Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Glimmer Of Hope At Annapolis?


I'm not sure I agree with this article, but I present it for consideration:


U.S. President George W. Bush will host a meeting Nov. 27 between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Annapolis, Md. This is fairly banal news, as the gathering seems intended to give the impression that the United States cares what happens between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The last such meeting, the Camp David summit between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, sponsored by then-President Bill Clinton, was followed by massive violence. Therefore, the most we have learned to hope for from such meetings is nothing. This one will either be meaningless or catastrophic.

There is an interesting twist to this meeting, however. The Arab League voted to encourage Arab foreign ministers to attend. The Saudis have announced they will be present, along with the Egyptians and Jordanians who were expected there. Even the Syrians said they will attend, as long as the future of the Golan Heights is on the table. We would expect the Israelis to agree to that demand because, with more bilateral issues on the table, less time will need to be devoted to Palestinian issues. And that might suit many of the Arab states that are ambivalent, to say the least, about the Palestinians.

We have written of the complex relations between the Palestinians and the Arabs, although the current situation is even more complex. Abbas is from the Palestinian group Fatah, Arafat's political vehicle. Fatah was historically a secular, socialist group with close ties to Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt and the Soviet Union. It also was regarded as a threat to the survival of the Arab monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. When Syria invaded Lebanon in 1975, it was not to fight the Israelis or the Lebanese Christians, but to drive out Fatah. Given this history, it is ironic that the Arab League has decided to sanction attendance at the Annapolis Conference. The Saudis and the Syrians are particularly hostile to Fatah, while the Jordanians and the Egyptians have their own problems with the group.

Behind this strange move are the complexities of Palestinian politics. As PNA president, Abbas is charged with upholding its charter and executing PNA foreign policy. But another group, Hamas, won the last parliamentary elections and therefore controlled the selection of the prime minister. Such splits are not uncommon in political systems in which there is a strong president and a parliamentary system, as in France.

But in this case the split ripped the Palestinians apart. The problem was not simply institutional, but geographic. The Palestinian territories are divided into two very different parts -- the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The former was dominated by Jordan between 1948 and 1967, the latter by Egypt. They have very different social and economic outlooks and political perspectives. In June, Hamas rose up and took control of Gaza, while Abbas and Fatah retained control of the PNA and the West Bank.

This created an historic transformation. Palestinian nationalism in the context of Israel can be divided into three eras. In the first era, 1948-1967, Palestinian nationalism was a subset of Arab nationalism. Palestine was claimed in whole or in part by Egypt, Jordan and Syria. In the second era, 1967 to mid-2007, Palestinian nationalism came into its own, with an identity and territorial demands distinct from other Arab powers. An umbrella organization, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), consisting of diverse and frequently divided Palestinian movements, presided over the Palestinian national cause, and eventually evolved into the Palestinian National Authority.

Recently, however, a dramatic shift has taken place. This was not simply the Hamas victory in the January 2006 elections, although the emergence of an Islamist movement among the Palestinians represented a substantial shift among a people who were historically secularist. It was not even the fact that by 2007 Hamas stood in general opposition to the tradition of the PLO, meaning not only Fatah but other Palestinian secular groups. The redefinition of the Palestinian issue into one between Islamists and secularists had been going on for a while.

Rather, it was the rising in Gaza that dramatically redefined the Palestinians by creating two Palestinian entities, geographically distinct and profoundly different in outlook and needs. The idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, divided by Israel, was reminiscent of Pakistan in its first quarter-century of existence -- when what is today Pakistan and Bangladesh, divided by India's thousands of miles, were treated as one country. It was a reach.

Suddenly in June, a new reality emerged. Whatever the Palestinian charter said, whatever the U.N. resolutions said, whatever anyone said, there were now two Palestinian entities -- "states" is a good word for them, though it upsets everyone, including the Palestinians. Hamas controlled Gaza and Fatah controlled the West Bank, although neither saw this situation as final. The PNA constantly threatened to reassert itself in Gaza, while Hamas threatened to extend its revolution to the West Bank. Either might happen, but for now, the Palestinians have split along geopolitical lines.

From Israel's point of view, this situation poses both a problem and an opportunity. The problem is that Hamas, more charismatic than the tired Fatah, opposes any settlement with Israel that accepts the Jewish state's existence. The opportunity is, of course, that the Palestinians are now split and that Hamas controls the much poorer and weaker area of Gaza. If Hamas can be kept from taking control of the West Bank, and if Fatah is unable to reassert its control in Gaza, the Israelis face an enemy that not only is weakened, but also is engaged in a long-term civil war that will weaken it further.

To bring this about, it is clear what Israel's goal should be at Annapolis. That is, to do everything it can to strengthen the position of Abbas, Fatah and the PNA. It is ironic, of course, that Israel should now view Fatah as an asset that needs to be strengthened, but history is filled with such ironies. Israel's goal at Annapolis is to cede as much as possible to Abbas, both territorially and economically, to intensify the split in the Palestinian community and try to strengthen the hand of the secularists. Israel, however, has two problems.

First, Israeli politics is in gridlock. Olmert remains as prime minister even after the disaster in Lebanon in 2006, because no real successor has emerged. The operant concept of the Israelis is that the Palestinians are unstable and unpredictable. Any territorial concession made to the Palestinians -- regardless of current interest or ideology -- could ultimately be used against Israel. So, creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank would turn what is a good idea now into a geopolitical disaster later, should Abbas be succeeded by some of the more radical members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade -- a group that carried out suicide bombings during the intifada. Israel's obsession with the unpredictability of the Palestinians and its belief in territorial buffers cannot be overcome by a weak government. Thirty years ago, it took Menachem Begin, heading a strong government from the right, to make peace with the Egyptians.

At the same time, the Israelis are terrified at the idea that Hamas will topple Fatah and take control of the Palestinian community as a whole. As Olmert was quoted as saying Nov. 23, "We cannot maintain the status quo between us and the Palestinians ... it will lead to results that are much worse that those of a failed conference. It will result in Hamas taking over Judea and Samaria, to a weakening or even the disappearance of the moderate Palestinians. Unless a political horizon can be found, the results will be deadly." Olmert clearly understands the stakes, but with Benjamin Netanyahu to his right, it is unclear whether he has the political weight to act on his perception.

For Olmert to make the kind of concessions that are needed in order to take advantage of the geopolitical situation, he needs one thing: guarantees and controls over the evolution of Hamas. We have seen Fatah go from what the Israelis consider the devil incarnate to a moderating force. Things change. If Hamas can be brought into the political process -- and the split between Gaza and the West Bank maintained -- Israel will be in a superb position. But who can moderate Hamas, and why would Hamas moderate?

Enter the Saudis. The Arab League resolution gave them cover for attending the Annapolis talks -- which is the reason they engineered it. And the Saudis are the one force that has serious leverage with Hamas, because they underwrite much of Hamas' operations. Hamas is a Sunni Islamist group and as such has a sympathetic audience in Riyadh. Indeed, in many ways, Hamas is the Saudi answer to the secular Fatah. Therefore, if anyone can ultimately deliver Hamas, it would be the Saudis. But why would they?

On the surface, the Saudis should celebrate a radical, Islamist Palestinian movement, and on the surface they do. But they have become extremely wary of radical Islamism. Al Qaeda had a great deal of sympathy in the kingdom, but the evolution of events in the Islamic world since 9/11 is far from what the Saudis wanted to see. Islamist movements have created chaos from Pakistan to Lebanon, and this has created opportunities for a dangerous growth in Shiite power, not to mention that it has introduced U.S. forces into the region in the most destabilizing way possible.

At the end of the day, the Saudis and the other royal families in the Persian Gulf are profoundly conservative. They are wealthy -- and become wildly wealthier every day, what with oil at more than $90 a barrel -- and they have experienced dangerous instability inside the kingdom from al Qaeda and other radical Islamist movements. The Saudis have learned how difficult it is for the state to manage radical Islamism, and the way in which moral (and other) support for radicals can destabilize not only the region, but Saudi Arabia as well. Support in parts of the royal family for radical Islamist movements seems dicier to everyone now. These are movements that are difficult to control.

Most important, these are movements that fail. Persistently, these radical movements have not taken control of states and moved them in directions that align with Saudi interests. Rather, these movements have destabilized states, creating vacuums into which other movements can enter. The rise of Iranian power is particularly disturbing to the Saudis, though so is the persistent presence of U.S. forces. A general calming of the situation is now in the Saudi interest.

That means that the Saudi view of Hamas is somewhat different today than it was 10 years ago, when Riyadh was encouraging the group. A civil war among the Palestinians would achieve nothing. Nor, from the Saudi perspective, would another intifada, which would give the Americans more reason to act aggressively in the region. The Saudis have moved closer to the Americans and do not want them to withdraw from Iraq, for example, though they do wish the Americans would be less noisy. A Hamas grab for power in the West Bank is not something the Saudis want to see now.

Simply by participating in the Annapolis conference, the Saudis have signaled Hamas that they want a change of direction -- although Hamas will resist. "The period that will follow the Annapolis conference will witness an increase of the resistance against the Zionist occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," said Mussa Abu Marzuq, top aide to Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. Perhaps, but a confrontation with the Saudis is not something that Hamas can afford now or in the future.

The Saudis want to stabilize the situation without destroying Hamas (which is very different from al Qaeda, given that it stems from the Muslim Brotherhood tradition). The Israelis want to maintain the split between Hamas and Fatah and limit Hamas' power without eliminating it -- they like Fatah looking toward the Israelis for protection. Fatah badly needs to deliver concessions from Israel to strengthen its hand. The Americans can use a success and a change of atmospherics in the region.

Here is the delicate balance: Abbas has to receive more than he gives. Otherwise his credibility is shot. The Israelis find it difficult to make concessions, particularly disproportionate ones, with a weak government. But there are different kinds of strengths. Begin could make disproportionate concessions to the Egyptians because of his decisive political strength. Olmert is powerful only by default, though that is a kind of power.

It is interesting to think of how Ariel Sharon would have handled this situation. In a way he created it. By insisting that Israel withdraw from Gaza, he set in motion the split in the Palestinian community and the current dynamic. Had he not had his stroke, he would have tried to make Annapolis as defining a moment as the Begin-Sadat summit. It would be a risky move, but it should be recalled that few besides Begin believed that the Camp David Accords on the Sinai would have lasted 30 years. But that is merely editorializing. The facts on the ground indicate an opportunity to redefine the politics of the region. There are many factors lining up for it, the concessions Olmert would need to make in order to box Hamas in might simply be beyond his ability.

So long as no one mentions the status of Jerusalem, which blew up the Camp David meetings under Clinton, there is, nevertheless, a chance here -- one we take more seriously than others.