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February 14, 2006
Playing Hardball With Hamas

The US and Israel plan on undermining the Hamas-led Palestinian legislature with a series of actions, including embargoes, cessation of aid, withholding of tax receipts, and throwing as much red tape as possible in order to grind economic activity to a halt in the territories. They aim to force a collapse in Hamas' popularity and cause a new election:

The United States and Israel are discussing ways to destabilize the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again, according to Israeli officials and Western diplomats.

The intention is to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections to the point where, some months from now, its president, Mahmoud Abbas, is compelled to call a new election. The hope is that Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement.

The officials also argue that a close look at the election results shows that Hamas won a smaller mandate than previously understood.

The officials and diplomats, who said this approach was being discussed at the highest levels of the State Department and the Israeli government, spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

They say Hamas will be given a choice: recognize Israel's right to exist, forswear violence and accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements — as called for by the United Nations and the West — or face isolation and collapse.

Fatah took a more direct approach -- they pushed last-minute legislation transferring most of the power to the presidency, allowing Mahmoud Abbas to rule in effect as a dictator. This is not a new concept for their parliament; it served as a rubber stamp for Yasser Arafat but had taken back its enumerated power after Arafat's death, on the insistence of the Quartet. Hamas protested the new laws and swore to overturn them once they take their seats, but the rules require a two-thirds vote to reverse the action and Hamas falls short in their new majority. It would fall to their high court for a final judgment, but the new law allows Abbas to select the jurists for the court.

The Fatah action will probably make the most difference. Hamas will likely just take over the government regardless of the law, effectlvely created a terrorist coup and either forcing Abbas out or making him irrelevant. If Fatah resists, the action will bring immediate civil war between the two bloody factions. That may help Israel in the short run; both sides will be too busy killing each other to kill Israelis, and the war would thin both ranks and clarify the power structure of its main enemy, that being whichever faction survives.

Outside of that, the notion of undermining the Hamas majority in the parliament does not hold much hope for success. The actions contemplated as part of that strategy are all appropriate in and of themselves; we should not provide aid or economic engagement to terrorists under any circumstances. However, the people turning this into a grand strategy are either naive or hopeless optimists. The Palestinians may have tired of Fatah's corruption, but they didn't elect Hamas to get the trains to run on time. They could have formed a peace party if that reflected the will of the people. The Palestinians elected Hamas knowing full well what that meant on the international stage. Causing a collapse would only make them dig their heels more deeply in their support.

But let's assume it works the way State hopes. Even if it led to Fatah's resurgence, why would that cause Fatah to be "chastened"? What lesson would Fatah have learned -- that they can rip off their people by embezzling the aid we provide, allow their own lunatics to continue their terrorist attacks on Israel, and still get Western support to push them back into power? Well, that's a great strategy. Let's reward both terrorism and corruption!

The best approach is to cut off the Palestinians completely and make it clear that the West washes its hands of them until they grow up and elect responsible leadership. Until the Palestinians insist on having political choices between Terrorist A and Terrorist B, they provide no reason to continue engagement.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 14, 2006 5:30 AM

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