Palestinian Crisis

Palestinian Crisis

The ongoing crisis among the Palestinians presents no good or easy options for U.S. Policy, but we will still have to make choices.

What Now? by Nikolas K. Gvosdev

The United States is faced with a series of unpleasant alternatives as Hamas completes its takeover of the Gaza strip and puts the remnants of Fatah to flight.

Leaving Hamas in control of this territory-including control of the border crossings with Egypt-raises the stakes that the enclave could indeed become a miniature Taliban-style refuge for terrorists along the Mediterranean, burrowing into the slums and city blocks and with a lifeline for supplies and support to be channeled from Iran and Syria. (And with oil prices staying high, Iran continues to have enough disposable income to be generous in its funding.)

Moreover, as Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (and a contributing editor to The National Interest), observed today, Tehran benefits from the continuing disorder among the Palestinians, and this gives Iran the ability to extend its influence and to demonstrate its indispensability in the region as other states may have to turn to Iran to "help mediate yet another civil war."

A large scale military incursion to try and root Hamas out is probably too costly for Israel to contemplate in terms of blood, especially given what happened in Lebanon last summer. The United States is certainly in no position to engage in any sort of military operation.

Does the United States then decide to arm and equip Fatah in order to have them retake control of the strip and essentially impose dictatorial rule (perhaps then with large amounts of economic assistance to undercut the Hamas-led welfare network, to win the population's hearts and minds?

Or should we simply sit and wait? Firas Maksad, a Middle East and Africa analyst at the Eurasia Group consultancy, noted today, "Although counterintuitive, Hamas's victory is unlikely to result in greater number of attacks on Israel. The militant group will probably want to avoid provocations that would further complicate its efforts in Gaza and make its leaders more vulnerable to Israeli assassination. Further more it understands that Gaza will remain dependent on Israel for most of its basic services including water, electricity and the import of food supplies."

Another question is whether it is in U.S. interests to take recent developments and use them as a springboard to essentially terminating support for a single Palestinian state encompassing the West Bank and Gaza in favor of different Palestinian "regions"? Will some Palestinians decide that they no longer want to pay the economic price of continuing to be affected by what Hamas (or even Fatah) does?

Ian Bremmer, Eurasia Group president (and a contributing editor to The National Interest), argued in today's International Herald Tribune about reviving the idea of a confederal state between Jordan and the West Bank-citing a recent poll showing nearly a third of Palestinians now support such an option. He further noted that "former Prime Minister Abdel Salam Al Majali now argues that confederation would solve one of the kingdom's most pressing internal problems: A majority of Jordanians are of Palestinian descent, a fact that often draws Jordan into the maelstrom of Palestinian politics." For such an option to work, though, the United States and the West would have to be prepared to be very generous, because the  kingdom is already burdened by a million refugees from Iraq.

For a U.S. administration burdened and distracted by Iraq, and not seemingly prepared for the possibility of a train wreck in the Balkans as a result of Kosovo, it may be unlikely that there could be a rapid and creative response that would also require a new, major and sustained American commitment elsewhere in the Middle East. But creative thinking is what is required if this crisis is to be dealt with.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.

On Their Own Merits by Justine A. Rosenthal

Well, here's what happens when you undermine an elected government and the people's will. The Palestinian leadership has been stymied and ineffectual for months. Fatah and Hamas have been at one another's throats. Finally, Hamas threw down the gauntlet, rebelled and broke ranks with the three-month-old unity government, taking over Gaza by force. They've secured their hold, looted Fatah buildings, and sent the opposing militia running to Egypt-all clear victories. How long-lived these triumphs are, however, is another matter altogether. The forecast looks bleak, but that may be premature. Rather, we may be getting a second chance to see if Hamas will self-destruct.

Right after the elections that should have brought Hamas to power, there was good argument to be made that left to their own devices, Hamas would neither be able to govern nor to keep the support of the people. Arguably, Hamas was voted in not for what they were, but for what they were not. They were not the corrupt old guard that provided Palestinians little in the way of economic opportunity, education and basic social services, while feeding their coffers at the people's expense. But as rulers, no longer would Hamas be able to come swooping in angelic, providing when and where the government failed. Rather, they would have to be consistent and be true to the populist vision that brought them power. It's one thing to provide social services while on the fringes of functioning society, quite another to rule day in and day out. Quite likely, having had no real governing experience, Hamas would have floundered. And the likely push to enact Islamic law may well have alienated the more secular majority of Palestinians. We never had the chance to see that happen.

Now that Hamas has some independent control of Gaza, Israel wants to seal it off to stem the bloodletting. The Israelis (and potentially the United States) also see this as a moment of pure opportunity. The Palestinian government has been at a standstill since the elections as foreign aid and Israeli taxes have been held at bay because Hamas refused to recognize Israel's right to exist. Israel now looks to be proposing to give all this money to Fatah, who will, in principle, be able to save the day in the West Bank and solidify their hold on power there while Hamas struggles penniless but well-armed in Gaza.

In Israel's wildest dreams, Fatah proves itself to be the only party capable of rule and the Palestinians rush to their side. This is doubtful. But if we have learned anything from our failures, it is that Hamas will succeed or fail only on its own merits. No matter how little Hamas is given, no matter how much opposition from the West, Hamas has survived. Until we allow the space for Hamas to stand (or fall) on its own, we may well squander our only chance at dislodging the extremist elements of the party from power.

Justine A. Rosenthal is executive editor of The National Interest.