Gaza: The Peace of the Clumsy

Gershom Gorenberg

Maybe there will be quiet in and around Gaza on Thursday morning. This is not something to bet your savings on, or even your lunch money. According to this report , a Palestinian official says – as long as he can’t be quoted by name – that the fix is in for a ceasefire, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry says yes. Defense Minister Ehud Barak (whose politics appear to have moved rightward since 2000 even more quickly than Joe Lieberman’s) says there’s no agreement, nope, we’re just checking the details.

If it does happen, it will certainly be a positive development: people on both sides of the Gaza line will have a higher chance of getting through the day without being blown up. It will show that with the America gone AWOL from diplomacy, other actors are moving into the vacuum: Egypt mediating between Israel and Hamas; Turkey between Israel and Syria. It will prove again the sad principle that when all else fails, sometimes people are willing to try talking instead of shooting.

But it will also be worth examining the potential political impact in light of the latest poll by top Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki. In some respects, the poll shows some positive results that surprised Shikaki himself. Still, one possible conclusion from a careful read is that by consistently treating diplomacy as the last resort rather than the first, Israel is yet again strengthening Hamas.

Shikaki, I should note is a careful, thorough pollster. No poll is a perfect picture of people’s feelings, but Shikaki gives a good view of the complexities of Palestinian opinion. Israelis who think that “the Palestinians” think this or that should read his results and learn that our neighbors are as confused and volatile in their views as we are.

So in the last three months, unexpectedly, PA president Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah has gained popularity and Hamas leader has lost ground. On the “who would you vote for if elections were today” question, they’ve gone from a statistical tie to a 12-point lead for Abbas (with a margin of error of 3 percent, so this is a significant difference). Fifty-seven percent of Palestinians think that Abbas’ s security forces, recently deployed in more Palestinian towns, have succeeded in providing law and order. (That is, despite the pessimistic expectations of some analysts, Israeli and Palestinian, the Palestinian public would see Abbas’s forces as collaborators, mere enforcers for the Israelis.)

There’s a slight rise in satisfaction with the Fatah government of Salam Fayyad in the West Bank. A strong plurality thinks that Abbas is more able to make peace with Israel and to gain Israeli concessions. Support for armed attacks against Israel dropped from 67 percent to 55 percent. That’s still depressingly high, but it’s a marked improvement. It’s also a sign that more people believe that Palestinians can gain independence through diplomacy rather than by violence. Fifty-eight percent want a two-state solution, only 27 percent want a one-state solution.

In short, moderation has gained some ground, and most Palestinians would still rather live side-by-side with Israel than try to eliminate the Jewish state.

But note this too: Shikaki suggests that Abbas has gained popularity by offering to renew the dialogue with Hamas on national unity. Hamas lost support because it wasn’t able to reach a ceasefire. Most Palestinians oppose a ceasefire that only applies to Gaza, not the West Bank.

Some background. As I noted in the American Prospect in April , Israeli and American policies have empowered Hamas over the last three years:

…In 2005, Israel pulled out of Gaza unilaterally, avoiding any negotiations with Abbas on a final-status agreement. Among Palestinians, that served as proof that Hamas’ armed struggle had driven Israel out. In the run-up to the January 2006 elections… Abbas initially favored Hamas participation… By the time Abbas realized the danger of Hamas victory and got cold feet… the Bush administration “was not prepared to be seen as changing course on democratic elections.”…

As detailed in a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London last year, and more recently in a Vanity Fair investigative article , the United States did not just join in boycotting the Hamas government and the unity government that followed. It armed the PA’s Presidential Guard, which was independent of the Hamas government, and pushed Arab countries to help train it. By June 2007, Hamas expected a Fatah coup with American backing — and preempted by seizing control of Gaza.

Choosing diplomacy back in 2005 – putting the Gaza pullout in the context of negotiations on final status – would have had the opposite effect: Palestinians would have credited Abbas and the diplomatic option for getting Israel to pull back. Dealing with the unity government could have prevented the Hamas takeover of Gaza and moved us toward an agreement with a single Palestinian representative.

As things are at the moment, a ceasefire deal with Hamas is to be preferred to the other option: An Israeli invasion of Gaza. But to get the ceasefire, Israel now has to let Hamas get credit for it. Meanwhile negotiations with Abbas move nowhere. This is the diplomacy of the clumsy, of men trying to do ballet while dressed in battle gear.

Israeli officials forget how much impact we have on Palestinian opinion. We should have – and still should – encourage establishment of a Palestinian unity government. The negotiators would be from Fatah. The credit for a ceasefire would go to the moderates. We would have a partner for final-status talks who represents all the Palestinians.

One last note from Shikaki’s survey: Marwan Barghouti, the young Fatah leader jailed in Israel for murder, would beat Haniyeh 61-34 percent with a higher voter turnout. Barghouti favors a two-state solution and is also respected by Hamas. He is a man with a blood-stained past, but so is nearly everyone able to make a deal. (More on this here .) A riddle for Israel is how to release Barghouti without allowing Hamas to get credit for that as well.

4 thoughts on “Gaza: The Peace of the Clumsy”

  1. Gershom, I really get the sense that Israel is very much where N.I. is when first Sinf fein were being excluded from the process and then Paisley. By trying to manoeuvre to isolate Hamas you strengthen them–maybe that is a good thing. But at the end of the day you are going to have to deal with Hamas (unless they do something to discredit themselves with the Palestinians–but that is in their hands). If Barghouti is the unifying candidate then he will have to represent Hamas and they will have to be given the credit and encouraged into the process.

    It is totally and entirely pointless for Israel to try and politically undermine Hamas–if it succeeds then they go back to pursuing the military option; if it fails (which it surely will) then it is so much time and energy wasted. They have to be encouraged to enter the political process, and the bitter pill–the one that every one has to swallow everywhere is that those on the other side that were the most effective ‘terrorists’ enbd up with the political credit. Is there not something of this in the history of Israel? (That is a question; it is my understanding but I am open to being corrected.)

    Abbas/Fatah will probably go the way of Trimble/UUP and Hume/SDLP. Get used to it.

  2. (1) I really don’t know anything about Shikaki and his polling organization, but I have been following his polls for some time. By an interesting coincidence, the polls always seem to show large support for whatever policy the Palestinian Authority if following, i.e. if there is a war, like there was after Arafat turned down the Camp David-Taba, then there is massive support for suicide bombings, no compromise with Israel, etc, etc,. If the policy is to have negotiations, as is the case now, then there is increased support for this, instead of the “hardline positions”. Now, taking into consideration that the Palestinian territories are not a “democracy”, and the media is tightly controlled there, then I think it is legitimate to ask who exactly is financing Shikaki’s organization, and is he stilting the results to please some powerful person or organization, instead of giving straight, honest results.

    (2) So Barghouti being a convicted murderer is a problem because HAMAS instead of FATAH might benefit from the release of such a popular leader who has blood on his hands. (One the counts of first degree murder that he was convicted of was the murder of a girl who had attended my synagogue. Another was a Greek Orthodox priest who was killed because he had a beard like a religious Jew). Why should murder get in the way of a beautiful political relationship?
    All the arguments we hear now about why Barghouti is so good for Israel have been heard before “he is strong, reports are that he supports the 2-state solution, he is popular, he will reign in the ‘extremists’, he is the only one who can sign a deal with Israel, sure he is a killer but who is a saint in this part of the world, anyway?”. All these wonderful qualities were attributed to Arafat. Now, thousands of dead and wounded later, the “progressives” want to try the same thing with somebody else. Didn’t someone define insanity as “trying the same thng over and over again but expecting opposite results”.

  3. A couple of further points:

    (1) Regarding supposed support for the “2-State Solution” by Barghouti and a majority of Palestinians according to Shikaki’s poll, it is important to ask if this phrase means the same thing them as it does to Israelis who want it. Does it include full implementation of the so-called “Palestinian Right of Return”? Does it guarantee Jewish access to Jewish holy sites in Palestinian control?
    Israelis assume that the Palestinians will accept only a limited, “symbolic” right of return of some tens of thousands of refugees, but no Palestinian leader has ever agreed to that. Israelis like Tzippi Livni say that it means a “right of return” of refugees to the Palestinian territories, but the Palestinians could never agree to such a thing because there is no room for them and the current Palestinian residents of those territories view the refugees as aliens and don’t want them there as neighbors.
    Regarding the Jewish holy places, I can only remind everyone that Barak was willing to hand over sovereignity of Judaism’s holies place, the Har HaBayit (Temple Mount) but with the minor condition that the agreement contain a clause that the Palestinians recognize the fact that the Jews also view it as a holy place. Arafat adamantly refused, even after being berated by Bill Clinton on the matter. Official Palestinian propaganda says the Jews have no business being in the country at all, so don’t count on them protecting our holy places.

    (2) Regarding freeing Barghouti since some feel that “he is the only one who can make peace” in spite of the minor technicality that he is serving a life sentence in prison because of five counts of first-degree murder-
    It is important to keep something in mind. Those who advocate freeing him will say “you can’t choose your peace partners”. That is simply not true. While it is true that Churchill and Roosevelt had no choice but to deal with mass-murderer Stalin in the Second World War, we must remember that Stalin was already the leader of the USSR at the time their alliance with him was forged. Churchill and FDR also refused to deal with the Nazi regime in power. They said it had to be defeated totally and didn’t claim “you make peace with your enemies”. Barghouti is not now and never was the recognized head of the Palestinians. Those who advocate freeing him have all sorts of Machiavellian tricks up their sleeve saying “the fact that he is a murderer will give him more credibility in the Palestinian street”. This is simply morally unacceptable. How can anyone think that someone like him really would make peace anyway? It is this sort of thinking that got Israel into the Oslo disaster in the first place, and I would like to think that those who advocate things like this would be discredited.

  4. Y. As I recall the Stern gang and their cohorts included those who murdered innocents in the name of the future State of Israel and one of them became Prime Minister.It seems that their conduct was justified because the Jews had been historically oppressed and the outrageous Holocaust gave them justification for their actions to achieve a country of their own. Now you ask who can trust this murderer to speak for an oppressed people(I’m sorry you don’t think their oppressed)?King George and Lord North thought the military revolution by the Colonys’was the handiwork of terrorists like Jefferson and Adams who were responsible for the deaths of innocent British “Red Coats “;sound familiar doesn’t it?
    My wife , who had a Jewish grand father,after going to Israel is convinced that Israel has the biggest propaganda machine running in the Near East and she thinks Americans’ have been “brainwashed” to buy their B–S–T.I don’t subscribe to that approach but I think we spend too much time worrying about what happens to Israel rather than getting out of the Near East altogether and getting us out of policing the world which brought down the British Empire. Further I feel the former Democrat Joe Lieberman should formally acknowledge his de facto status with Likud and get a job driving Rev.Hagee’s church bus down there in Sugarland Texas where the collective I.Q.of the congregation is the same as his hat size.

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