February 13, 2006

Undermining Democracy in the Middle East

File under: be careful what you wish for.

The United States and Israel are discussing ways to destabilize the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again, according to Israeli officials and Western diplomats.

The intention is to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections to the point where, some months from now, its president, Mahmoud Abbas, is compelled to call a new election. The hope is that Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement.

The officials also argue that a close look at the election results shows that Hamas won a smaller mandate than previously understood.

The officials and diplomats, who said this approach was being discussed at the highest levels of the State Department and the Israeli government, spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

They say Hamas will be given a choice: recognize Israel's right to exist, forswear violence and accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements as called for by the United Nations and the West or face isolation and collapse.

Opinion polls show that Hamas's promise to better the lives of the Palestinian people was the main reason it won. But the United States and Israel say Palestinian life will only get harder if Hamas does not meet those three demands. They say Hamas plans to build up its militias and increase violence and must be starved out of power.

The Bush administration vocally supports democracy in the middle east. Except for groups it doesn't like?

Oh, that's right, because Hamas are terrorists. Hmm. You'd think we would have thought of that before the election eh? U.S. foreign policy purred along fairly nicely (depending on your definition of nice, of course) for decades by supporting stable bad guys rather than roll the dice on elections.

Enter stable bad guys.

"Fatah now is obsessed with undoing this election as soon as possible," he said. "Israel and Washington want to do it over too. The Palestinian Authority could collapse in six months."

New Hamas legislators were unimpressed. Farhat Asaad, a Hamas spokesman, and Nasser Abdaljawad, who won a seat in Salfit where two Fatah candidates split the vote, gave the United States "a year or two" to come around to the idea of dealing openly with Hamas.

Mr. Asaad, a former Israeli prisoner, said: "We hope it isn't U.S. policy. Because those who try to isolate us will be isolated in the region."

Hamas will move on two parallel fronts, he said: the first, to reform Palestinian political life, and the second, "to break the isolation of our government." If Hamas succeeds on both fronts, he said, "we will achieve a great thing for our people, a normal life with security and a state of law, where no one can abuse power."

Hamas will find the money it needs from the Muslim world, said Mr. Abdaljawad, who spent 12 years in jail and got a Ph.D. while there. Hamas will save money by ending corruption and providing efficiency. Hamas will break the Palestinian dependency on Israel, he said.

Mr. Asaad laughed and added: "First, I thank the United States that they have given us this weapon of democracy. But there is no way to retreat now. It's not possible for the U.S. and the world to turn its back on an elected democracy."

Ah, so it's back to Fatah, is it? Of course, they have never been anywhere near terrorism.

Lest my post be misunderstood, let me put out a few direct points. There are a range of suboptimal choices (from the US foreign policy perspective) when dealing with leadership and the Palestinian Authority. There is always a risk, when calling for and supporting steps towards electoral democracy, that you will exchange the devil you know, for the devil you don't. At this point the milk has spilled, and Hamas won the elections. Working openly to bring down a democratically elected government isn't going to do much to enhance the US reputation as a friend of democracy in the middle east.

And, to IR geek out a bit, there is the question of signalling. The hope for Hamas (and I will defer to Armand's analysis on the chances of any of this) would be an IRA type resolution. Giving them a stake in the system and the power to succeed within might be a significant incentive to get them to play the politics game. The hard line about destabilization in the NYT story may very well be some strong credible signalling from the US and Israel, some added reinforcement to the message that Hamas really needs to commit to the political - rather than insurgent - model. Plus, there is always signalling to the base (US and Israeli) which wants to hear that its government is taking a tough stance against terrorism.

Lots of overlapping explanations, but this is a tough line to tread, especially when the situation is volatile. The signal is transmitted broadly, and while the intended target may very well receive the intended message, it is also broadcast to a wider audience, who might not be in on the game.

Posted by binky at February 13, 2006 10:52 PM | TrackBack | Posted to You Can't Make This Stuff Up


Related story. Gallup Poll shows that most Americans essentially blame Hamas for dashing any hopes of peace in the Middle East.

Posted by: Graham at February 13, 2006 11:22 PM | PERMALINK

(Minor book-keeping:Here is the permenant link to the NYT story.)

This seems like a bad decision. We may want (at some point) to destabilize Hamas (they are terrorists); however, the election changed the landscape. You have to at least give them the time to screw up (i.e., go do some more terrorism) before you work to get rid of them. As Binky noted, the hope was that you could co-opt Hamas into the political process (the election gives thema stake, and over time they see that governing is actually hard, but easier when you talk with Israel rather than blow them up). That will be impossible now.By the way, what happens if trying to destabilize them makes them more popular (they become more popular because they are seen as standing up to both Israel and the US)?

Again, I'm not saying that this is the wrong decision; I'm saying it's the wrong decision now. We could have gone this route at any time Hamas proved they couldn't govern (or be a partner). Going there now will be ugly.

Posted by: baltar at February 13, 2006 11:32 PM | PERMALINK

i'll get flamed by someone for saying this, but am i the only one who sees our relationship with israel as notably analogous to the guy with the girlfriend who likes to drink too much at bars and teases and picks fights with pugnacious, drunk men with whom said boyfriend (a quiet type, left to his own devices) then has to negotiate or - more likely -- fight?

whatever it is we think we're doing over there pretty clearly isn't working. why doesn't anyone see that and really try to get out of the box?

Posted by: moon at February 13, 2006 11:58 PM | PERMALINK

On second thought, the article does explicitly note that Hamas is to be given an ultimatum: recognize Israel or else (the "or else" being this destabilization plan). So the possibility exists for Hamas to change their politics, and not have all this come crashing down. That being said, beginning the planning for this (while perhaps intelligent from a "prepare for contingencies" perspective) really doesn't look good when it (surprise!) hits the press. This is likely to get (as I said) ugly.

Posted by: baltar at February 14, 2006 12:01 AM | PERMALINK

Um, who is the drunk?

Posted by: binky at February 14, 2006 12:15 AM | PERMALINK

israel is the drunk, which is one of the many flaws in the analogy. the thrust of what i intended to say is this: we don't literally fight on their behalf, not entirely, or at least not often, but we do basically take their part no matter what they do to whom. at most, we'll assume a studied and allied neutrality-by-silence. but the analogy is this: sometimes we feel, by tradition or for some other reason, bound to another party no matter what, such that we'll pretty much defend them even when they're dead wrong, and one must be careful to get in those relationships only with parties onecan trust not to abuse that loyalty. i don't think israel is abusing our loyalty at the moment, but i absolutely think they have, and i think this history informs our relations with every other state and group in the region to our detriment.

it's no different than preferring competition in trade: i'd rather countries have to justify their alliances with us from time to time than to have them take our support for granted and make decisions without regard to what might follow were we not around as a guarantor against the worst case scenario.

as for the hamas issue that prompted this thread, if the goal is to allow a party with its first seat at the table to figure out that its interests lie more in conciliation and diplomacy than in violent insurgency, shouldn't we, you know, give them a little while to figure that out rather than taking this by-nature-and-history belligerant militant group and immediately put a gun to their head with an ultimatum that can't be feel like an insult? i understand the importance of extracting recognition of israel, but surely there are back channels for this sort of thing that enable hamas to get its bearings and save face.

Posted by: moon at February 14, 2006 09:53 AM | PERMALINK

This is insane beyond belief. Hence, exactly what you'd expect of the Bush administration on Middle East policy.

Before going on I would just like to remind people of 1 key point - Who was it who pushed tooth and nail to have these elections which HAMAS won, at a time when Fatah was noting it was terribly weak and wanted to delay them? The Bush administration. They are clueless, ineffective and should be trusted to guide 100 horny dogs to a bitch in heat located 3 feet away.

OK, apart from the fact that this is proposed by clueless looks living in their own made-up fantastyland, why is this a bad idea.

#1 - Won't work. How in the hell are they going to make both HAMAS less popular and Fatah more popular. Accomplishing 1 is unlikely - particularly when the policies involved will involve the chief funder and arms provide of Israel very clearly trying to undermine HAMAS - accomplishing both through this kind of measure is just plain impossible.

#2 - Since when are Europe and the USA the only places that can provide funding to Palestinians. You don't think of this goes forward people we might not like so much might not start uping their support of these organizations? And then what will that do to their likelihood of living in piece with Israel.

#3 - This will clearly inflame HAMAS and make it more extreme. There's every possibility of at least some movements toward peace right now - or at least movements toward a more stable 2 state solution. Is a more isolated and extreme HAMAS something we want?

I could go on - but I think I'd just end up sputtering in disbelief. How the hell these people ended up running our foreign policy ...

Oh, btw, is anyone else struck by the stunningly different ways in which we deal with/have expectations of "bad" Palestinian Islamists and "not bad" Iraqi Islamists. The degree to which our policies in the two areas don't match is breath-taking.

Posted by: Armand at February 14, 2006 09:54 AM | PERMALINK

as typos go, this is a good'n:

"their likelihood of living in piece with Israel"

i'd say it's very high.

Posted by: moon at February 14, 2006 10:00 AM | PERMALINK
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