Monthly Archives: December 2012

Palestinian cause redefined as Hamas spins Pyrrhic victories

A lack of clarity is typically a defining feature of political relations. But among Palestinians at the moment, this has become amplified to an unusual degree given the extraordinary number of variables in play, and the regional developments that will affect the outcome. The defining characteristic of the present Palestinian political scene is its opacity. No one knows exactly what is going to happen next, who will do what, what effect it will have, or where the thrust of events is moving.


Every key player now faces crucial choices that will determine their strategic and tactical posture for some time. The overall thrust of recent trends, without question, has been a rise in the political fortunes of Hamas at the expense of the Ramallah-based leadership: the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian Authority.


However, even Hamas’s limited gains may prove Pyrrhic. Over 175 Palestinian deaths in the recent conflict aside, longer-term realities are starting to bite in Gaza. The damage to the infrastructure and the economy of the fragile, overpopulated area is significant. And the reported easing of the blockade, on both the Egyptian and Israeli sides, does not appear to be either tangible or sustained.


Yet ongoing intoxication at the quixotic “victory” over Israel is politically significant. Palestinians have been starved for anything that resembles proactive agency. They know lobbing rockets in the general direction of not only southern Israel, but now also Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, is almost entirely symbolic. Any damage done is random, unlike Israel’s relatively precise and highly damaging attacks. Yet Hamas has been able to spin the confrontation as some kind of open-ended “victory”.


At a recent gathering in Washington, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad stated with impressive clarity, precision and unusual honesty for a political leader, that recent events constituted a “doctrinal defeat” for the Ramallah leadership.


Recent months have, time and again, delivered serious blows to the doctrines that underlie the PA and PLO strategies: state and institution building on the ground, combined with diplomatic activities at the bilateral and multilateral efforts designed to achieve statehood for the Palestinians.


The “doctrinal defeats” Mr Fayyad was referring to are not decisive. They are merely a trend, but a profoundly dangerous one that must be countered if the Palestinian national movement is to retain practical and international viability. And Hamas has significant problems of its own, both internally and with regard to its new regional sponsors.


But Mr Fayyad’s point was clear: by kidnapping an Israeli soldier, Hamas was able to engineer the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. By “pressing a few buttons,” as he put it, and launching projectiles in the general direction of Israel, Hamas was able to gain regional and international attention. The Emir of Qatar visited Gaza, as did the prime minister of Egypt and the foreign ministers of Tunisia and Turkey. Hamas, through its aggressive tactics, was able to score clear political and diplomatic points regionally and, especially, domestically.


The outcome, however, very much remains to be determined. Israel says it is withholding Palestinian tax revenues until at least March. Arab states have pledged $100 million (Dh367 million) to the PA monthly. But the PA needs $250 million every month to meet payroll and other basic expenditure commitments. Even the pledged Arab commitments, if met, wouldn’t satisfy the PA’s requirements if Israel continues to withhold tax revenues. Such a devastating shortfall can only further undermine the credibility and viability of the PA.


Palestinian national unity is going to happen one way or the other. A permanent political split between Gaza and the West Bank is extremely unlikely, given the strength of the Palestinian national identity. One vision will win out, and one approach will dominate, most probably through the future make-up and policies of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.


Which vision will prevail depends almost as much on other actors as on the Palestinians themselves. This is not to say that Palestinians lack agency. But there is a very powerful set of incentives that can push them in either direction.


Palestinians by every poll and every survey, like Israelis, want a two-state solution. But, like the Israelis, they do not believe in the other side’s sincerity, and they do not believe it will happen. As long as this is the case, quixotic militarism and maximalist demands by Hamas and other militant groups will reap domestic political dividends.


Palestinian national unity is necessary for both peace and Palestinian political coherence. The question is, on whose terms will it be? The vision of PLO diplomacy and institution building on the ground in the West Bank led by Mr Fayyad? Or the rejectionism, maximalism and “armed struggle”, articulated by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in his recent “victory” speech in Gaza.


Square peg meets round hole. One of them will have to reshape itself to conform with the contours of the other. Either the Palestinian national movement will continue to seek an independent state through negotiations and by building the national institutions on the ground. Or it will be defined by an open-ended “armed struggle” against Israel under an Islamist banner.


This is not simply a Palestinian choice. Israel, above all, but also the United States, the European Union, and other international actors, will have a major role to play in influencing which of these two visions predominates in the Palestinian national movement in the years to come. Regional and international incentives will be a major, if not a decisive factor, in the outcome.


The broad outlines are clear. But with so much uncertainty and instability, and so many key factors in motion, the political challenges and immediate choices facing all Palestinian political actors are unusually opaque and exceptionally significant.

Could the West buy Assad’s Plan B?

As the Syrian conflict reaches its crucial turning point, with the defeat of the government in the country’s major cities now virtually inevitable, the war has almost completely descended into the gruesome logic of tit-for-tat atrocities.

The war has divided Syrian society along sectarian and political lines simultaneously. All sides seem convinced they are in such mortal, existential peril that almost nothing is off-limits.

Government forces have been committing massacre after massacre, including, apparently, residents of a “disloyal” Alawite village. International fecklessness has, predictably and inevitably, led to the rise in the opposition of extreme “Jihadists,” who have brought their own brand of inimitable brutality with them from their last stomping grounds in Iraq.

The video of a young child apparently being tutored in the art of beheading captured “enemies” in the self-styled Salafist-Jihadist manner only demonstrates the extent to which the situation in Syria has deteriorated. At this stage, is mass communal “cleansing” of key areas really still simply a remote possibility?

This is the way the regime wanted to shape the battle from the very start. When, at the outset, they faced nonviolent protests, the Damascus propaganda machine immediately invented a fiction, fully intended to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: The infiltration of al-Qaeda-style terrorists into Syria and a mortal threat to sectarian minorities.

The government was determined that this must be a sectarian war, even though some of its core Alawite constituents have resisted and rejected that narrative.

But almost everything has helped the Assad regime make its once fictional scenario into a terrifying reality. The Salafist-Jihadist element of the armed Syrian opposition is numerically small but hyper-empowered by its extensive support network, while more moderate factions have been inexcusably neglected by the West.

The latest to be drawn into the gruesome logic of massacre are the typically forsaken Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk camp in Damascus. At least 25 Palestinians sheltering in a mosque were killed by regime military bombardment.

It’s reported that at least half of the population of the camp, which is where most of the Palestinian refugees in Syria lived, have fled, many to Lebanon. The villainous Ahmad Jibril—head of the so-called Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a small but notorious movement for the Assad regime—has also left.

It’s instructive that Jibril has reportedly fled to Tartous, a strategic port city that houses a major Russian military base in the coastal Alawite stronghold area.

Prospects of a last-ditch effort by the regime and its constituency to create an ethnic enclave in the Alawite mountain villages, connected to the outside world through the Tartous port and Latakia—the site of an airport that has been turned into a military base with Iranian support—have been transformed from remote to much more plausible.

There’s almost no chance the regime of Bashar al-Assad can survive, as even its Russian sponsors are beginning to publicly admit. The de facto resurrection of some version of the Alawite mini-state of the 1920s and 30s seemed a deeply implausible option at the outset of the conflict. But as the government has enforced the logic of sectarian and communal massacre, atrocities and fanaticism, prospects for such an outcome are no longer so far-fetched.

If such an arrangement could preserve Russia’s military base in Tartous and other interests, it could well get Moscow’s support. If the Syrian conflict continues to degenerate into ever-deeper bestiality, the idea might even be sold to the West as the only way to avoid Balkan-style communal slaughter and save the Alawite community from revenge massacres.

However, there is still a Sunni majority in Latakia, which would surely be the de facto capital of such a mini-state. This demographic reality was one of the key reasons why, unlike Lebanon, the Alawite mini-state wasn’t able to achieve independence under the French mandate, and was reincorporated into Syria in the 1930s.

This means that if the current Alawite power structure does resort to trying to impose such a Plan B, it will almost certainly involve significant atrocities and communal cleansing, particularly in Latakia and its surroundings.

There are precedents for the West, including the United States, turning a blind eye to such actions if they are quick, and perceived as decisive measures that are considered the only way of avoiding continued conflict and massacres. The West ignored what was possibly the largest single act of ethnic cleansing during the Yugoslav War: the systematic displacement of virtually the entire Serbian population of Krajina over a few days in August, 1995.

Nothing the international community has done thus far during the Syrian conflict suggests it is inconceivable it might react to a mass displacement of Sunnis from an Alawite enclave with anything more than a similar shrugging of shoulders, shaking of heads and clucking of tongues.

Morsi giveth and taketh away

Morsi giveth, and Morsi taketh away; blessed be the name of the Morsi.”
With extravagant exercises in bait and switch over the past few weeks, Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi has demonstrated a crude but effective technique of political manipulation.

There is no subtlety at work here at all. In the great poker game of post-dictatorship Egyptian politics, it’s all in for an Islamist takeover. The Muslim Brotherhood clearly thinks it’s now or never, and they’re probably right.

And now we know what Morsi’s bizarre Constitutional Declaration of November 22—Articles II and VI giving him monarchical powers—was all about. It was designed to create a crisis for which Morsi and his allies had a ready-made solution: a new draft constitution, to be suddenly rammed through with almost no non-Islamist consent and voted on immediately by the Egyptian people.

With everyone, especially the disempowered judiciary, in an inevitable tizzy about this outrageous declaration of presidential authority, the Constitutional Assembly has drafted a proposed constitution that could hardly be worse from any perspective.

It preserves almost all of the existing presidential authorities that have defined Egypt’s dictatorships in the past. In addition, it adds significant layers for repressive “Islamic” legislation, and outlines an ill-defined political role for Al-Azhar clerics.

This identifies “sharia” as both the main source of law and specifically Sunni. It has already unleashed a battle for control of the prestigious religious institution, as Al-Azhar appears poised for a major political role.

Until another election for the lower house can be conducted, the new constitution conveniently invests the previously toothless upper house, for which virtually no Egyptians bothered to vote, with total legislative authority. The drafters of the constitution were well aware fellow Islamists hold an 83 percent majority in this body.

And, of course, all of the existing powers, prerogatives and independent authority belonging to the military are preserved in the constitution. This is, obviously, very well calculated from the point of view of the Islamists: They don’t want to get into a fight with the men with the guns.

And, besides, the army doesn’t seem to have much interest in governing Egypt directly, while the Islamists don’t have any well-defined ideas about most of the military’s sphere of influence. So they’re splitting the difference, at the expense of the ordinary Egyptian people, and the health and well-being of the state.

The November 22 Constitutional Declaration was designed to infuriate the judiciary by robbing it of all of its oversight powers. But once the draft constitution was prepared for the almost immediate referendum, scheduled to begin on December 15, the declaration had served its purpose.

Having taken away, it was time for Morsi Almighty to give again.

On December 9, the president rescinded the declaration, although leaving everything he had decided under it intact, in particular the replacement of the prosecutor-general.

While maintaining that none of the decisions he took in the interim can be challenged by any court, the new declaration does restore some judicial authority. This overture is obviously designed to scupper any efforts by judges to refuse to oversee the referendum.

And there are enough pro-Brotherhood or neutral judges that an extended period of voting throughout the country should be able to overcome any boycott.

Most of the political opposition says it intends to boycott voting on the referendum as well. None of this boycotting is likely to do any good.

The Islamists are well-organized and are already campaigning for a yes vote. The military is issuing vague warnings about public unrest after Brotherhood-supporting thugs attacked and killed numerous protesters who took to the streets in outrage. But the military seems, for now at least, content with both the status quo and the details of the draft constitution.

In another extraordinary bait and switch, on Monday the government announced sweeping tax hikes, only to reverse course on Tuesday morning rescinding almost all of them. Morsi and his Brotherhood allies are using government power in what looks like a wild and haphazard way, but there is a certain abusive logic in their relentless and seemingly arbitrary giving and taking away.

At this point the stability-starved Egyptian people are undoubtedly desperate enough to approve even a constitution this repugnant. The vote may be disrupted by protests and extended by judicial boycott, but it will almost certainly pass.

And Egyptians will then have adopted the least revolutionary, most retrograde, constitution imaginable: one that combines the worst elements of the Mubarak era with a new larding of Islamist social conservatism.

In the unlikely event this constitution is somehow voted down, Morsi has left himself a neat little option: He can order the selection of another constitution-drafting body three months later.

And then Egypt will go through the whole elaborate giving and taking process again, until Morsi finally gets his way.

Meshaal’s Speech: “Mish Ma’ool”

At Hamas’s anniversary celebration in Gaza last week, the organization’s Politburo leader Khaled Meshaal delivered one of the most cynical, damaging and dangerous speeches in the history of the Palestinian national movement. For over a year, since Hamas’s collapse in relations with Syria and the crisis with Iran, Meshaal has been fighting for his political life. While Hamas forces in Gaza may have resumed “armed struggle” against Israel as part of an effort to undermine the control of external leaders, especially Meshaal, the wily old politician was able to spin conflict, cease-fire negotiations and his continued position at the top to claim “credit” for Hamas’s “victory.”


The cost of this “victory” to the people of Gaza has been enormous: over 175 deaths and at least $300 million in damage to property and infrastructure. But the cost of Meshaal’s “victory” speech to the Palestinian national movement could be even more devastating in the long run. It locks him and Hamas into the most hardline, confrontational and maximalist positions, making both Palestinian national reconciliation and progress towards independence far more difficult in the coming years.

Meshaal’s main point was that he’s not going to allow himself to be outbid by an extremist turn by local leaders on the ground: he can be every bit as aggressive and recalcitrant as them and there is no need to look for an alternative leadership.

And there’s a certain connivance in this by the two main external actors affecting events in Gaza: Egypt and Israel, both of which facilitated his “triumphal” visit. Clearly both prefer to deal with a Meshaal- or at least Politburo-led Hamas than one dominated by local leaders in Gaza. The regional calculation remains that the externally-based Politburo will be ultimately restrained by its new regional Arab patrons while local Gaza leaders, at least for now, have a greater interest in conflict.

It was Gaza-based Hamas leaders, after all, that resumed “armed struggle” with Israel earlier this year. On the other hand, it was Meshaal and other Politburo leaders that—working through Egypt, which got all the credit—negotiated a cease-fire acceptable to the Israeli government. But these same perceptions required Meshaal to adopt maximalist positions to consolidate credit for the “victory” and try to offset any notion within Hamas that he represents a less confrontational wing of the group.

The central theme of Meshaal’s speech was a total rejection of any recognition of, or compromise with Israel, under any circumstances. “Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on any inch of the land,” he declared. He emphasized that armed struggle, and not negotiations, where the only way forward, under the strange slogan, “Liberation first, then statehood.” He said there was “no legitimacy for Israel,” and that Hamas would never recognize it. And, of course, he emphasized the right of return for every refugee.

These positions are totally unworkable from the perspective of the Palestinian national interest. It’s certainly true that Israel and, to some extent, the international community, have rewarded Hamas’s “armed struggle” in certain ways, but no one in their right mind can imagine that there is any prospect of a Palestinian “military victory” against the Israeli armed forces.

As for the project of ending the occupation, Israeli settlers and their friends can only have been ecstatic at Meshaal’s hyper-bellicose positions, all of which strengthen their two main contentions: 1) there is no Palestinian partner for peace; and 2) Israel settlements are, among other things, forward defenses against an implacable existential enemy.

For the Palestinian national movement, Hamas is a disaster built on a calamity. From its outset, it has sought to undermine the mainstream nationalist movement by outbidding it on patriotic rhetoric, maximalist demands, violence, intractability and phony Islamic credentials. It has been a cynical project from day one.

Its formation during the first intifada was facilitated and smiled on by Israeli leaders who were hoping to split the Palestinian national movement between nationalists and Islamists. And its present rise is being facilitated, wittingly or unwittingly, by Israeli and international policies that have created the appearance that nonviolent diplomatic efforts by the PLO and institution-building on the ground in the occupied West Bank by the Palestinian Authority are futile projects that are not advancing independence or even improving Palestinians’ daily lives.

Other Hamas leaders were trying to outbid Meshaal, just as Hamas in general tries to outbid the PA. Elements within the Ramallah leadership sometimes allow themselves to be drawn into that bidding war, unhelpfully escalating rhetoric against Israel although not abandoning a commitment to nonviolence or the goal of peace.

Among Palestinians, just like Israelis, the “patriotic” bidding war makes for great domestic politics but disastrous national policies. Meshaal’s speech is completely comprehensible in terms of his own personal political standing within Hamas and among Palestinians and other Arabs. But in terms of the interests of the Palestinian people, Meshaal’s speech was “mish ma’ool” (senseless or unbelievable) and profoundly toxic from every possible perspective.

The E1 emergency

You can’t say Israel and United States didn’t warn each other, or that they didn’t see this coming.

The Americans anticipated a potential Israeli overreaction to the Palestinian United Nations status upgrade to “nonmember observer state.” And there was one measure they particularly wanted to prevent: new Israeli settlement construction in the hypersensitive E1 corridor near Jerusalem.

So a few days before the UN vote, Washington specifically warned Israel not to “retaliate” by building in E1. What was Israel’s immediate reaction to the vote? Why, to announce at least 3,000 new settler housing units, including, of course, in E1. And to add, for good measure, that any commitments to the United States not to build there were “no longer relevant.”

Building in E1 is among the most damaging steps Israel could take to undermine a two-state solution. E1 threatens to almost cut the West Bank in half. It will completely split occupied East Jerusalem off from the rest of the territory.

All serious observers agree with Jerusalem expert Danny Seidemann, who explains, “E-1 is a binary settlement,” because “a Palestinian state must be territorially contiguous, with a link to Jerusalem. That is why this is the decisive battle over the feasibility of ‘two states for two peoples.'”

That is precisely why every American administration has opposed the project since it was first announced in 1999: It’s among the few decisive actions either side could take that could finally lead people around the world, especially Israelis and Palestinians, to finally abandon any hope for a two-state solution.

More than the withholding of Palestinian tax revenues, which Israel has also decided to do, or even annexing territory (which wouldn’t be recognized internationally anyway), building in E1 is among the most aggressive and harmful measures Israel could take in response to the Palestinians’ symbolic UN upgrade. E1 construction is anything but symbolic. It transforms the strategic reality very dramatically away from a two-state solution.

The reason so many European states shifted their votes at the UN last week in the Palestinian direction is that they have become increasingly concerned the Israeli government isn’t interested in a genuine two-state solution. Israel’s E1 construction announcement can only serve to heighten these fears. So does the election of an annexationist slate of leaders of the ruling Likud party.

The international reaction has been strong. Britain, France and Sweden are reportedly considering withdrawing their ambassadors from Tel Aviv if building goes ahead. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the plan a potentially “fatal blow” to a two-state solution, because Palestinians will not sign to a peace agreement that does not allow East Jerusalem to serve as their capital.

The New York Times reported that the announcement came as a “rude shock” to the Obama administration, particularly since they had specifically warned Israel in advance against precisely this form of “retaliation.”

The State Department noted E1 construction would be “especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution.” The White House went further, with spokesman Jay Carney saying, “We urge Israeli leaders to reconsider these actions.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself observed, “These activities set back the cause of a negotiated peace.” And former Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel bluntly said the president had been “betrayed” after supporting Israel in its recent conflict with Hamas and at the UN.

This strong international response prompted some Israeli pullback. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to reassure the international community by explicitly telling his cabinet that approval only applies to planning and zoning, not actual construction activity.

The Jerusalem Post interpreted Netanyahu’s comments as likely intended signals to the Palestinians that actual building would only proceed if they took further action at multilateral institutions, presumably particularly the International Criminal Court. If it’s a threat, that’s one thing. If Israel really intends to go ahead with construction, that’s something else altogether.

Stopping the construction of the E1 project is essential to at least preserve the viability of a two-state solution, which, in turn, is a necessary first step to actively pursuing its realization.

Thus far, international pressure has been sufficient to keep E1 basically on the drawing board. With strong American leadership—not waiting for Israel’s election to act, but understanding there can be stronger commitments after it is over—the international community must drag Israel back from the brink.

Israeli leaders are in a fit of rage, and an election campaign with all its incitement to pandering. It’s leading them to flirt with a measure that could foreclose for this and future Israeli generations a peace agreement with the Palestinians and a future of security and acceptance in the region.

E1 construction is a crucial test for all parties that claim to be committed to a two-state solution. Stop this construction. Stop it, or just drop the pretense.