Friday, January 16, 2009

Gaza War Week 3 continued -- closer to the endgame?

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FRIDAY - Fatah and Abbas to the rescue?

In the rosiest of rosy scenarios, one purportedly championed by Egypt though not necessarily by Israel, Operation Cast Lead ends with Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority restored to power in Gaza. A multi-billion-dollar internationally-financed reconstruction effort gets under way, administered to great acclaim by Fatah. At the Rafah crossing, meanwhile, the 2005 agreement that put Abbas's Force 17 in charge of security would be resurrected, returning international monitors and Israeli cameras to scrutinize comings and goings.

A battered Hamas would, the optimists have it, accept the prolongation of Abbas's presidency (his term expired last week) and a junior role in a Fatah-led government of national reconciliation. This turnabout would reverse Hamas's June 2007 coup in Gaza and undo the diplomatic damage to Palestinian aspirations for international legitimacy caused by the Islamists' January 2006 electoral victory. Fatah would gain a new lease on life.

It would solve so many problems for Israelis, moderate Arabs and the West, if Fatah were truly capable of rebuilding Gaza, conscientiously governing its denizens and policing its borders.

But those who place their hopes in the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority are, regrettably,in for a let-down.

Why? Because 100 years of Palestinian Arab history shows that Palestinians reward extremism and punish moderation; because Fatah remains crooked; and because, as its own activists acknowledge, they are simply not up to the task of governing Gaza.

Writing in The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, Rashid Khalidi bemoans the fact that though Fatah was formed in the 1950s, the PLO in the 1960s, and the PA in the 1990s; though its leadership was already running a mammoth bureaucracy by the 1970s and a quasi-state in Lebanon until 1982, "the PLO had done precious little to prepare for independent statehood."

Khalidi, predictably, claims it was mostly Israel's fault. "Nevertheless," he writes, "there was much that [the PLO] could have done in spite of these crippling disabilities that they did not do. Notably, when they established the PA they failed to create a solid framework for the rule of law, a constitutional system, a balance of powers, and many of the other building blocks of a modern state to organize the governance of the 3.6 million Palestinians whose welfare they were now responsible for."

SOME Westerners delude themselves into believing they know why support for Hamas appears to have grown despite the fact that since it kidnapped Gilad Schalit in June 2006, the Islamists' self-destructive behavior has paid dividends mostly in Palestinian blood, suffering and mayhem. They attribute Hamas's ascendancy and Fatah's decline to the current fighting, or to settlements, or to the "occupation" pushing ordinary Palestinians ever deeper into Hamas's embrace.

It is more accurate, however, to sadly acknowledge that Hamas's worldview better reflects the extremism, rejectionism and self-destructive tendencies that embody the ethos of the Palestinian polity. Fatah's perceived drift toward moderation, combined with its corruption, have made it increasingly irrelevant to many Palestinians.

Since the start of the Zionist enterprise, Arab fanatics have been at war not only with our national liberation movement, but, simultaneously, with any internal voice advocating Arab-Jewish coexistence. Those who acquiesce in any semblance of Jewish rights are habitually labeled "collaborators."

Though Fatah denounces Israel's battle with Hamas in the most venomous terms, the West Bank masses are said to be fuming that Fatah won't let them confront Israel directly. "This will irreparably damage its standing in the eyes of Palestinians…" an Arab expert told The Christian Science Monitor.

In other words, many ordinary Palestinians want Fatah to again lead them into another violent uprising - despite the devastation a third intifada would bring down on them. Never mind that the standard of living in the West Bank is better than it has been in years.

So the problem is not just a PA demonstrably incapable of reforming itself, or a politically toxic Hamas; it is, more fundamentally, much of the Palestinian political culture.

Those who want to create a Palestinian state living peaceably with Israel could, then, reasonably conclude that what Palestinians need foremost is some kind of trusteeship to help them create a civil society, accountable institutions, transparent government... and the tools necessary for political socialization toward tolerance.

Until that happens, talk about creating a Palestinian state is...just talk.

THURSDAY - Remember the mission

Somewhere in a cave along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, a gaunt man who hasn't seen much sun for seven long years has been watching Al-Jazeera's coverage of Operation Cast Lead. Perhaps he's telling himself that the 20 days Hamas commanders have been hunkered down in the sub-basement of Gaza's Shifa hospital is nothing compared to the ordeal he's been through.

Still, Osama bin Laden wants to do the "Islamist thing." So he's called - again - for a holy war against the Jews. Such a Sunni jihad offers the added delight of irking the detested Shi'ite "heretics" in Iran. Didn't Ayatollah Ali Khamenei invite young Persian men to volunteer for suicide missions in Gaza - only to snatch back the offer after 70,000 actually signed up?

Time may be running out for a holy war to save Hamas. Its leaders from both Damascus and Gaza - who cross overland at Rafah - have been dialoguing with each other, and with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman in Cairo, on a cease-fire. Hamas "inside" is said to be pushing hard to bring the fighting to an end; Hamas "outside" appears, belatedly, to be coming around.

The toing and froing is not limited to Hamas's functionaries. Our own Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, travels to Cairo today. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spent Wednesday there and is heading to Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton began her Senate confirmation hearings by declaring that she will make the Arab-Israel conflict a priority. On Sunday, the Arab League is scheduled to meet in Kuwait to discuss the Gaza crisis. And the UN General Assembly wants to hold a session to condemn Israel - something it hasn't done in two months.

Here in Israel, Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni have resumed their sniping. Supposedly, Barak has recommended a one-week humanitarian cease-fire; Olmert wants to push on; and Livni wants to act unilaterally once the IDF has done its (undefined) work.

All this plays out as the world waits for Barack Obama to assume the US presidency on Tuesday.

WITH ALL this going on, it is essential that Israel not lose sight of the minimum it should be getting before Operation Cast Lead ends.

• The smuggling must stop. Hamas's access to armaments must be choked off. Any deal between Israel and Egypt on the tunnels beneath the Philadelphi Corridor must not encumber the IDF's freedom to operate when necessary. Once Egypt fulfills its commitments, IDF activity can be wound down.

• There must be an end to shooting at Israel, and to infiltration attempts. The cease-fire must have no time-limit. And it must be honored not just by Hamas's Izzadin Kassam, but also by Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees, the PFLP, the DFLP and Fatah's Aksa Martyrs Brigades. All violations will meet with immediate and "disproportionate" retaliation.

• Hamas must become more reasonable on the Gilad Schalit issue; until it does, Hamas "military" figures will enjoy no repose.

• Regardless of who runs Gaza, Egypt must keep tight control of its side of the Rafah border. When it comes to entry and egress, the buck stops with Cairo.

• There can be absolutely no Turkish or other foreign troops on the Palestinian side of the border. Such a presence would hamper any necessary IDF activity. The foreigners can operate on the Egyptian side, if Cairo desires.

If Israel's fundamental needs are met, how the Palestinians choose to govern themselves in Gaza is their own affair.

Israel, for its part, will open crossing points to everything excepting materiel that can be used for military purposes. The embargo, for all intents and purposes, would be over.

ON DAY 1 of this war, Ehud Barak declared that its mission was to put an end to Hamas aggression. Nothing short of achieving this goal should bring Israel's efforts to a permanent halt.

No deal is better than a bad deal. If Hamas insists on fighting on, Israeli decision-makers will need to weigh when and how to mobilize our society for the prolonged, all-out assault needed to uproot the Islamist menace.

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