WASHINGTON — While President Bush touted his plans for fighting terrorism and advancing Middle East democracy in his State of the Union address this week, Israel’s allies here were working hard behind the scenes to prevent what they fear will be attempts to soften the administration’s stance in the months ahead.
At the center of their fears is the administration’s posture toward Hamas, the Islamic extremist group that won control of the Palestinian Authority legislature in an election last week. Israel wants an international quarantine of Hamas and of any Palestinian institutions it controls, unless it undergoes a series of internal changes that most observers consider unlikely. The quarantine would include both a ban on contacts with Hamas officials and a cutoff of direct aid to the P.A.
The Bush administration has endorsed Israel’s view, but at the same time it hails the Hamas electoral sweep as a victory for the president’s vision of democratization. In his televised address, Bush made only one brief reference to Hamas; he hailed the Palestinian elections and urged Hamas to accept changes, but made no mention of a quarantine.
“The Palestinian people have voted in elections, and now the leaders of Hamas must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace,” Bush said.
Privately, Israeli officials are fuming at the administration for insisting that the Palestinian elections take place despite the growing strength of Hamas among Palestinians. While few Israelis foresaw the scope of the Hamas victory, most expected a strong showing and saw little benefit in letting the vote proceed on schedule. P.A. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, a relative moderate, shared Israel’s fears but bowed to Washington’s insistence last fall, presenting Israel with a fait accompli.
In his address, Bush spoke at length about the principle of democratization, arguing that “every step toward freedom in the world makes our country safer.” He devoted most of his specifics to Iraq, where American troops are battling an intractable insurgency. He made only glancing references to Egypt, Afghanistan and the P.A., where American-backed elections helped boost Islamic militants.
The administration’s dual stance, opposing extremism but touting the benefits of democracy, is raising fears among some top Israelis and their allies here that Washington will seek ways to circumvent a quarantine in the coming months and work with a Hamas-led government, if only indirectly.
Hamas was reported this week to be considering “creative” ways of establishing its rule indirectly, in order to preserve Western funding and contacts. Proposals reportedly included an administration of technocrats with no direct links to Hamas, and a power-sharing deal that leaves foreign relations in the hands of Abbas, who is elected separately and favors peace with Israel.
Israel’s allies in Washington were nearly unanimous in dismissing such schemes, saying that “figureheads” or “puppets” would not legitimize Hamas. If Abbas is made “a titular head in order to keep the funds flowing from the Europeans, he will be a head without a body,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Hoenlein and other pro-Israel advocates say they are lobbying here and in Europe to shore up the allies’ resolve. “We’ve had discussions with administration officials, and we are also approaching European officials. We’ve had numerous contacts with them and got assurances from them that they are going to be in line,” Hoenlein said. “It is of immediate importance, in this transitional period, to set certain markers. Right now we have to establish the precedent.” He added that the tougher challenge would be making sure that such terms are kept over time. “That is going to be a long-term battle,” he said.
Israel wants the international community to adopt three preconditions for contact with Hamas or financial aid to Palestinian institutions under its control: that the organization renounce the use of terrorism, annul its charter calling for the destruction of Israel, and accept all previously signed accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
The conditions have won rapid acceptance. They were adopted Monday by the so-called Middle East Quartet — America, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — and were endorsed publicly Wednesday by Egypt’s intelligence minister and top negotiator, Omar Suleiman.
At the same time, however, the Egyptian minister warned against cutting off Western aid to the Palestinians, saying that the funding gap would be filled in by Iran and thus a strategic threat would be created.
The prospect that a quarantine might harden Palestinian views — and perhaps fuel new violence — was described by most figures in the pro-Israel camp as a short-term risk that was justified by longer-term goals.
Dennis Ross, who was President Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator and the architect of America’s engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said that the Bush administration must seize what he called an “opportunity” to change Hamas by isolating it and not being lured into contacts until it does change. If Hamas tries to present a face that is not its own, he said, the United States must lead the world in saying: “No, we won’t make it easier for you. We won’t let you off the hook.”
Maintaining “the sanctity of the guidelines” for engaging with Hamas will not be easy, Ross said, because already “there are fissures” in the international resolve to isolate Hamas. They include a tendency to accept the logic that since the election process was free and fair, the outcome of the election is legitimate and acceptable.
Ross and other advocates of an uncompromising policy acknowledged that the likelihood of Hamas transforming itself, given its religious principles, is slim to nonexistent. Ross’s hope was that an isolated Hamas would fail its own constituents’ governance test and be voted out in the future.
The strategy is a risky one. Blocking Western funds to a Hamas-led P.A., several advocates acknowledged, would push it into the arms of Iran and deepen the instability, chaos and poverty that already plague the West Bank and Gaza. However, they insisted, that should not deter America from standing firm to avoid the larger precedent of legitimizing a terrorist Arab regime.
Pro-Israel activists are already working to nail down a set of clear conditions for any official American engagement with Hamas. They are also lobbying to build broad congressional support for several legislative initiatives blocking American financial aid to a Hamas-led Palestinian government and codifying conditions for considering Hamas a legitimate interlocutor.
Pro-Israel lobbyists on Capitol Hill predict overwhelming support for bills that would block any direct aid for a Hamas-dominated P.A. This week, at a Chicago event for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, 11 lawmakers from both parties pledged to support such legislation.
Hamas leaders told Western reporters this week that while they have no interest in negotiating a settlement with Israel, they do seek a working relationship with Israeli authorities on a technical level. Electricity, gasoline, cement, water and other vital supplies reach the Palestinian territories through Israel — some through private sales and some through the P.A. Contacts between Israeli government officials and P.A. officials on such issues existed throughout the years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are expected to continue.
Also this week, Hamas invited Israel to open a dialogue. In a rare opinion essay published Tuesday in The Washington Post, the organization’s deputy political bureau chief, Moussa Abu Marzouk, extended a hand to Israel. “For a meaningful dialogue to occur, there should be no prejudgments or preconditions,” he wrote, “and we do desire a dialogue.” Abu Marzouk indicated that the objective of such a dialogue would be an extended cessation of hostilities. He added, “There must come a day when we will live together, side by side once again.”
Israeli officials were not impressed. One told the Forward that the Israeli diplomatic corps worldwide has been instructed to confront notions that Hamas might be an acceptable interlocutor by reminding the international community that Hamas is a terrorist organization sworn to the destruction of Israel.
The suspicion among Israeli officials and pro-Israel activists in Washington that America might compromise its principle of fighting terrorists rather than negotiating with them reflects a strong Israeli sense of dismay with the way that the administration has pushed for Palestinian elections.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, complained that the administration had pushed Israel into allowing elections in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. “The Americans preferred the democratization principle over that of fighting terrorism, and therefore they put pressure both on [Abbas, who is known as] Abu Mazen and on us to go ahead with the elections, unconditionally,” the official said. “That was a terrible error. They gave preference to the wrong principle. It was unreasonable, and they will live to regret it.”
American Jewish community leaders expressed similar frustration. “It’s a matter of setting standards,” said Jess Hordes, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office. “A lot of people argued early on that the administration could have taken a stronger position on Hamas meeting certain standards [in order to participate in the election], such as the renunciation of violence and the promoting of a two-state solution as the outcome. It would not have been unreasonable. Other democracies have standards. Nazi parties don’t run in Germany, for example.”
Israeli officials depicted the results of the Palestinian elections as the culmination of a deep disagreement between Bush’s foreign policy doctrine and Israel’s approach toward the nature of it neighbors’ regimes. While Bush views democracy as a panacea for the woes of the Middle East, Israel’s security and political establishment argues that a premature push for democracy can backfire, create instability and jeopardize Israel’s security. Israeli diplomats in America, the Forward has learned, were given written instructions by their foreign ministry this week to tell Americans that “democracy doesn’t end with elections. Democracy has never been merely a procedural process such as holding elections, but it represents a complex of substantive values” that are not broadly manifested in the Arab world, certainly not by Hamas.
European officials widely share Israel’s view that the Bush democracy doctrine helped lead to last week’s Hamas debacle. However, they also put some blame on Israel for withholding concessions over the last year — such as eased travel restrictions and prisoner releases — that might have shored up Abbas’s position with his public, European diplomats told the Forward.
Israeli officials were also deeply skeptical — at certain points even resentful — of the administration’s acceptance of Abbas’s assurances that elections would empower him and give him the legitimacy needed to disarm Hamas and other militias. Many Israeli officials argued that the election results — even short of a Hamas victory at the polls — would make it harder for Abbas to take the promised action against Hamas. “The administration trusted Abbas, we trusted the administration, and now we are stuck with Hamas in power,” an Israeli official said.