Pinning Dubious Hopes for a Hamas Ouster on Sanctions and Abu Mazen

The United States and Israel are working on ways to destabilize the Hamas-led Palestinian government, the New York Times reported Tuesday, Feb. 14. The plan is said to center largely on money and on Mahmoud Abbas playing his part.
The Palestinian Authority payroll amounts to $100 m per month. Israel will withhold its regular $50-55 million a month in collected revenues and place the money in escrow, creating a large cash deficit. The US and Europe will follow suit. In other words, the US, Europe and Israel propose to impose economic sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, even before putting them in place against Iran.
This strategy is intended to starve the new PA of money for basics, such as food and medicines, and deny it international connections. Mahmoud Abbas will then be compelled by a Palestinian population, which The New York Times says will be unhappy with the new regime and disappointed in its expectation of a better life, to dissolve the new legislature and call a new election. The electorate will then return his Fatah to power.
It all depends on Abbas’ sticking to his guns and fundamental policies which include negotiations with Israel towards a two-state solution.
Senior Israeli officials were quick to deny the New York Times report – not the concept of sanctions but the claim of Israel-US cooperation for dictating to the Palestinians how they should be ruled. They are wary on this point, because admitting to an improvised joint scheme for regime change in Ramallah would imply the bankruptcy of their former two-step strategy of Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip followed by a Palestinian election. Neither Washington to Jerusalem is prepared to admit to that linkage, while the Bush administration is faced with an awkward contradiction: critics note a serious discrepancy between the US president’s overriding goal to bring democracy to the Middle East and the new plan for unseating a democratically-elected government.
Monday, Feb 13, Abu Mazen took the first step to bring the new plan to fruition. He took advantage of the last session of the outgoing legislative council to enact constitutional laws and approve appointments that boost his powers as president. He appropriated the authority to appoint a new constitutional court of nine judges that can veto legislation deemed contrary to basic laws and dissolve parliament.
Tuesday, Feb. 14, the Olmert government took a complementary step.
The state prosecution filed a Supreme Court document defining Palestinians as citizens of an enemy state. This was in response to petitions to extend Israeli citizenship to the Palestinian spouses of Israeli Arabs. The state attached some statistics to support its contention: 10% of 60,000 Palestinian security personnel engage directly in terrorism, while 15% are members of terrorist organizations.
Supreme Court justice Michael Heshin overruled the petitions and accepted the state’s argument. He defined the Palestinian Authority “an enemy state de facto.” The petitions, he said, must not be allowed to use Israel’s family reunification law as a loophole for posing a hazard to national security
“Just listen to daily declarations by Hamas,” he said. The Palestinian people elected Hamas which seeks to destroy Israel and that makes them citizens of an enemy state.” He asked why Israel should take risks with Israeli lives, any more than England and America did when it came to admitting Germans in the Second World War.
debkafile‘s counter-terror sources note that this step makes history: it took six years of active Palestinian warfare for an Israeli government agency to designate the Palestinian Authority an enemy of the Jewish state. The prosecution would not have taken this step without direction from the highest level of government, acting prime minister Ehud Olmert and foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who is also justice minister.
Here, then, was the initial groundwork in place for sanctions. So what next?
See Feb. 13 article: What did Israel’s acting PM Olmert mean by “new rules for a Hamas Authority”?
The next steps must be examined in the light of two criteria:
Past experience:
The sanctions applied against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
They proved ineffectual and the United States ultimately went to war to oust his Baath regime in Baghdad. Hamas, as its leaders say out loud, will not bow to sanctions, which makes the prospect of an Israeli military operation to unseat them more probable than the efficacy of sanctions.
The facts on the ground:
Limited US sanctions have been in effect against the Bashar Assad regime in Damascus. Yet he is still firmly in place. Furthermore, for economic and military sanctions against a Hamas government, Washington and Jerusalem need the support of additional governments. Destabilizing Hamas therefore poses four big questions:
1. Will Abu Mazen play along? On past performance regarding the road map’s requirement to dismantle terrorist organizations, he tends to pay lip service then backtrack. He is therefore a slender reed for the US-Israeli strategy to lean on.
2. Will sanctions act as a boomerang? To be effective, they cannot just pinpoint Hamas but must cause pain to the Palestinian people at large and undermine the very ruling system and security apparatus which sustain Abu Mazen’s domain. A clever method will have to be found to channel funds to Abu Mazen and his support structures without any leaking to Hamas. That too is a poser.
3. How will Moscow treat the strategy for destabilizing a Hamas government? That question is wide open after Russian president Vladimir Putin invited its leaders for a visit. Abbas too is known to have a special relationship with Russian leaders.
4. Hamas is already rounding up alternative sources of cash, and not only in Tehran and Damascus; Riyadh will not let itself be outdone by the ayatollahs in financially supporting a Sunni group in power. The New York Times believes that this was taken into account by American policy-makers and their answer was pat: “it is hard to move millions of dollars in suitcases.”
According to debkafile‘s counter-terror sources, tens of millions of dollars are transferred day by day in and out of the Middle East and Persian Gulf in suitcases, including cash transfers from al Qaeda to insurgents in Iraq.
No one in Jerusalem or Washington will have forgotten how the Israeli troop withdrawal and the international accords in its wake threw open the Rafah terminal to illicit, unsupervised smuggling of terrorists, weapons and money between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Only last week, improved Katyusha rockets were “imported” freely by Abu Mazen’s own Fatah al Aqsa Brigades. So why not suitcases full of money?
The only way to stop this traffic is at the Egyptian end, if Cairo can be persuaded to finally do its part. The same permeable border situation prevails between Jordan, Syria and the West Bank. The Bush administration, up against daunting difficulties of Iran’s nuclear defiance, in Lebanon, where Hizballah remains fully armed, and in Syria, where the Hariri assassination’s masterminds are still at large a year on, must now address the very real threat to regional stability posed by the Palestinian Hamas.

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