Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Deadly Game of Chicken

So now the new 132-seat Palestine Legisltive Council has been sworn in, with its new Hamas-led majority. And on cue, the Israeli cabinet, having considered a range of options, has formally announced the suspension of transfer of payments collected by Israeli tax and customs authorities to the executive branch of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Earlier, there had been much speculation that Hamas would try to create a "technicians'" government, and the early wishful-thinking on the part of Western and Arab diplomats is that Hamas would tap Salem Fayyad, the squeaky-clean former finance minister (with no ties to Hamas), as Prime Minister. In the end, Hamas legislators turned to 42 year-old Ismail Haniya, one of their own, for PM. Haniya is described as a "pragmatist" insofar as he wishes to create a national unity government with the now-deposed Fatah party, still represented by President Mahmoud Abbas, who apparently is petrified to act, and therefore will not resign, will not abandon the diplomatic process, and will not use the security apparatus to disarm those illegally bearing arms. For its part, the lame duck government of Acting Israeli PM Ehud Olmert is continuing to work off an old script -- conducting raids on the ground in Nablus and in the air in Gaza, killing 4 today.

Haniya himself was once the in the crosshairs of an Israeli air strike in September, 2003, in one of the unsuccessful attempts by the Sharon government to kill Shaykh Ahmad Yassin, the founder of Hamas (eventually Israel would succeed in killing Yassin). At the time, Haniya was "chief of staff" of Yassin's home office. One of the 400 Islamic activists once exiled to South Lebanon in 1992 (now a badge of pride in the pantheon of Palestinian resistance), Haniya has also done time in Israeli prisons.

Israel has decided for the moment to make a distinction between humanitarian aid -- which it claims it will continue to funnel through to the PNA -- and the $50 million monthly transferral, used to pay the salaries of at least 130,000 Palestinian security men and bureaucrats -- which it will not. By taking this tack, Olmert has eschewed the more comprehensive quarantine of the PNA and Gaza advocated by some in the Israeli security establishment last week, but on the other hand Olmert is pulling the trigger of financial blockade well before the actual formation of a Hamas-led government, which for the Americans is the preferred jumping-off point. The difference is whether the PNA will receive its February transferral -- and Olmert, running for elections, cannot afford to look too weak with Benjamin Netanyahu breathing down on his right back. So no February transferral. Basic utilities, such as electricity and water, will nevertheless continue to come off the Israeli infrastructural grid. The New York Times last week reported in a front page story that Israel and the U.S. are coordinating a scenario in which the PNA is financially starved into chaos which would then lead to the demise of the Hamas regime -- and the report was immediately disputed by both the Americans and the Israelis. A senior Sharon and now apparently Kadima advisor, Dov Weissglas, was quoted as saying that Israel needs to put the Palestinian nation on a diet, but not starve it. If that arrogant and high-handed statement was designed to allay fears of Israeli intentions, it has certainly had the opposite effect.

Also now widely reported is the polling data adduced by Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, indicating that Hamas did not garner a majority of votes in the January 25 election. Rather, because of the serious divisions within Fatah, a number of seats went to Hamas when competing Fatah candidates split their vote. So it turns out that the Palestinian people as a collective community did not choose to create a Hamastan, but that once again their feckless Fatah failed them. I've read some lionizers of the Palestinian cause argue that this vote was a brave and steadfast message by the Palestinian people as a whole to return to the base demands of the movement: resistance to occupation, return of the refugees, the right to oppose Israeli policies with violence, if that is what is needed. Turns out the January 25 vote in Palestine wasn't a collective statement neither for "heroic" Hamas nor against nepotistic Fatah -- it was just sloppy and inept political machinations by the ruling party that brought Hamas to power.

So now it is a game of "chicken." Hamas says it can replace the $50 million from Arab and Islamic states...and the Israelis say they have more possible sanctions in their pocket to put in place if things take an even greater turn for the worse. Destabilizing radical regimes is never as easy as it seems -- just ask Fidel Castro -- there is always a way for Palestinians, armed with little more than their collective sumud-ethos, to survive for a time. The Israelis seem to feel that international diplomacy has swung to their side for the moment and do not want to lose the mojo, so don't expect Olmert to go any further (unless of course a terror campaign begins). Everyone is preaching caution -- even the usually straight-shooting Tom Friedman could not conjure up a specific course of action for the Americans and Israelis to follow, other than a generic appeal to tread carefully. But at some point people on both sides are going to ask: when will this game of Middle Eastern chicken -- which obviously impacts the lives of many innocent people (and because of the devastating economic situation in Gaza -- the Palestinians most of all) -- when will this game come to an end? Who will blink first, and turn this trajectory of hatred and mutual recrimination into something hopeful that simple people can seize upon? Ah, but that is always the question in this conflict. Haaretz commentator Ari Shavit has produced a pat and self-serving narrative: at the very moment that the Israeli electorate has endorsed a two-state solution, the Palestinians have reverted to an extremist one-state path. But it simply isn't that clear-cut. The vague Kadima prescription for more unilateral withdrawals and a wall of separation is hardly a ringing endorsement of a peaceful two-state compromise. No leadership from Washington, no leadership from Jerusalem, no leadership from Ramallah: it all makes for a recipe of more of the same -- if not an unmitigated disaster -- on the near horizon.


  1. I believe the sentence, which reads, "I've read some lionizers of the Palestinian cause argue that this vote was a brave and steadfast nessage by the Palestinian people as a whole to return to the base demands of the movement: resistance to occupation, return of the refugees, the right to oppose Israeli policies with violence, if that is what is needed," should read, "I've read some lionizers of the Palestinian cause argue that this vote was a brave and steadfast message..." Unlike in the Torah, I think it is unnecessary to preserve mistakes, don't you?