Monday, June 25, 2007

No Window of Opportunity

As a colorful sun-drenched summit is held today in Sharm al-Sheikh between what's left of the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, Jordan, and Israel; and as the Bush White House floats the idea of appointing soon-to-be British Labour MP Tony Blair as Special Envoy to the Middle East, there is much rose-colored talk of the "new opportunities" for peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Now that the initial dust has settled from the lightning-quick seizure of Gaza by HAMAS, and the Israeli cabinet decided to begin releasing the over $500 million in escrowed tax revenues to ex-World Bank technocrat Salam Fayyad (now the West Bank's newly crowned Prime Minister), the naive hope that a "window of opportunity" might emerge is widely discussed in the western press. However, there are powerful reasons to believe that nothing good will come from these developments anytime soon. Let me explain:

The combination of an accidental Israeli Prime Minister, an accidental Palestinian President, and a lame-duck American President argues for a "no forward motion" scenario.

1. The accidental Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who fell into his role when his historic predecessor became a vegetable in January 2006, is overseeing a weak Israeli government teetering on collapse. Olmert barely survived the initial shitstorm that ensued after the Winograd Commission issued its interim report on last summer's Lebanon War -- it is unlikely that Olmert will survive when the final report is issued later this summer. The new Defense Minister Ehud Barak has all but pledged to withdraw Labour from the governing coalition when the final report comes out -- and then expect at the very least a 4-month election campaign, which essentially freezes Israel from making any substantial offers or deals. Israel will soon be enveloped in electoral politics, and no forward movement can therefore be expected from Israel.

2. The accidental Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who fell into his role when his historic predecessor died in November 2004, is overseeing a weak Palestinian government teetering on collapse. Abbas barely survived the initial shitstorm that ensued after his Fatah movement was defeated in Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006 -- it is unlikely that Abbas will survive in the West Bank now that HAMAS has laid down an "in your face" challenge. Abbas is now held hostage by the delicate balancing act he must strike between accepting Israeli and American support, and still acting defiantly as the defender of the Palestinian cause. If he looks too much like an Israeli collaborator, his support in the West Bank will crumble; if he follows his predecessor's script, any defiant call for "jihad unto Jerusalem" will undermine his cozying up to Israel and the US. If his weak Israeli counterpart cannot deliver a significant "victory" (a freezing of settlements, a release of Palestinian prisoners, a reduction of Israeli security presence in the West Bank -- all unlikely for reason 1 cited above), Abbas and Fayyad will be gone in short order. (Update: A few hours after writing this blog entry, Olmert announced at Sharm plans to bring before a cabinet vote on Sunday the release of 250 Fatah prisoners -- a move which Israel Channel One's Arab affairs correspondent characterized as: "too little, too late.") Even the notion that Israel might release prisoner Marwan Barghouti, the much-lauded next-generation leader of Palestine who languishes in an Israeli jail, is full of potential threat to Abbas and the elder generation of his advisers. Abbas is in the uncomfortable situation of being the recipient of Israeli and American largesse -- an untenable role for any Palestinian leader.

3. The lame-duck American President George Bush, who squandered his role as Commander-in-Chief with his failed conquest of the Arab heartland, is overseeing a weak American government running out of time. Once the American election campaign begins in earnest (approximately just after a new Israeli government is formed), Bush will lose all credibility as a broker of any Arab-Israeli deal. Lame-duck President Clinton had little credibility in the 2000 effort to bring a resolution of the conflict (and that was when it looked likely that a democratic successor would continue his policies) -- by the time the chad-dust had settled on the November, 2000 election, Clinton was a goner, and neither side respected his stature. Defiance of a lame-duck American President is standard operating procedure for Mideast leaders. With the prospects of a change in party affiliation in the White House in 2009, expect Bush to be progressively ignored as election day 2008 nears.

So forget about it. In fact, there is much reason to believe that the Fatah/HAMAS face-off is far from over. Much of the most notorious bloodletting in Gaza was nothing more than revenge killing -- HAMAS never forgot nor forgave the brutality of despised Fatah security head Muhammad Dahlan's violent and short-lived campaign in 1996 to decimate HAMAS in Gaza. Emboldened HAMAS dreams of much greater things than sinple revenge. Like the murderous bloodshed between the Husseini and Nashshashibi clans in the fight for leadership of the Palestinian cause in the 1930s, this struggle between Fatah and HAMAS is far from concluded. HAMAS won many legislative seats in the West Bank in 2006, and it is only because Israel has imprisoned most of HAMAS's leadership in the West Bank that Fatah has even a chance of surviving. Back in the 1930s, the Husseini family cloaked itself in Islam and eventually won the day to disastrous results for the Palestinian people; expect the irresistible call of Islam to eventually succeed yet again in modern Palestine for HAMAS, if for no other reason than that the Israelis can not muster the will to do what needs to be done to make Abbas successful and look like an effective leader.

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