Backing Abbas in West Bank, US Isolates Hamas

A flurry of high-level international meetings is taking place this week to deal with the new political landscape in the Palestinian territories.   But analysts differ over the merits of the current strategy, which aims to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party, which controls the West Bank, and to isolate Hamas, which violently seized control of the Gaza strip.

David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says everyone’s goal should be “two states for two peoples.”  Speaking with host Carol Castiel of VOA News Now’s Encounter, Mr. Makovsky says he thinks that in the wake of the coup that Hamas recently staged in Gaza it would be wrong for Washington to seek to “appease” Hamas because it could weaken the moderates.  He says that no one is trying to starve the people in Gaza, and he adds that for Hamas it is “fundamentally their choice” as to whether or not they will be isolated.

However, Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the strategy supported by Washington – namely, strengthening President Abbas and his Fatah organization and isolating Hamas – represents a continuation of U.S. policy since January 2006 when Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections.  Mr. Malka suggests this strategy will fail because Hamas can thwart any political process between Israel and President Abbas and because Fatah is still weak on the West Bank.

David Makovsky says it is not yet clear whether Fatah can reform itself politically and economically, even under the leadership of the new Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his team of technocrats.  But Haim Malka says that experience suggests that Fatah is unlikely to carry out extensive reforms.  What is most important for Palestinian society is to bridge the gap between Fatah and Hamas, and Mr. Malka suggests that Marwan Barghouti, who is now in prison, might be the best person to do that.  He notes that the Palestinians are dealing with Yasser Arafat’s legacy of authoritarian rule.  Without building a Palestinian “consensus” across party lines, Haim Malka suggests, there will probably be no “viable peace process” in the future.  He says the United States should not try to divide Palestinians “between the good guys and the bad guys.”  Instead, Washington should first try to get a cease-fire that is “tied to some kind of international involvement.” 

However, David Makovsky says the success of any cease-fire will be “rooted in Hamas’ ultimate intentions.”  He says it is significant that both Egypt and Jordan are lining up behind the Abbas government, and he hopes that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia will do so as well.  Mr. Makovsky says he does not see how a unity plan such as the Mecca Agreement that was brokered by the Saudis in February could work.

Haim Malka says he expects “rhetorical support” for Mahmoud Abbas and the moderate stream of Fatah, but the real issue is the ability of Egypt and Jordan to influence events on the ground, which he thinks is increasingly limited.  He notes that Egypt has not been helpful in stopping the smuggling of weapons because “they have their own constraints.” But a decision by the U.S. Congress to delay aid to Egypt until it cracks down on the smuggling may prove helpful, he thinks.  Mr. Malka says the Saudis are angry with Hamas for the coup in Gaza and they are embarrassed because they expended considerable political capital on the Mecca Agreement, which forged a unity government between Fatah and Hamas, which subsequently collapsed amid the violence.

David Makovsky says he supports Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s efforts to move toward a political horizon, but he questions whether President Abbas will be able to make key compromises on issues such as refugees.  He suggests that Prime Minister Olmert might be able to release some Palestinian prisoners that “do not endanger Israel’s security.”  Mr. Makovsky also says it would be helpful if Israel could lift some checkpoints but he worries that the issue might become “entangled in Palestinian security reform.”  Haim Malka says he thinks there is a new opportunity emerging, although a renewed peace process with Mahmoud Abbas at this time is a “bit unrealistic.”  But he thinks there is an opportunity for a cease-fire and for a “stabilizing of the conflict.”

For full audio of the program Encounter click here.   


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