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Clueless in Gaza

New evidence that Bush undermined a two-state solution

Said Khatib/AFP

A decisive turning point in the recent political history of Palestine came in June 2007, when Hamas defeated Fatah’s security forces in Gaza and took over uncontested administration of the strip. This was the moment that Palestine became divided in two with rival governments in charge—Hamas in Gaza and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in West Bank—which meant the end of a single, coherent Palestinian leadership that could negotiate with the Israelis. Afterwards, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, who has favored a two-state solution, wrote of the efforts to negotiate with Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas, “The notion that the Palestinian rump authority ... can be a credible partner in negotiation defies logic.”

But if the political effects of Hamas' ousting of Fatah are clear enough, Washington's prevailing narrative about it has mostly been self-serving. In a new book, Tested by Zion, Elliott Abrams, who supervised American policy in the Middle East for George W. Bush’s National Security Council, offers the standard line, charging that Hamas staged a “coup” in Gaza because it feared that “time might bring greater strength for what Hamas saw as Fatah and we saw as the legitimate PA national security forces.” Abrams acknowledges that Hamas leaders might have believed there was “a conspiracy to crush it,” but dismisses the possibility that there actually was one, and that the United States might have played any role in it.

This account is in marked contrast with the testimony put forth independently by two journalists, Paul McGeough and David Rose, by a former British intelligence official, Alistair Crooke, who had served as a special advisor on the Middle East to the European Union, and by UN Under-Secretary General Alvaro de Soto. Key parts of the this alternative narrative have been confirmed by leaked government documents and contemporary newspaper accounts and by David Wurmser, who was Middle East advisor at the time to Vice President Dick Cheney.

This version of events is considerably more damning about Washington's role in the events leading up to the Hamas “coup”. According to the alternative narrative, the Bush administration blundered at every turn in its dealings with the Palestinians. It encouraged an election on the assumption that Abbas and Fatah would win. When Hamas was victorious, it sought to nullify the results and to block a unity government between Fatah and Hamas, even though such a government might have actually become a credible partner in peace negotiations. And the Bush administration helped arm Fatah’s security forces against Hamas, which stoked the civil war and led to Hamas taking over Gaza. According to this narrative, Hamas was basically right about American intentions.

I am not absolutely certain which version of events is right. Too much of what happened is still shrouded in secrecy. Abrams’ reputation is tarred by his admission that he withheld documents from Congress during the Iran-Contra investigation. On the other side, Rose published credulous accounts in 2001 linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda. But I believe that the alternative narrative fits the outward events much better than what Abrams recounts in his book. And if this narrative is a better representation of what actually happened, it holds important lessons for American diplomacy today. While the Obama administration has generally taken a different tack in foreign policy than the Bush administration, it has not done so in its relations with Fatah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority—and it may be tempting the same kind of trouble that Abrams and the Bush administration got themselves into.

The story begins in June 2002, when Bush in a White House speech pressed for the Palestinians to “to elect new leaders” and “build a practicing democracy.” Bush was initially determined to promote an alternative to Yasir Arafat, but after Arafat died, he continued to urge elections as part of the administration’s plan to build Arab democracies. In February 2005, Mahmoud Abbas won an election to succeed Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority, and at Bush’s urging, agreed to hold elections for a legislative council, which were scheduled for August and then postponed until January 2006. Israel was worried about Hamas’s participation, but in a meeting with Abbas in Washington in October, Bush, who was confident that Fatah would win the elections, did not raise the possibility of banning Hamas candidates.

Hamas, of course, won 74 out of 132 seats. Fatah candidates won a majority of the vote, but lost seats because the party could not agree on a single candidate and split their own vote. Earlier, to sideline Arafat, the American government had pressured the Palestinian Authority to shift power from the president’s office to the prime minister’s, and now Hamas was entitled to the prime ministership and to control of the country’s finances and security. In effect, the election result had sidelined Abbas and Fatah and put Hamas in charge of the country.

According to a mission report from de Soto, who was the U.N. representative to the Middle East Quartet, Abbas and the Hamas officials wanted to create a unity government of the two parties. Abbas was convinced that Hamas, which had not campaigned against a two-state solution, would allow him to pursue negotiations with Israel. And de Soto and the UN wanted the Quartet wanted to open a “channel of dialogue” with Hamas. Like Abbas, they believed that Hamas’s decision to participate in elections indicated a willingness to lay aside their opposition to the peace process.

But despite having pushed for the election, Washington would not legitimate its results. In the wake of the election, the United States, together with Israel, pressed for the international community, including the U.N., to cut off aid to a Hamas government unless it agreed to recognize Israel, abide by previous treaties and renounce violence and terror. The Bush administration couldn’t get the U.N. to cut funding, but they did eventually convince the Quartet to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority. The U.S. also approved Israel’s decision to deny the Palestinians the tax revenues (through a VAT on their imports and exports) that they collected on their behalf. (Israel was now levying a tax on Palestinians for participating in the election.) And the U.S. repeatedly urged Abbas not to conciliate Hamas. Abbas didn’t dissolve the government, as the U.S. wished, but he restored the Arafat-era power of the Presidency over security, finance, and patronage. Abbas’s moves may have pleased Washington, but they were predictably provocative to Hamas and helped fuel armed clashes in Gaza.

Israel and the United States believed that by depriving the PA of the funds it needed to pay workers and dispense welfare, it could bring down the government. Abbas would call new elections and this time Fatah would win. But Israel and America’s strategy backfired. By denying the PA funds, it initially crippled Abbas and Fatah’s patronage base and security force. Hamas, meanwhile, whose sources of funding in the United States were drying up because of federal prosecution, turned to Iran for support, and Iran’s funding allowed Hamas to pay its fighters and to maintain its own system of clinics and schools. Hamas retained its political support, while Fatah continued to lose ground.

In November 2006, with civil war already breaking out in Gaza between Hamas and Fatah, Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, whom Bush had appointed the U.S. security coordinator for the Palestinians, met with Muhammed Dahlan, a Gazan who was Fatah’s security chieftain. According to Rose’s account in Vanity Fair, which draws upon notes taken during the meetings, Dayton urged Dahlan to “build up your forces in order to take on Hamas,” and promised $86.4 million in aid. Two months later, an administration spokesman reported, Bush instructed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to transfer “about $86.4 million in aid to help Palestinian security forces under President Mahmoud Abbas’s direct control … to help provide law and order in Gaza and the West Bank, fight terror, and to facilities movement and access especially in Gaza.” That announcement, combined with an announcement from Fatah that Dahlan would be financing a “security and protection force” in Gaza, further enflamed the conflict between Hamas and Fatah.

Congress balked at the $86.4 million grant—in part because some members didn’t want to send any military aid to the Palestinian Authority and in part because some thought the aid would end up in Hamas’s hands. Congress finally agreed to $59 million in non-lethal aid, but the Bush administration tried to get around Congress by seeking lethal aid from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. In December, Egypt had already begun sending military aid to Fatah in Gaza. That effort sparked a fierce debate among neo-conservatives, some of whom, like Wurmser, believed that the United States would end up provoking a Hamas takeover. Wurmser told me that he opposed the plan to arm Fatah in order to defeat Hamas. The administration, Wurmser said, “was engaged in an effort to help Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]a corrupt dictator—to stay in power.”

Abbas, alarmed by the growing violence in Gaza, had periodically urged a unity government. So did de Soto in Quartet meetings, but de Soto got no support from the United States. According to de Soto, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch, who, along with Abrams, were the point men for the U.S. policy, told him in January 2007, “I like this violence. It means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas.” But in February, the Saudis surprised the Quartet members by bringing Hamas and Fatah leaders to Mecca for unity talks that resulted in an agreement between the two sides establishing a new government. The government included prominent Fatah and Hamas officials as well as several academics and policy experts, including Salam Fayyad, who were not at that point aligned with either faction. The two sides agreed that Hamas would handle domestic matters and Fatah and the independent experts international affairs, including negotiations with Israel.

Abrams makes no mention of these concessions in his book, but they were widely reported at the time. As recounted in award-winning Australian journalist Paul McGeough’s history of Hamas, Hamas leader Khalid Mishal, who led the negotiations, reasserted Hamas’s opposition to the state of Israel, but agreed to abide by past treaties between the PLO and Israel, including the Oslo accords, and to support negotiations for a two-state solution. “Hamas is adopting a new political language,” he said afterwards. “The Mecca agreement is a new political language .. and honoring the agreements is a new language, because there is a national need and we must speak a language appropriate to the time.”

The U.S. and Israel, however, refused to deal with the new government, and according to Rose and McGeough, pressed ahead with its plans to force Hamas out of the government. Abbas was convinced to name Dahlan, whom Hamas saw as its enemy, as the new security chief in the cabinet. And the United States sought to develop a new “action plan” with Abbas and Fatah that would lead by the year’s end to Hamas’s removal. In the months after the Mecca agreement, fighting had abated in Gaza, but on April 30, the Jordanian newspaper Al-Mayd published a leaked 16-page draft of the action plan, which did not emphasize military means, but did include the need for a military buildup. The Jordanian government confiscated the issues before they got on the streets, but the text remained on Al-Mayd's website, and was widely disseminated.

Hamas interpreted the plan accurately as a conspiracy to block the Mecca agreement and to remove it from power. Then two weeks after the plan surfaced, new Egyptian trained and armed Fatah forces arrived in Gaza with Israel’s approval. The fighting in Gaza resumed. Then on June 7, Ha’aretz reported that Fatah officials in Gaza has “asked Israel to allow them to receive large shipments of arms and ammunition from Arab countries, including Egypt.” Ha’aretz also reported that Dahlan was organizing another paramilitary force in Gaza to fight Hamas. At this point, Hamas, who had already lost 250 fighters that year, took the final step and drove the Fatah forces out of Gaza and took control of its government. Wurmser told Rose, “It looks to me that what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen.” Wurmser, who left the Bush administration a month later, told me he still stands by this judgment.

On June 13, two days before Hamas took over, American Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones sent a cable recounting conversations he had at the time with Israeli Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin and Military-Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin. The cable, which Wikileaks released in 2010, confirms parts of the alternative narrative. Diskin told Jones that he opposed American proposals to supply weapons and ammunition to Fatah, because he feared that Hamas would get their hands on them. He also told Jones of Fatah’s request that Israel attack Hamas. “They are approaching a zero-sum situation, and yet they ask us to attack Hamas," Diskin told Jones. "This is a new development. We have never seen this before. They are desperate."

On the same day, Jones sent another cable describing a conversation he had the previous day with Military-Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin. The Israeli Defense Forces had earlier been eager to help Fatah against Hamas, but when Jones spoke to Yadlin on the eve of Hamas’s takeover, Yadlin said he was actually “happy” with the prospect that Hamas would gain control of Gaza. He thought that Israel could then treat Gaza as a “hostile territory.” And several weeks after Hamas’s takeover in Gaza and Abbas’s ouster of Hamas officials from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, Israel’s cabinet did declare Gaza a “hostile territory.” And in a 2010 article, Ha’aretz revealed that during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, Israel’s Defense Minister asked Fatah’s leadership whether it wanted to take back control of Gaza after Israel had ousted Hamas. That operation ended badly, of course, for Israel and its government.

If the alternative narrative to Abrams’ is plausible, and I believe it is, what are the lessons to be drawn? The first, and most obvious, is that the Bush administration was utterly incompetent at foreign policy. That clearly goes for Bush’s second as well as his first term. And in the case of its policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, it is not just Abrams and the White House that is to blame, but the State Department under Condoleezza Rice. Nothing they did—from urging elections on the Palestinian Authority to attempting to oust Hamas from the PA—achieved what they hoped. They were constantly being upended by events that they had not foreseen—from Hamas’s victory in January 2006 to the Saudi’s Mecca agreement in February 2007 to the Hamas takeover in June 2007.

The second, having to do with American policy toward Hamas, is more complicated and controversial. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration had good reason to try to isolate and sanction Hamas, which was using suicide bombers to undermine the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO. But by 2006, the situation had changed. Oslo was, to all intents and purposes, dead. Fatah and Abbas were unpopular, and in participating in the 2006 elections, and in occasional statements, Hamas had shown some willingness to let the PLO negotiate with the Israelis and to a long-term “hundna” or ceasefire with Israel. The Bush administration had at its disposal all kinds of circuitous means of dealing with Hamas without directly recognizing a an organization that the State Department had designated as “terrorist.” For one thing, as de Soto suggested, it could have acted through the Quartet.

Instead, the administration joined the Israelis in doing everything it could not only to isolate but to defeat and destroy Hamas, even though Hamas had won elections that the Bush administration had urged. At this point, the administration’s strategy recalled earlier failed attempts of American administration to deny the existence of regimes and movements of which it did not approve. By refusing to deal with, or attempting to destroy, movements or governments that have genuine popular support, and that were not at war with the United States, the United States has almost invariably strengthened those movements and governments, and in some cases, removed the possibility that they could have been brought around. There is no question that the American and Israeli strategy against Hamas strengthened that movement, deepened its support, and also hardened its ties to a country, Iran, that both the US and Israel see as hostile.

American or Israeli politicians who back the idea of a “greater Israel” that incorporates lands that the Jews inhabited several millennia ago might agree with Yadlin’s judgment that Hamas’s takeover in Gaza boded well for Israel. But it would be hard for anyone who backs a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to agree. Hamas remains a force in the West Bank as well as Gaza, and as Halevy and other prominent officials have contended, would eventually have to be brought into any viable peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. That should have been clear during Bush’s misadventure in his second term, but the lesson seems not to have been learned.

While Obama sought initially to press Israel to conclude an agreement with the Palestinians, he continued to harbor the illusion that it could be done while pretending that Hamas does not exist. Obama also followed the Bush administration in rejecting the idea of a unity government between Hamas and Fatah when the two parties again agreed to reconcile early last year. The agreement fell apart—and not least because of an absence of American support. Will Obama change course in his second term and attempt to deal with Hamas and Fatah? In Obama’s State of the Union address, he managed to mention Israel’s security, but not the peace process or the Palestinians. Evidently, the administration is now denying the existence not only of Hamas, but of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. That suggests that the lessons of Bush’s disaster in Gaza have still not sunk in.