E.U. Bids Big on Palestinians, But Hamas Card Still Unplayed

By Eric Frey

Published October 14, 2005, issue of October 14, 2005.
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The European Union gave more than 2 billion euros in aid to the Palestinian Authority during the 1990s. A lot of the funds were stolen or wasted, and what the rest of them bought — including an airport, a port and dozens of public buildings — went up in flames after the second intifada destroyed the Oslo peace process in 2000.

Now, in the wake of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, the E.U. again appears ready to open its purse to the Palestinians. E.U. External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner announced last week that the European Commission, the executive body of the 25-member union, was contemplating doubling its aid to the West Bank and Gaza to nearly 600 million euros a year.

Ferrero-Waldner claims that the E.U. has learned Oslo’s lessons, first and foremost by forgoing direct aid to the P.A. in favor of funneling money through a World Bank trust fund under the watch of former bank president James Wolfensohn. This time, donors will insist on transparency in the Palestinian budget system, demand reforms to the security services and ask for Israeli guarantees about border crossings that could end the Palestinians’ economic isolation.

The E.U’s aim is clear: to jumpstart the Palestinian economy, to revive the moribund “Road Map” and, perhaps most importantly, to assume a higher-profile role

in the Middle East. What is not so clear, however, is whether Europe will get a better return for its largesse this time around.

For all the money Europe may be willing to put on the table, in order for it to be taken seriously as a Mideast peace poker player it has to find an answer to the most pressing political question since disengagement: What role should the extremist Hamas movement play in the future Palestine?

P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas is determined to bring Hamas into the political fold and engineer its transformation from a terrorist organization into a political party. He wants Hamas to participate in the January elections, where it may gain up to 40% of the votes. When the extremists have a stake in the well being of the P.A., the argument goes, they will have an incentive to abandon their terrorist ways.

Whether the gamble can succeed is open to question. It is certain to fail, however, if Israel gets its way. The Sharon government has made clear its determination to crush Hamas before the elections, in order to minimize its electoral prospects or perhaps even prevent its candidacy.

Israeli politicians have a point: Hamas is a terrorist organization, its goal remains the destruction of Israel and its leadership has too often defied the authority of the democratically elected Abbas. After a strong electoral showing, Hamas might continue its terrorist campaign and make the Palestinian territories effectively ungovernable. And even if it takes an electoral mandate seriously, the Islamization of Palestinian society would be a nightmare for Israelis and many Palestinians alike.

The Israeli campaign against Hamas, however, threatens to undermine Abbas and might destroy the chances of an economic recovery in Gaza, Hamas’s stronghold. Those hoping for the United States to play a restraining role would do well to consider that Jerusalem’s hard-nosed strategy for dealing with the Islamic movement — unlike, for example, plans for settlement expansion in the West Bank — has long enjoyed Washington’s full support. So long as Israeli rockets are flying into Gaza City, Palestinians are unlikely to see the benefits of disengagement.

Most European leaders, by contrast, lean toward Abbas’s position. Many of them believe that it is the P.A. president, and not strategists in the Israeli government, who knows the Palestinian people best. Moreover, they do not trust Sharon to really accept a viable Palestinian state. And in general, E.U. preference has strongly been toward solving conflicts politically rather than militarily.

Crushing Hamas, some European leaders worry, may be subterfuge for preventing the political consolidation of Gaza. Even if the destruction of Hamas is a desirable goal, they argue, it may be unattainable. And the efforts to bring about the Islamic movement’s downfall could very well tear Palestinian society apart and cause the peace process to once again collapse.

Yet for all its firmly held views, the E.U. is afraid of openly taking Abbas’s side. It was only two years ago that the E.U. put Hamas on its list of terrorist organizations, and many European governments are afraid of appearing soft on terrorism. Today, when European officials talk to Hamas, they do so in secret and later deny that a meeting took place.

If the E.U. truly wants to play a constructive role in the Middle East peace process, it will have to begin taking clear-cut positions on Hamas and other fundamental issues. Europe can openly side with Abbas and open lines of communication with Hamas, at the risk of starting a major fight with Israel and the United States. Or Europe can stand behind its claim that Hamas is a terrorist organization and refuse to deal with it, using the E.U.’s large economic clout to force Abbas, against his better judgment, to stop cuddling the extremists.

Instead of taking a firm stance, however, European leaders seem satisfied with just throwing money at the problem. The additional aid for the Palestinians may do some good for a while, but if Sharon and Abbas continue to work against each other, Europe’s money will again be wasted.

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