Bush Policy Switch: Hamas Need Not Dismantle to Gain Recognition

The bolt from the blue from Crawford, Texas, hit a slumbering Middle East overnight Sunday, June 5. The news agencies took down every careful word dictated by “senior administration officials.”
The Bush administration, they were told, is showing signs of easing its hard-line approach towards Hamas… It has acceded to the (terror group) running candidates in the Palestinian elections, even while they refuse to disarm and are still listed by Washington as a major terrorist organization.
The “senior US officials” said they may be open to contacts with some Hamas political “affiliates” and left open the possibility of dealing with the group if it gave up weapons and ended violence. This was in contrast to past calls for its total dismantlement.
The sources spoke of responding to a push for flexibility from European allies Britain and France, who are warning that complete dismantlement would be a “disaster” for Palestinians who benefit from Hamas aid.
“There is now a realization that they (Hamas) do have a role to play …that if you can bring them into the political fold, then you’ll be marginalizing the military elements of those groups,” said a European diplomat.
A senior administration official said: “We are not acquiescing. We do not deal with …terrorists.” But he added: “How do you pursue this without limiting democratic choices?”
Middle East leaders woke up Monday, June 6, to find that the Bush administration had hit on a way of leapfrogging over the standoff between Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ declining clout and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s losing battle for a crackdown and total dismantlement of Palestinian terror. Both were now confronted with the compulsion to address a third party, the fully armed Hamas as is. To gain US recognition, the jihadist group is no longer required to dismantle its terrorist structures, foreswear violence, renounce its goal to destroy the Jewish state – or even to stop shooting Qassam missiles into Israel.
This shift also implies a curtailment of the Middle East road map by omitting the dismantlement of terrorist organizations as a pre-condition for peace talks.
This policy U-turn has major applications far outside the Israel-Palestinian arena. It is a portmanteau concept that allows for legitimizing (the already ongoing) US contacts with Sunni Baathist guerilla leaders in Iraq, while they continue to wreak carnage; Lebanon’s Shiite extremist Hizballah (which claims electoral victory in South Lebanon’s elections Sunday, June 4) despite its refusal to lay down its weapons, including 12,000 Katyusha rockets on Lebanon’s border with Israel; and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is likewise bidding for a role in the democratic process without relinquishing the use of arms.
If the Bush administration can dredge up moderate Hamas “affiliates” with whom to maintain contacts, similar “moderates” can no doubt be dug out in Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs’ (suicides) Brigades, Gaza’s violent Popular Committees and the various rejectionist Palestinian Fronts. Washington will argue that it is leading the way to a breakthrough and Israeli will have little choice but to follow suit.
For Washington, the shift is a pragmatic acceptance of the real situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which debkafile has repeatedly exposed in earlier reports. Abbas’s authority is confined to the small Ramallah pocket of the West Bank – and even then not every corner of this hub of Palestinian government. The northern and central West Bank are ruled by his opponents, an armed and violent coalition of Hamas, al Aqsa Brigades, Jihad Islami and Palestinian Fronts. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas, the Popular Committees and the al Aqsa Brigades hold sway.
Bush heaped plenty of verbal praise on Abu Mazen when he visited Washington last month but was under no illusion about his real clout among his people. Left to stand alone own as sole buttress of Washington’s peace policy, he could come crashing down at any time amid the chaotic collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
Washington is no less worried by Sharon’s situation. Israel is undergoing social and political disintegration under his rule, the damage aggravated by his government’s fixed priority on the approaching pull-backs from the Gaza Strip and West Bank in August – albeit in the face of declining public approval (which has dropped below 50%). Seen from Washington, there is no point in waiting for improvements: Abbas’ collapse and Sharon’s further popular decline will only expose the Bush administrations’ entire Middle East stake to bankruptcy.
The new US tolerance for Hamas will be welcomed by Abbas as the vindication of his own policy of refusing to tackle terrorist groups head-on to dismantle or disarm them, but rather integrating them into the political process. That is for the short term. But for later, neither the Americans nor Abu Mazen are yet asking who will lead a Palestinian negotiating team for talks with Israel: will he retain the primacy or have to accept a coalition of terrorist groups led by Hamas?
This awkward question will be brushed under the same carpet that has concealed the real state of affairs in the Palestinian community with regard to Abbas. Until now, he has served as a useful front man for disguising realities and there is no reason why he cannot carry on as before.
Sharon and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak will be left grinding their teeth over the Bush policy departure but will have to swallow the pill. The Israeli prime minister will not only be dragged into facing Hamas as an acceptable negotiating partner which has embraced democracy, but find the Islamist radicals are present and ready to take charge of evacuated territory in the northern West Bank and Gaza Strip. Mubarak will be made to re-define the hitherto banned Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian offshoot, as a respectable part of Egypt’s political system and entitled to run a candidate against him in the coming presidential election.
By the device of postponing the Palestinian parliamentary vote from August to November, Abu Mazen had hoped to escape Hamas’ electoral threat to his own Fatah. Sharon, for his part, toyed with the notion of a general election after the pull-back was completed and before Israelis woke up to the prize he had awarded the most extremist Palestinian Islamic terrorist group. Mubarak had played with the notion of winning a fifth term unchallenged by the Muslim Brotherhood. George Bush has smashed the failing hopes of all three leaders with a surprise blow by the Hamas bludgeon.

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