Bush Faces Big Choices as Hamas Takes Reins

On the eve of Hamas’ takeover of the Palestinian parliament, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush still appears uncertain about how hard a line to take with the movement it has long considered a terrorist organization.

Pressed by its own strongly pro-Zionist Congress, the administration has effectively ruled out providing direct aid to a Palestinian Authority (PA) in which the Islamist party plays a leading role, unless it amends its covenant to recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce violence.

At the same time, the administration has strenuously denied a New York Times report earlier this week that it was working with the government of Israeli acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to destabilize a Hamas-led government through diplomatic isolation and economic strangulation in hopes of forcing new elections that would bring more moderate forces to power.

In the administration’s clearest statement to date, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that the administration intended to maintain support for humanitarian and related projects administered through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and multilateral agencies in the Palestinian authorities, at least for the time being.

But precisely how much and what kind of assistance Washington will be willing to provide under what conditions – and what it will encourage its European and Middle East allies to do – remains unclear just two days before the new Legislative Council and its 16-seat Hamas majority is sworn in.

For the administration, which has staked its foreign policy legacy on the democratic transformation of the Middle East, the stakes could not be much higher.

By its own account, the Jan. 25 elections won by Hamas were the freest and fairest to have taken place in the Palestinian territories, if not the entire Arab world. To punish and try to bring down the winner would expose Washington to charges of rank hypocrisy – a view that is already widely held throughout the Arab world, according to recent survey data.

It would also risk further radicalizing the region, particularly those Islamist groups that, like Hamas, have demonstrated their popular support in recent elections from Iraq to Morocco.

Some two dozen Arab and humanitarian aid organizations, including the Arab American Institute, the American Task Force for Palestine, and American Near East Refugee Aid, are sending a letter to Secretary Rice Friday that says, "U.S. disengagement as a punishment for the results of a democratic election it actively supported could cause a breakdown in civil society. This vacuum could lead to civil war or increased interference from regional players."

Marina Ottaway, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) here, believes that, "The greatest consequence of an uncompromising U.S. position on Hamas could be a change in the internal balance of power between hardliners and reformists inside the growing number of Islamist organizations that have renounced violence."

"The hard U.S. response to the victory of Hamas – particularly the decision to penalize the entire Palestinian Authority by suspending aid to it – could well tilt the balance back in favor of the hardliners," she warned.

That point was echoed as well by Robert Malley, a top Middle East adviser to former President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) and current head of the Middle East and North Africa program of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG).

"If the attitude of the U.S. and the international community is to say ‘we’re going to punish the Palestinians,’ it will send a devastating message to the rest of the region," he told a recent congressional forum. "You want to get radical forces into the political process. Now, we’re just at the beginning of that experiment. Let’s give it a chance."

Moreover, according to Malley, who encouraged Washington and other donors to set realistic conditions on aid, such as an indefinite cease-fire similar to one Hamas has largely observed unilaterally over the past year and the appointment of moderates to head key ministries, cutting off aid to the PA risks driving it into the arms of more powerful adversaries.

"Hamas’ ideal is not to become dependent on Iran," he said. "But that may change if it has no option. They will turn to whoever gives them money."

The PA, which is already on the brink of bankruptcy, relies for over half of its $2 billion annual budget on foreign aid, of which Washington last year provided nearly $250 million and this year earmarked $150 million – almost all of it to support development projects overseen by NGOs and private contractors.

In addition to foreign aid, it also relies on some $50 million a month in customs duties and taxes that are collected by Israel on its behalf. In recent days, Olmert has suggested that his government will suspend those transfers when the new assembly is seated this weekend. Withholding that money could plunge the PA into an immediate fiscal crisis, even before a new government is put together.

His Washington-based supporters, including Washington’s former top envoy to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under both Clinton and Bush’s father, Dennis Ross, are also urging a hard line.

The House of Representatives this week voted 418-1 for a non-binding resolution, opposing all U.S. assistance for the PA as long as any party calling for the destruction of Israel controlled its parliament. The same resolution, which is directed specifically against Hamas’ charter, was approved two weeks ago by the Senate.

Other legislation backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of Capitol Hill’s most powerful lobbies, and currently working their way through Congress, would be much tougher.

One measure introduced after deny all aid to the PA unless the president certified that all of its branches had been completely purged of individuals tied to terrorism and that it disarmed and arrested suspected terrorists, and halted all anti-Israeli rhetoric in Palestinian media. Yet another would require Hamas to amend its covenant to delete all statements hostile to Israel in order for the PA to receive U.S. assistance.

Those conditions are highly unrealistic, according to the ICG’s Malley and other analysts who fear that approval of such measures will make it far more difficult for the president to encourage Hamas to make positive gestures, such as extending its cease-fire or accepting the 2002 Saudi plan that calls for normalizing ties with Israel pending withdrawal to its 1967 borders.

"What the administration needs to do is condition aid in a positive way, and not simply use it as a threat," according to Stephen Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development.

"Congress needs to decide it its goal is to punish Hamas and the Palestinian people or to move the new Palestinian government away from violence and toward accommodation with Israel," he said. "Legislation that cuts off economic assistance and imposes impossible conditions for the resumption of aid is counterproductive if the goal is stability and security – rather than more violence – for both Israel and the Palestinians."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.