WASHINGTON -- On the eve of a Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition as a nonmember state – a move that’s expected to succeed despite strident U.S. opposition – the Obama administration’s policy conundrum over the Palestinians appears stark.
On one hand, the U.S. government is publicly lambasting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who’s part of the secular Fatah movement that controls the West Bank, for his appeal to U.N. members on Thursday. On the other, U.S. policy bars contact with the Islamist militants of Hamas, the faction in control of the Gaza Strip and which the United States considers a terrorist group.
Analysts say this “fundamentally flawed” U.S. stance toward the Palestinians would require a miracle breakthrough – such as a sudden shift in Israeli policy or an equally improbable U.S. rapprochement with regional player Iran – for the Obama administration to rejuvenate peace talks as a broker respected by all sides.
“You haven’t helped out Abbas nearly enough and yet you won’t talk to Hamas, so who does that leave you with in the Palestinian leadership?” said Rafael Frankel, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington whose research focuses on Israel and the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah. “It’s a shortsighted, misguided policy. The United States has left itself in a position of basically having no leverage or ability to negotiate with the Palestinian side at all.”
Instead, observers of the conflict say, the near future portends an extension of the Palestinian status quo of statelessness: worsening living conditions, limited mobility and internecine political rifts. And those internal divisions are only likely to deepen now that Hamas has emerged as the stronger Palestinian political force, supported by U.S. allies Egypt, Qatar and Turkey.
If the U.S. won’t back Abbas’ U.N. bid, which some analysts said will have little practical effect, then it certainly wouldn’t risk an even bolder move such as talking to Hamas, especially with President Barack Obama trying to avoid divisive issues as he seeks broad supports for a fiscal cliff compromise.
“I don’t understand the philosophy here: This is a relatively harmless initiative, an attempt by Abbas to divert the attention from the strength of his political opponents,” said Mark Perry, who has close contact with Hamas and whose book, “Talking to Terrorists,” promotes a controversial strategy of U.S. engagement with militants.
“The administration can’t oppose the Palestinians on every single thing all the time,” Perry said. “Once again, we’re going to end up in a forum in which we stand alone with Israel and no one else except maybe Micronesia.”
The U.S. opposition to Abbas’ move plays to the advantage of Hamas, which would appear to be riding high these days, racking up a public relations victory in Israel’s bloody Gaza offensive, a political ascent via the Muslim Brotherhood allies in charge of Egypt next door, and a financial boost from Persian Gulf friends such as Qatar, whose ruler recently pledged $400 million for development in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
“It’s a strategic win of some magnitude for Hamas,” Perry said.
Other analysts say some of the group’s victory claims are exaggerated or that it’s too early to tell the long-term consequences for regional diplomacy.
On the ground, Israel’s recent eight-day bombing campaign in Gaza did wipe out Hamas weapons reserves and kill one of the group’s top strategists. The group’s violent resistance, firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, has done little but invite Israeli retaliation and has done nothing to advance Palestinian statehood. There’s only so much Hamas can ask of Egypt, which has enough domestic problems without rankling Israel or taking responsibility for Gaza. And the Saudis, who hold more sway with the Americans than other Gulf states, aren’t nearly as warm as the Qataris toward Hamas.
Perry, who still speaks to senior leaders of the group regularly, noted that Hamas also is still struggling with internal divisions between the Gaza-based faction that takes a harder line toward national reconciliation and regional diplomacy and the external leadership, which is seen as more pragmatic and willing to work with international partners.
Even with all those struggles, Hamas is still considered the stronger of the rival political camps. By contrast, Abbas is seen as yesterday’s man – all but silent during the Gaza offensive, unpopular even in the West Bank, and now undermined by his erstwhile American allies.
“Abbas is in dire shape. Even with all the external support, which is all he has, he’s on his last legs. His whole regime is on its last legs,” said Rashid Khalidi, a professor of modern Arab Studies at Columbia University in New York.
U.S. officials say they’re still keeping channels open with Abbas, despite what one State Department official put euphemistically as “some disagreement on tactics.” Senior American diplomats traveled to New York in a last-ditch effort to dissuade Abbas from Thursday’s appeal before the United Nations.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as per diplomatic protocol, said the United States would deal with Abbas as long as he’s the Palestinian Authority president, even though the administration considers his U.N. bid “a distraction” that’s only going to complicate efforts to get all sides back to the negotiating table.
As for Hamas, the official said, recognition would be withheld even if it won Palestinian elections, which it did in 2006, because of the group’s refusal to disavow violence or recognize Israel’s right to exist. U.S. officials aren’t likely to be swayed by Arab allies who argue that now is the time to push Hamas into the mainstream political fold.
“I don’t know if lobbing rockets into Israel is moving into the mainstream,” the official said dryly.