WASHINGTON — The Bush administration plans to work with the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to hammer out a formula that will satisfy Jerusalem’s objection to the participation of Hamas in the P.A. elections set for January, according to American and Israeli sources in Washington.
Asked whether such a formula could be worked out — which would also satisfy Palestinian calls for fair, inclusive elections — a senior Bush administration official told the Forward: “That’s the $64 million question.”
“We are working on that with the parties,” the official said.
Asked what the chances are of reaching a deal, the official replied, “Inshallah,” using the Arabic term for “God willing.”
The issue is expected to be discussed when P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas visits Washington on October 20.
Despite last week’s flare-up of violence across the border between Israel and Gaza, American officials and European diplomats believe that the fragile Palestinian ceasefire could be maintained through January to create an environment conducive to elections. Several diplomats pointed with satisfaction to Hamas’s unilateral announcement that it would indefinitely suspend all launching of Qassam rockets and mortar rounds into Israel. Hamas leaders released this statement Monday after Israel reacted with overwhelming force to the shooting of almost 60 rockets and bombs, which lightly injured several civilians in southern Israel. The attacks prompted an Israeli crackdown leading to the arrests of nearly 300 members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
In addition to the rocket attacks, Hamas claimed responsibility for the death of Sasson Nuriel, an Israeli man who was kidnapped last week in Jerusalem and killed in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Palestinian, Israeli and American experts say that the main reason for the Hamas decision seems to have been the backlash in Palestinian public opinion. The current rejection of violence among Palestinians could serve to keep militants in check in the coming months, they say.
Assuming things remain quiet, a European diplomat said, the main challenge for the international community would be to figure out how “to ensure that the elections will strengthen [Abbas] rather than weaken him.”
The Bush administration and its international allies view the Palestinian elections as an important tool for legitimizing Abbas and for energizing the democratic process in the P.A. Abbas argues that Hamas’s participation in the elections is an important step toward transforming the organization from a movement focused on anti-Israeli terrorism into an unarmed political party. Israel, however, is troubled by the possibility that Hamas could win the elections, maintain its military wing and receive de-facto recognition as a legitimate political force by the international community.
Prime Minister Sharon told reporters in New York last week that Israel “will not provide any support” for Palestinian elections in which Hamas takes part. Only if Hamas is disarmed and disavows its covenant, which calls for the destruction of the State of Israel, will Sharon’s government be willing to accept the organization’s participation in elections, he said.
In subsequent s to the Bush administration, Israeli officials explained that Sharon does not intend to actively undermine the Palestinian elections but that he cannot promise full cooperation, as he did at the time of the Palestinian presidential elections in January 2005. In practical terms, Israeli diplomats explained, Israel cannot commit to granting Hamas candidates effective immunity as they crisscross the West Bank campaigning for a seat in the legislative council, particularly if such candidates are wanted for involvement in terrorism. Earlier this week Israel completed a vast campaign to arrest more than 200 Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists in the West Bank, including four or five senior leaders.
Sharon’s position on Hamas is being echoed by one of Israel’s most prominent doves, Yossi Beilin, chairman of the left-leaning Meretz-Yahad Party. In an article published on the Israeli-Palestinian Web site bitterlemons.org, Beilin argued that Sharon should insist that the P.A. abide by the provision in the Oslo agreements that bans the participation in Palestinian elections of parties or individuals who “commit or advocate racism” or “pursue the implementation of their aims by unlawful non-democratic means.” By not insisting on the implementation of that clause, Beilin wrote, Israeli is facilitating “the legitimization of Hamas in Europe and the United States.”
Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, offered a similar argument, echoing comments made in private by Israeli diplomats.
“Israel cannot be expected to lay the platform for ultimate political power to its most sworn enemy,” Satloff said last week, during the annual conference of his Washington- based think tank. At the event, the question of America’s policy on the participation of Islamists in Arab politics was front-and-center.
While debating Robert Malley, the former special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israel affairs, Satloff argued that the United States should support Israel’s approach, even at the risk of undermining the elections and ending Abbas’s attempt at leading the Palestinian society toward reform and reconciliation with Israel. Malley countered that co-opting Hamas is the core of Abbas’s current strategy and that the United States must accept it if it views Abbas as an ally.
Malley, who currently directs the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group, argued that on this issue the administration seems to have adopted a correct path: allowing free participation in the elections, while registering its strong principled objection to the inclusion of terrorist groups in the political process and making it clear that the administration will not engage with elected officials who belong to such groups.
That position was enunciated by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week in a lengthy interview with Time magazine and in a series of photo-opportunities with international media organizations in New York. Rice said September 20 that while “this is going to be a Palestinian process” in which Palestinians are given “some room for the evolution of their political process,” the entire international community — not just Israel — should be concerned about “the question of whether or not you can have a situation in which a group maintains both an option for politics and an option for violence.” She added: “I don’t, frankly, think Hamas can have it both ways.”
Rice’s comments suggested that the administration believes this question should be addressed after free, unrestricted elections take place.
While that policy may be Washington’s only viable option, it includes the risk that the international community will face a split Palestinian government — with Abbas, a relative moderate as president, having his hands tied by a legislative council governed by the militant Hamas. Furthermore, even if Hamas receives 35% of the parliamentary votes, it will be able to manipulate the parliament in opposition to Abbas, said Barry Rubin, a Palestinian affairs expert who directs the Israel-based Global Research in International Affairs Center. Other Palestinian rejectionists in the parliament would gladly join Hamas to create a majority block routinely opposing Abbas, Rubin said.
Many of the participants at the Washington Institute’s conference last week — including current and former policymakers, diplomats and academics — said that Abbas faced a tough fight against Hamas, describing it as a well-organized popular grassroots movement that enjoys a “clean” image not tainted by corruption.
Alastair Crooke, the former British intelligence officer who spent hundreds of hours with Palestinian leaders facilitating the Palestinian ceasefire in 2002 and 2003 as an envoy for the European Union, pointed out that in the Palestinians’ May 2005 municipal elections, Hamas-identified lists received more than twice as many votes as lists identified with the ruling Fatah movement.
Dennis Ross, a top Middle East negotiator for both the first President Bush and Clinton, chided the current administration for not taking actions earlier, before Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. He argued that the United States should have moved to cement a more solid ceasefire agreement to which Israel is a full party, outlined the security arrangements that it wanted each party to take and ensured the delivery — rather than just the pledge — of a large infusion of international financial aid. Such actions could have significantly strengthened Abbas’s fledgling presidency, Ross said.
Now, Ross said, the administration has slimmer chances of doing so. Sustaining Abbas — both before the election and into next year — requires determined and assertive American-led action.
Ross said that if the administration does not move “with a sense of urgency” to “change realities on the ground right now,” Abbas’s government is likely to collapse — along with any chance for negotiations. American inaction, he said, would condemn Israeli-Palestinian relations to unilateralism, “which produces outcomes but not solutions.”