WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is telling foreign diplomats in Washington that the United States might significantly scale back its involvement in the peace process and curtail its relations with the Palestinian Authority if the Islamic militant group Hamas wins next week’s Palestinian parliamentary elections or becomes a key force in a Palestinian government.
The Forward has learned that U.S. officials have told P.A. representatives and other foreign diplomats that the White House is considering several possible responses to a Hamas victory. If Islamic militants win, U.S. officials have said, the Bush administration will reconsider America’s relationship with the P.A. In any case, it will continue to refuse to deal with elected officials affiliated with Hamas. In addition, Bush administration officials have said that they probably will decrease American financial assistance to the P.A.
Depending on the level of influence that Hamas has over the next Palestinian government, the Bush administration may conclude that its chances for success in future peacemaking efforts have diminished to an extent that intensive U.S. involvement is no longer justified, diplomatic sources said.
“The question for the administration will be whether it sees a partner on the Palestinian side,” said a foreign diplomat in Washington, who represents a close U.S. ally and recently discussed the issue with administration officials. The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the administration has been skeptical all along about the ability of P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas to keep his promise to convince Hamas to abandon violence following the elections. With Hamas gaining power and Abbas unable to control rampant lawlessness on the Palestinian street, the administration’s confidence in the Palestinian leader is sinking to a new low, administration officials said.
A reduction in American dealings with the P.A. would likely mean more emphasis on unilateral steps, like Israel’s Gaza pullout in August 2005.
“In such a case, the U.S. involvement may be reduced to coordinating with Israel on unilateral steps,” said Michael Herzog, a brigadier general and former military secretary to Israel’s minister of defense, who is currently a visiting scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The question of how to respond to a strong Hamas showing is one of the issues expected to be discussed Wednesday at a scheduled meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
Herzog, a longtime intelligence officer and an expert on the P.A., said that a strong Hamas showing on January 25 is certain. Polls show that the militant Islamic movement may win about 40% of the vote. A poll published on January 14 by the Palestinian Bir-Zeit University shows Abbas’s Fatah and Hamas in a dead heat within the margin of error.
Leaders of Hamas already have said that if they become the largest party in parliament, they will strive to form the government. If it doesn’t win, Hamas may join a Fatah-led national-unity government. “Hamas is running as an alternative, not as an opposition. It is running for government,” Herzog said. “And Hamas in the government means that the Americans surely will not step up their involvement but are very likely to withdraw from the [Israeli-Palestinian] arena.”
On several occasions in recent weeks, U.S. officials have stated that America will not deal with Hamas elected officials. Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, spokeswoman for the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, last week told the Reuters news agency that American diplomats would be barred from having any direct contact with Hamas members elected to parliament, as well as with those who have ties to the group.
Rice, in a statement last week, reiterated America’s view that “there should be no place in the political process for groups or individuals who refuse to renounce terror and violence, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and disarm.”
Rice also laid out America’s criteria for an acceptable Palestinian partner. “To participate in a peace process of Israelis and Palestinians, the Palestinian partner must at least accept Israel’s right to exist,” she said. “To implement agreements on movement and access for the Palestinian territories, the Palestinian partner must be committed to preventing violence. In short, the Palestinian partner must be committed to peaceful development.” Rice made clear that Washington does not consider Hamas in its current form as an acceptable partner.
Congress, in turn, indicated that it would not fund a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.
The House of Representatives last month overwhelmingly approved a resolution stating that the P.A. is risking its relationship with the United States, including financial assistance, by allowing Hamas to run in the elections. In addition, Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat, is currently circulating a “dear colleague” letter, urging members of the House to call on the administration to block U.S. aid to the Palestinians if Hamas becomes part of a Palestinian government.
In the Senate, 73 members signed a letter to President Bush saying that America would be forced to reevaluate its relations with the P.A. if Hamas becomes part of the government.
No matter how the Palestinian vote turns out, one of the administration’s immediate goals is to secure as much stability as possible in the Palestinian territories in the weeks leading up to Israel’s general elections on March 28, Washington insiders said. The administration is concerned that internecine fighting among disgruntled Palestinian factions and militias after the elections might increase the chaos within Palestinian society and lead to increased terrorism against Israel.
Such violence, in addition to its destructive impact on Palestinian society, could drive Israeli voters to support Likud candidate Benjamin Netanyahu over Washington’s preferred choice, the more moderate Ehud Olmert, acting prime minister and leader of the centrist Kadima party.
The administration’s ability to curb Palestinian violence and chaos is limited, experts on U.S. policy in the Middle East said. At this point, America’s only direct involvement in Palestinian security matters is through Bush’s new special security envoy, Keith Dayton, a major general. He arrived in the area last week with plans to be more involved in efforts to reform the Palestinian security apparatus than was his predecessor, William Ward, a lieutenant general. Sources familiar with his mission said that Dayton requested a larger budget and more staff and presented plans to restructure the Palestinian security apparatus. He hopes to rebuild Palestinian command and control structures that Israel destroyed during fighting in 2001 and 2002, and to network Palestinian command centers across the West Bank.
Dayton will try to help the P.A. prepare for disarming militias following the elections. But his mission may be short-lived if the P.A. ends up governed or effectively dominated by Hamas, diplomatic sources in Washington said.