Power Shortage in the Middle East

Who will lead the Middle East out of its current crisis? Hard to imagine any of the parties now at the table have the strength, as they grapple with the consequences of what many Israelis are already calling “the second Six Day War,” Hamas’s coup seizing power in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is now in Washington to discuss this crisis with President George Bush.  Which is to say, a lame-duck American president with the lowest approval ratings in two generations is discussing with an Israeli leader whose government is on life support how to help a Palestinian leader who’s just had his administration ejected from half its territory. Can this beleaguered trio really hope to achieve anything substantive—except, at best, buy time? Time for new governments, new leaders, to take over in all three countries, perhaps.

The State Department has pronounced itself optimistic. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, after all, declared progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian settlement to be her primary goal. It’s the only substantive goal—other than negotiating a more-or-less-orderly withdrawal from Iraq—that the Bush administration seems to have left. So the line from Foggy Bottom is that the Palestinian split offers an opportunity. A “senior American official” briefs: “We are trying to push the restart button”—i.e., taking things back to where they were before Hamas won the elections for the Palestinian legislature in early 2006. 

So the administration is doing the only thing that is really within its power: sending money.  Moving at warp speed, Washington has ended its economic and political embargo of the Palestinian Authority imposed after Hamas’s electoral victory, thereby freeing up perhaps as much as $86 million in aid. The European Union is following suit. So is Israel:  Prime Minister Olmert announced Israel would release millions in Palestinian tax revenues that Israel had previously frozen. But all this money will go to the West Bank—enabling Mahmoud Abbas, who was run out of Gaza but remains, formally, the Palestinian president, to keep the West Bank functioning.

That’s probably the best the U.S. and its European partners can do right now. But these emergency fixes don’t add up to a policy. 

The administration is hamstrung by its recent history in the region—specifically, its encouragement of democratic elections, which empowered Hamas. “It is the position of the United States that there is one Palestinian people, and there should be one Palestinian state,” Secretary Rice has said. “We will not leave one and a half million Palestinians [the population of Gaza] at the mercy of terrorist organizations.” A fine sentiment—but the “terrorist organizations” she spoke of also happen to be a duly elected partner in the Palestinian government. What, then, would be the status of any initiatives involving the Palestinians that exclude Hamas?

The road to a more coherent strategy is a rough one. Does the United States in fact support democracy in the Arab world? As President Bush undertook the Iraq War, he made a stirring call to the United Nations to bring democracy to the region. But his administration has also stood largely silent as Egypt—the Arab nation with the longest and most viable tradition of multiparty politics—has moved steadily closer to dictatorship under America’s ally, President Hosni Mubarak. The calculus—stability trumps democracy—may be understandable, but it makes the spread of democracy elsewhere in the region a harder sell.

The crisis in Palestine poses the same dilemma in acute form. Rice dismissed any questions about the legitimacy of the rump Fatah government the U.S. now supports. “Our view, very strongly, is that what President Abbas has done is legitimate and it is responsible and we’re going to support that action.” But that overlooks the fact that the Palestinian Constitution, which the United States played a big hand in crafting, demands that Abbas hold new elections within 60 days. Will the administration ignore that? What will prevail—stability or democracy?

In his meeting in the Oval Office, Olmert was hoping to get President Bush’s support for an effort to restart political settlement talks with Abbas—a position Abbas reportedly favors. But, as Dennis Ross—veteran U.S. intermediary in the Israel-Palestine impasse—says in a thoughtful essay on the Web site of his current home, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, negotiations would likely imperil both Middle Eastern leaders. The necessary compromises are just too hard.  “Is … Abbas going to be ready or able to embrace an existential compromise and give up the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel?” Ross writes. “Is that going to enhance his ability to compete with Hamas? Similarly, given the political weakness of … Olmert, is this the time for him to accept compromise on Jerusalem? Would the Israeli public be willing even to contemplate such a compromise at a time when the Palestinian national identity is up for grabs?” 

The Oval Office session ended with both Bush and Olmert pledging to support Abbas. Bush’s aim: to strengthen Abbas through U.S. support “to the point where they [Fatah] can lead the Palestinians in a different direction, with a different hope.” Where that direction will lead, and how quickly, is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, the administration seems to be shying from a bold new path—concentrating instead on welfare work on the West Bank.