critical piece of his foreign policy agenda. His administration is compensating for an extremely unpromising diplomatic environment by resolute use of tools its two predecessors either abjured (firmness in opposing Israeli settlement activity) or used haphazardly at best (an integrated regional policy). And Obama has also continued his immediate predecessor’s innovative willingness to enunciate a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict—a goal that no president prior to George W. Bush had dared to speak. (Indeed the current secretary of state was publicly repudiated by the White House she inhabited as first lady when she spoke of a Palestinian state in 1998. )

The Obama administration has thus learned from history. In the past, bold determination and frankness may indeed have avoided some of the dismal failures in U.S. diplomacy. But an excessive focus on history may only lead to repeating it: unless the administration devises a workable way to handle the fundamentally new reality of Hamas’s construction of a party-state in Gaza, it is difficult to see how the new president’s promise of support for Israeli–Palestinian peacemaking will be any less futile than his predecessors’.

Why Gaza Matters

The new U.S. team has been very slow in developing a clear approach to dealing with the challenge of Hamas. It has generally restricted itself merely to enunciating the same general principles laid down by its predecessor—that there is a legitimate Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas; that Salam Fayyad is its prime minister (and perhaps the only prime minister the United States will accept); and that any participation of Hamas ministers in the cabinet will not be countenanced so long as those ministers fail to meet the Quartet conditions. 

The Palestinian split is so corrosive to U.S. efforts that the case is easily made for addressing it.

In such ways, the Obama administration has made clear what it would like Hamas to do. And Hamas has been just as clear that it rejects these conditions. The U.S. response—beyond refusal to deal with Hamas—is not completely clear, but it seems to amount to a combination of carrots to the Ramallah government, security assistance to help Abbas and Fayyad build forces capable of keeping Hamas underground on the West Bank at least, and some support for the Israeli–Egyptian blockade of Gaza.

Such an approach is inadequate. Why does Hamas’s control of Gaza create such an impediment for U.S. diplomacy?

Leaders With Few Followers

There is one undeniable way in which Hamas’s entrenchment poses a difficult obstacle for the United States. Any Israeli–Palestinian diplomacy rests, among other things, on the presence of leaders able to speak authoritatively for their side. The current U.S. favorites in the Palestinian camp, Abbas and Fayyad, cannot fulfill that condition. They can speak for the bureaucracy administering West Bank cities and towns and the security services that police parts of those areas. Abbas can also make the effort to drag along factions of Fatah and remnants of the PLO. But neither speaks for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, most Palestinians in the diaspora, or for Hamas, the largest Palestinian political party according to the results of the most recent election.

Nobody on the U.S. side has denied that this problem will eventually have to be solved. But what has not been widely recognized is the set of challenges it poses in the short term as well. Postponing the matter in the hope of a more amenable environment later on may only aggravate the immediate problems posed by Hamas entrenchment in Gaza.

Ramallah Legitimacy

The split between the two halves of the Palestinian Authority has steadily eroded the legitimacy of the Ramallah government. Any policy based on the hope that Abbas and Fayyad will increasingly be able to show themselves to be viable Palestinian leaders ignores the trends to date.

The division in Palestinian ranks has led to the construction of two governments not responsible to anything or anybody.

In a textual and legal sense, the cabinet of Salam Fayyad is absolutely and incontrovertibly unconstitutional.  That has not mattered to its international backers who feel that greater issues are at stake than fidelity to the Basic Law (the same one they had helped force Abbas’s predecessor to sign). But the abandonment of any pretense of constitutional rule has posed practical problems that should have been anticipated, as will be clear in the discussion of elections below. And the detachment of the Ramallah government from any legal basis has less tangible but equally severe costs in terms of its domestic standing—it allows Hamas to trumpet its stronger procedural claims on the leadership of the Palestinian people (though Hamas’s Gaza-based government itself has shown an increasing willingness to forget legal requirements). And it matters to less partisan Palestinians that they are governed in the West Bank by a cabinet that serves with the support of the United States and European Union but not of the Palestinian Authority’s own parliament.

The Ramallah government’s legitimacy has eroded in other ways as well. The political split between the West Bank and Gaza is deeply unpopular among Palestinians in both places, and the Ramallah government is held partly responsible for perpetuating it. Hamas has also paid a high price in popular support for its role. During the war between Israel and Hamas in the waning days of the Bush administration, most Palestinians found the public stance of the Ramallah government insufficiently supportive of the population of Gaza, and Hamas went so far as to charge the Ramallah leadership with supporting Israeli military operations.

Granting Hamas a Veto

As long as Hamas controls Gaza, it can try to calibrate its conflict with Israel to obstruct diplomacy it does not like. Since the calm that currently prevails between Israel and Hamas consists of two unilateral ceasefires, Hamas can force the conflict to resume at any time by resuming rocket fire on Israeli towns. Nor is Hamas the only party that might break the calm. An Israeli decision to strike members of Hamas’s armed wing might spark a larger conflict (and indeed has threatened to do so in recent days).  While it has garnered only passing attention in international media, a brewing conflict over Israeli actions in Jerusalem has increasingly loomed large in the Palestinian press and remains a possible flash point.

It is difficult to envision any viable diplomatic process between the Ramallah government and Israel while Hamas and Israel threaten to return to war.

Furthering Fatah Decay

The split between Ramallah and Gaza has aggravated divisions within Fatah in two ways. First, it has allowed some within the disintegrating movement to position themselves as champions of national unity in opposition to those around Abbas who have often been criticized (especially when Olmert served as Israeli prime minister) for apparently being on friendlier terms with Israeli leaders and Western diplomats than with their fellow Palestinians.

Second, the split has indirectly encouraged the tendency within Fatah to focus on short-term posturing and squabbles rather than on rebuilding the party. Since the split between Ramallah and Gaza has pushed elections off the political horizon, there is no need for Fatah to overcome internal divisions in order to prepare for balloting and work to transform the movement into an electorally oriented party.

Accountability and Personalism

The division in Palestinian ranks has led to the construction of two governments not responsible to anything or anybody. The idea of building a competent and professional Palestinian Authority in the West Bank able to deliver prosperity and security to its residents (a centerpiece of U.S. and European efforts since the Palestinian Authority split in 2007) has come to rest on construction of authoritarian and unaccountable structures. Actually, it is not even structures that are generally at issue—only a few institutions have been favored with international attention and the attempt now rests on the virtue of a single individual, Salam Fayyad. Prime Minister Fayyad is an impressive technocrat to be sure, but he has no constituency. Not only do Palestine’s two largest parties regard him with a mixture of hostility and suspicion, but Palestinians of all political stripes have increasingly come to view him as an unsolicited gift from the United States more than as their own leader. Yet when Fayyad submitted his resignation earlier this year, it was clear that the United States had no Plan B.

What to do?

The Palestinian split is so corrosive to U.S. efforts that the case is easily made for addressing it.
But how? There is no easy path. Not only has Hamas dug itself in fairly impressively, but past U.S. policy choices have undermined some of the most promising options. What options exist?

Elections. On occasion, a Western or Ramallah-based Palestinian official will hold out the possibility of solving the problem posed by Hamas by suggesting that it can be voted out of office in the parliamentary elections mandated for January 2010. But for elections to solve the problems posed by Hamas, two things are necessary: first for elections to take place and second for Hamas to lose. Neither is likely.

It is difficult to envision how the Obama administration’s initiatives can gain full traction until it develops more realistic ideas on Gaza.

This was not always the case. Indeed, for a while, the holding of elections was a risky but promising policy option, as I argued in a 2006 Carnegie Policy Brief (“Living with Palestinian Democracy.” ) A more patient approach might have forced Hamas to face the voters in 2010 with little to show for their term in office. But this path was one that current leaders in Ramallah rejected when it was viable, with the enthusiastic backing of Western governments. It will be difficult to revive now.

In their haste to get rid of Hamas, Abbas, Fatah, and their international backers pursued a haphazard set of policies ranging from severe fiscal pressure to civil servant strikes to training security forces loyal to Fatah (or to the president) in preparation for a clash with those under the command of the Hamas-run government. The predictable and predicted outcome was the brief civil war that led to the current split between Gaza and the West Bank. And the tools that Abbas used in the run-up to the civil war included threats of disbanding parliament and calling for early elections (even though this was clearly unconstitutional). The result of these threats was not to ensure that Hamas was outvoted but to make it difficult to hold any elections at all.

At present, the domestic obstacles to elections are formidable indeed. Both governments can effectively prevent elections that they do not want, because each has uncontested control of a large part of Palestinian territory. And they will find it difficult to agree on any path forward together. In the Cairo talks between Hamas and Fatah, both sides were happy to agree in principle that elections should be held but also relieved to be quite far apart on all details.

And there is a state of institutional decay that allow each side a multitude of reasons to avoid elections (and that would be difficult to overcome even if neither wanted an excuse).  .There are two electoral laws at present (one dating to 2005, the other issued by decree in 2007 and not recognized by Hamas). The election commission in Ramallah may be too professional to do the bidding of the West Bank government but unable to make its presence felt in Gaza. The president’s term has expired according to Hamas and will soon do so even according to Ramallah. And most members in parliament either cannot or will not meet. Were one government to decide to hold elections only in the territory it controls, it would likely be held responsible for deepening the division among Palestinians.

Even if the two sides surprised each other by agreeing to hold elections, Israeli consent would also be necessary. Mechanically, some critical parts of the electoral process (such as the transportation of ballots and election officials as well as construction of polling stations in areas under Israeli security control ) require Israeli cooperation. Indeed, elections in 1996, 2005, and 2006 occurred only after careful negotiations were held on the political, logistical, and security arrangements. And the political obstacles in the hoped-for 2010 elections are severe indeed. Voting in Jerusalem—politically necessary from a Palestinian point of view—is one thorny problem that was solved with great difficulty in previous balloting. Is Israel likely to allow Hamas candidates to campaign? Is Hamas likely to allow Fatah to re-emerge in Gaza and Fatah to allow Hamas in the West Bank to operate freely?

Finally, even if elections could be arranged, what would be the result? Neither Hamas nor Fatah seems ready for balloting. Hamas has decided to lay low in the West Bank and take some unpopular but effective measures in Gaza; Fatah is in no shape to enter a campaign. Hamas’s popularity is likely at low ebb in Gaza, but Fatah is hardly in a position to emerge as a credible alternative. On the West Bank, Hamas has been driven underground and Fatah is in utter disarray. No other credible party or movement has the organizational presence to mount an effective campaign. If parliamentary elections are indeed held, the winner is hard to predict, but Hamas might be in the least bad position. It is also the organization that has the best chance for pulling itself together in time for balloting.

Thus, using elections as a way to solve the problem posed by Hamas rests itself on a set of difficult conditions, including Hamas–Fatah agreement, Palestinian–Israeli agreement, and Fatah recovery. In a sense, elections are more likely to be a result of a solution rather than a way to produce a solution. Is it therefore more realistic to base a policy less on elections and more on a restoration of the unity of the Palestinian Authority? Perhaps, but this is also a solution that would have been far more sensibly adopted earlier.

National unity government.   Ever since Hamas won the 2006 parliamentary elections, periodic efforts have been made to negotiate a national unity government (NUG). Similar proposals for maintaining Palestinian Authority coherence have ranged from a technocratic cabinet, one with no political program at all, and a “government of national reconciliation.” Common to these efforts has been the project of preserving the Palestinian Authority as a coherent and effective body and allowing the Palestinians to produce a credible and legitimate interlocutor internationally.

Any Israeli–Palestinian diplomacy rests, among other things, on the presence of leaders able to speak authoritatively for their side. The current U.S. favorites in the Palestinian camp, Abbas and Fayyad, cannot fulfill that condition.

The problem has been that such a government requires an agreement among Hamas, President Abbas, Fatah, and the international community. The conditions laid down by the various parties have not been compatible, and some have actually stiffened since Hamas’s 2006 electoral victory. (See my earlier commentary, “Can Cairo Reassemble Palestine?” )

If a NUG is deemed desirable, now it may be too late. Obama’s predecessor showed distaste for the one that was actually assembled in 2007 and worked successfully to hasten its demise. At present, it is difficult to envision a NUG (or similar such body) that would come close to meeting the demands of the parties.
For Hamas at present, a NUG offers the possibility of participating in governing in both the West Bank and Gaza, an end to the international fiscal strangulation of the parts of the Palestinian Authority it controls, a measure of international respectability, an easing of the blockade of Gaza, and the possibility of reemergence as an organization on the West Bank. A NUG that provided all these benefits would probably win Hamas’s consent—but Hamas would be willing to make fewer concessions today than in the past to obtain such a result. Indeed, in 2006, Hamas tried to form a NUG and was willing to surrender key ministries and even the premiership to obtain it. In 2009, Hamas would be a far more skeptical negotiator. Mistrust is so deep that it is difficult to see Hamas agreeing to surrender much of its control over Gaza even in return for the promise of such benefits.

For President Abbas, and the parts of Fatah still loyal to him, a NUG offers uncertain benefits as well. President Abbas and his cabinet control the parts of the Palestinian Authority that operate in the West Bank, the bulk of Palestinian Authority finances, and all international connections. A coalition with Hamas would force them to share this position with a movement that clearly sees itself as Fatah’s successor as the legitimate leader of the Palestinian national movement and that they have come to view as a more immediate worry than Israel itself.

With neither Hamas nor Fatah anxious for a NUG, only a package of carrots and sticks levied by a variety of international actors—the United States, Europe, and Egypt—could sufficiently alter the calculus of the parties to bring one about. If key international actors threw their weight behind a NUG, they would also have to pay a price, most notably in relaxing the Quartet conditions. Hamas has made clear that it will not recognize Israel or participate in a government that does. At an earlier date, it agreed to a government that “respected” past agreement and the Arab initiative, but that step led to a brief rift in the leadership that healed only when the government collapsed a few months later.

In short, the United States is likely to find that even if it pursues a NUG, it will be difficult to obtain terms that are as favorable as those that it rejected two years ago. A host of efforts to mediate among the Palestinian parties (chiefly by Egypt) and to engage Hamas (by Norway and some other European governments ) have made the price fairly clear. Most significantly, the United States will likely have to accept a formula around some of the Quartet conditions and accept that Hamas’s entrenchment in Gaza will not immediately end with the formation of the NUG.

Thus, a NUG would offer few benefits to those focused on the short-term goal of reviving an Israeli–Palestinian peace process and ousting Hamas from Gaza. The principal benefits would be long term and even then uncertain. A NUG might make it possible to negotiate a more stable and sustained Israeli–Palestinian ceasefire, move back towards eventual elections, and work slowly to ensnare Hamas in a domestic Palestinian political process and a set of regional diplomatic efforts that would gradually lessen the challenge the organization poses for U.S. interests and goals.

Defeat Hamas. Is it possible to solve the problem posed by Hamas by throwing it out of power? Can a combination of harsh economic and military measures defeat Hamas? Such a mission is even more improbable than the first two options—and yet it remains close to the default U.S. strategy.

If Hamas is to be ousted from power by force, there are three tools that can be used. The first is an economic blockade. That tool is being used with catastrophic results for residents of Gaza and the economy of the tiny strip, but to date it has not pried political power from Hamas’s grip. In some ways, by ensuring that the few links to the outside world lay entirely in Hamas’s hands, the blockade has strengthened the organization’s position if not its popularity.

A national unity government might make it possible to negotiate a more stable and sustained Israeli–Palestinian ceasefire, move back towards eventual elections, and lessen the challenge the organization poses for U.S. interests and goals.

A second tool is the “security assistance” that the United States and Jordan (and likely other countries more quietly) have been providing to forces under the command of the Ramallah government. There is strong continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations in these efforts—they rely on a combination of “non-lethal” U.S. training and equipment, arms provided by other parties (because of U.S. legal restrictions), and Israeli consent. The results to date have been mixed.

Short term success in security in West Bank cities has come at the price of deepening the split with Gaza since the program has been explicitly and publicly linked with the effort to defeat Hamas by force of arms.  Indeed, the program—and the startlingly bad (or overly frank) diplomatic sense of its head, General Keith Dayton—helped spark the Palestinian civil war of June 2007. More recently General Dayton publicly proclaimed that the program had allowed Israel to move “a good portion” of its army “to Gaza from the West Bank” during the war between Israel and Hamas last winter—directly implicating his efforts and the Palestinian forces he is training in an Israeli military campaign that sparked outrage in the Arab world.  If supporting Israeli military actions  is the purpose of the program then it that the program will run starkly counter to Palestinian nationalist sentiments. Dayton’s comments did not escape notice by Palestinians. Thus, every step that Dayton takes toward accomplishing his goals is one that drives the wedge between Ramallah and Hamas deeper. Thus it should be no surprise that the recent clash in Qalqilya between Ramallah-commanded forces and Hamas, regarded by the Dayton mission as major success for the security services they support, was treated as a step back toward civil war by many Palestinians. But the real limitation of the Dayton program is not the deep embarrassment it causes but the fact that it is restricted (at least since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in June 2007) to the West Bank and can hardly spread beyond there.

A third tool is Israeli military action. A sustained Israeli invasion and reoccupation might well succeed in ousting Hamas from the parts of the Palestinian Authority it controls, but at a very high price for all parties. Such a campaign would be the death knell of peace efforts at least for the short term; it would likely be even more destructive of lives and property than the war last winter;, and the burden of reoccupation would be costly and unpopular in Israel. In ruling Gaza directly from 1967 to 1994 and then less completely from 1994 until 2005, Israel hardly found an easy formula for defeating Hamas. For these reasons, while a full-scale invasion may occur, it will be a measure of last resort.

A Way Forward?

The Obama administration is caught in a series of binds it has not yet acknowledged: its efforts will ultimately founder unless it finds a formula that deals with Hamas; the problems get harder rather than easier to solve by the day; and the most promising solution (a NUG) is one that it has resisted precisely because it would likely force it to pursue Israeli–Palestinian peacemaking on a slower schedule and a less familiar set of circumstances than it would prefer.

The new leadership in Washington is refreshingly bold in its tactics but far more conventional in its strategies. Its new approach (especially on settlements) has already attracted attention in the region. But thus far its public policy toward Gaza remains unrealistic: demanding that Hamas change and treating the movement as if it does not exist until it does so. It is difficult to envision how the Obama administration’s initiatives can gain full traction until it develops more realistic ideas on Gaza.


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