Wednesday, January 25, 2006

WHEN IT COMES TO ISRAEL-PALESTINE COUNT ON EVERYONE TO DO THE WRONG THING



I must admit that I'll be surprised if anyone on any side ever does anything constructive when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian situation. There is always someone willing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory...always someone who wants to keep the things as messy as possible. Someday either simple inertia will force these two "foes" to get over it and find a way to live together...OR they'll just find a way to destroy each other once and for all. Anyway, the following opinion piece comes from today edition of the Jordon Times.

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'Another shortsighted policy'
Michael Jansen


If a year ago the US and Israel had fulfilled their promises to Palestinian voters by supporting and negotiating fruitfully with their new president, Mahmoud Abbas, Fateh would have been swept back into power last July. There would have been no postponement of the parliamentary polls and no scramble to bolster Abbas ahead of yesterday's election, when Fateh was running in a dead heat against the Islamic resistance movement, Hamas.

Furthermore, a strengthened Palestinian Authority might have been able to restructure its security apparatus, impose discipline on freebooting gunmen in Gaza and the northern West Bank, reform its inefficient and corrupt administration, and negotiate a mutually beneficial Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

But this did not happen. Israel adhered to a rejectionist stance and the US followed a shortsighted, subservient policy. The then- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to negotiate with Abbas and branded him a non-partner because he did not deal with “terrorists” resisting Israel's occupation. But Abbas was in no position to rein in the armed militants or impose order in Palestinian cities, towns and villages.

The Bush administration meekly followed Israel's lead. As a result, the election shifted from July to January and opinion surveys predicted that Hamas would do very well against a diminished and divided Fateh.

Washington woke up sometime last summer and decided to try to give Abbas, the authority, and the ruling Fateh movement a public relations boost. Someone in the USAID, the foreign assistance arm of the government, concocted a means to deliver covert assistance to the PA with the aim of encouraging people to vote for Fateh. USAID provided $2 million for 30-40 small cosmetic projects, including tree planting, clean-up, computers for schools and a national football tournament. The stated aim of the scheme was to create a new, caring image for the inept, inefficient and corrupt PA which suffers when compared with clean Hamas which runs schools, clinics and welfare programmes for poor Palestinians.

Last week, Abbas attended a tree-planting event and footballers received their awards in a ceremony in Jericho. Unfortunately, The Washington Post leaked the story of the pre-election projects four days before polling. Instead of being a simple straightforward tale of the US funding good works, it became a murky embarrassment for USAID and the PA. The funding came from USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives, which provides fast-track money to promote US interests during periods of political change in selected countries. ARD, a contractor based in Burlington, Vermont, which works in this line, was asked to carry out the projects. However, ARD subcontracted to Strategic Assessments Initiative, an organisation which conducted last year's survey of the Palestinian security agencies and put forward a plan for reform. But this organisation has no experience in the sort of projects which were to be undertaken.

The affair becomes more curious when one learns that Larry Sampler, a 15-year veteran of US Army Special Forces who worked in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, was brought in to advise on the scheme. The Washington Post said his contribution was to suggest that the projects should not be identified with USAID, which normally affixes its logo to its projects. This clearly deducted the $2 million from the $400 million in US aid has been spending over three years on infrastructure projects which it claims. The $2 million projects were approved by Abbas' office.

Rafiq Husseini, the president's chief-of-staff, told this correspondent that the press had made “an issue out of nothing, the issue is a non-starter”. He said USAID has always been known to dispense “political money”. Donors “give money for [their own] political reasons”.

The $2 million does not seem to violate Palestinian election legislation, which bans money from foreign sources and fixes a limit of $1 million for the campaign of an electoral list and $60,000 for a candidate. After all, the US money did not go directly to Fateh but to the PA, thereby indirectly benefiting Fateh. However, on election eve, the Palestinian press and The Jerusalem Post reported that Fateh officials admitted they had spent $4 million on their campaign without giving sources. Other secular lists are being accused of taking money from foreign sources and overspending.

While the tale of the $2 million seems to have stirred up a tempest in a teacup, little has been said about the US and Europe violating the principle of non-interference in democratic consultations of foreign countries in less subtle ways. Spokesmen from both the US and EU made inappropriate statements and threats ahead of the election, with the objective of putting pressure on and intimidating Palestinian voters. The US threatened to cut financial aid if Hamas is included in the new government and the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, followed suit by saying the PA could lose its budgetary support and development assistance if Hamas is permitted to join the Cabinet.

Washington considers Hamas a “terrorist” organisation and the EU, during the presidency of Italy, adopted Washington's line. But the US-EU tactic may backfire. During an interview broadcast on Monday, Abbas was highly critical of such threats and made the point that many countries in the region have Islamic movements which participate in government. Husseini said that these external interventions were “very wrong because they were not helpful for the moderates” and encouraged Palestinians to vote for Hamas to spite the very Western governments which support Israel no matter what it does.

Apparently, at least half of the 25 EU member governments do not back the pro-Israeli line adopted by Solana and cannot comprehend what he thinks he is doing. Europe is divided on this issue and its foreign policies are normally reached through consensus, so he seems to be out of line.

US sources familiar with the local scene said that the anti-Hamas stand taken by the administration ahead of the Palestinian elections will have to change once the situation becomes clear. But the administration seems to have preempted the result of the polls by declaring that it would maintain relations with the PA but will not have contacts with any Hamas minister/s. This means that the US would apply to Palestine the so-called “Lebanese formula”, whereby it deals with the Beirut government but not Hizbollah ministers, the movement being on Washington's list of “terrorist” organisations like Hamas. Another short-sighted policy.

By refusing to deal with Hamas, the US will strengthen its radicals and weaken its moderates. Washington's refusal to deal with moderates during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami in the Islamic Republic of Iran has led directly to the election of radical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president and the nuclear standoff.

Michael Jansen lived in Lebanon for many years before moving to Nicosia. She has written books on Lebanon and Palestine and has been the Middle East correspondent for the Irish Times. She also covers Lebanon/Syria and the Cyprus conflict for Middle East International.

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