Gaza Pitfalls in Every Path
Published: March 3, 2008
WASHINGTON — Ever since the militant Islamist organization Hamas took over Gaza eight months ago, President Bush’s peace plan for the Middle East has been to prop up the more moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in the hopes that Palestinians would rally behind him as man who could bring them statehood and make Hamas irrelevant.
But Israel’s military and economic pressure on Gaza, the menacing rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and the ensuing chaos that reached new heights this weekend have highlighted a fundamental tangle in that plan: As long as Hamas controls Gaza, it can subvert negotiations between Israelis and moderate Palestinians whenever it sees fit.
As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads to the region on Monday, a trip planned for weeks, she is confronting very few options in achieving President Bush’s stated goal of peace between Israel and a new Palestinian state that includes both the West Bank, where Mr. Abbas’s government sits, and Gaza.
“She’s walking into a buzz saw,” said Aaron David Miller, author of “The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.” “You cannot make peace with half of the Palestinian polity and go to war with the other half.”
On Sunday, as violence spilled over from Gaza into the West Bank, a spokesman for Mr. Abbas said talks with Israel had been suspended.
In many ways, the latest crisis, in which Israeli aircraft and troops have attacked Palestinian positions in northern Gaza after long-range rockets from Gaza hit the large Israeli city of Ashkelon, looks like the Lebanon war of July 2006, when Israel bombed Hezbollah targets in Lebanon.
The Israelis are also facing criticism similar to that made during the Lebanon war — that their response has been disproportionate and killed many civilians, including children. And just as Israel faced tough decisions on Lebanon, the United States finds itself with dwindling choices, none considered attractive.
Ms. Rice could encourage Israel to increase the strikes against Hamas in the hopes of destroying its leadership in Gaza. But Israel tried that with Hezbollah in Lebanon and failed, leaving Hezbollah leaders to assert when the war was over that they had stood up to Israel.
Even if Israel did go all out to defeat Hamas in Gaza, the problem of what comes after would remain. For instance, would Israeli forces stay in Gaza, or would they be replaced by an international force from the already stretched NATO or the United Nations?
Ms. Rice’s other alternative — encouraging Israel to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas — has pitfalls, Middle East experts say, because that would further legitimize Hamas, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization. Martin Indyk, the former United States ambassador to Israel, said such a cease-fire would further undermine Mr. Abbas and make it look like Hamas is the entity with which Israel and the West should be negotiating.
“Excluding them doesn’t work, and including them doesn’t work, either,” Mr. Indyk said. “So what do you do? This is a situation that does not lend itself to a sensible policy.”
With the rocket attacks on Israel, Hamas has demonstrated power to threaten peace talks simply by inciting a strong Israeli response and making it impossible for Mr. Abbas to sit by and do nothing. On Sunday, the day after Israeli aircraft and troops attacked Gaza, resulting in the biggest one-day death toll in more than a year, Mr. Abbas announced that he was suspending the peace negotiations in protest.
Mr. Abbas’s options, too, are limited, Palestinian experts say, given that the peace negotiation with Israel is his main selling point for his claim that he is the only one who can bring the Palestinians a deal with Israel.
A senior Bush administration figure acknowledged on Sunday that Ms. Rice “is playing a really bad hand.” So far, the Bush administration is adhering to a position very similar to the one it used during the Lebanon war.
As with Hezbollah, Ms. Rice is standing behind Israel’s right to defend itself. Gordon D. Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said late Saturday that the United States wanted to see “an end to violence and all acts of terrorism directed against innocent civilians.” But, he noted, “there is a clear distinction between terrorist rocket attacks that target civilians and action in self defense.”
As with the Lebanon war, Ms. Rice is, at the same time, trying to prop up a besieged “moderate” leader — this time, Mr. Abbas instead of the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora. But — just as with Hezbollah — she cannot stop the rocket attacks onto Israel from Gaza because the United States does not talk to Hamas.
“This is beyond her capacity, and beyond even the capacity of a secretary of state like Kissinger or Baker,” said Mr. Miller, who served as a Middle East negotiator for the last three presidents. “This is rooted in a fundamental problem that we haven’t acknowledged: Israel cannot make peace with a divided Palestine.”
Even within Israel, many experts are echoing that view. A few weeks ago, Hamas claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in the Negev desert town of Dimona, the first such attack in more than a year. Shlomo Brom, a retired general at the Institute for National Security Studies, said the bombing was meant “to send a clear message” to Mr. Abbas, Israel and the United States that there will be no normalization of life without Hamas.
Mr. Brom advocates dialogue with Hamas. But the United States and Israel have refused to deal with Hamas leaders unless the organization forswears violence and acknowledges Israel’s right to exist.
So Ms. Rice will try to press surrogates, including Egypt, to lean on Hamas, administration officials say. And she will sharply criticize rocket attacks on civilian Israeli targets, and publicly charge Hamas with hiding behind civilians in Gaza. She will meet with Mr. Abbas and the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, in the West Bank, and with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni.
Ali Abunimah, a research fellow at the Palestine Center, a Washington-based advocacy group, derided the American strategy of ignoring Hamas: “You can’t talk to them. You can’t deal with them. You just cover your ears, close your eyes and pretend they don’t exist.”
Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.