Wednesday, June 07, 2006
I am just back from attending a briefing by a representative from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. I previously attended a public session led by Yigal Allon, the former IDF Chief of Staff. As this was a private session, I will not identify the speaker. He is an expert on relations, such as they are, between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Most of the subject matter related to their current status. There was some discussion of Iran as well.
This speaker has had the benefit of meeting with senior government, army and intelligence officials from the US, the UK, France, Germany, Israel, Fatah, Hamas, Egypt and Jordan. His observations were generally based on these interactions coupled with his own history.
He characterized the 90's as a period of bilateral negotiation which peaked under Clinton and collapsed with the failure to make a deal at Camp David in 2000. There followed war, and now a cease fire. He believes that bilateral negotiations are unlikely to be resumed with Hamas in power.
He characterized Hamas as unlikely to moderate, because it is composed of a three-tier bureaucracy around which it is very difficult to forge policy change. There is a local layer, a national layer and a Shura council, any one of which can veto significant policy change.
Having said that, he said that Hamas is under extraordinary pressure, more than he would have expected 6 months ago:
1) Money has genuinely been frozen, with little leakage. European nations are offended by Hamas, which rejects the European premise of peacemaking with Israel. Arab nations have failed to live up to all pledges made to fund the PA since 2002. They now have a further excuse to reneg on the pledges -- American banking intervention. The US's ability to monitor banking transactions globally has made it exceptionally difficult to cheat on a sanctions regime without a high cost; i.e., business with US banks.
2) Thus far, the Quartet has stayed together. This expert would not have predicted European firmness, but Europe has held. He attributes this again to Hamas's unwillingness to make even the slightest concession to the European perspective, while asking for increased aid. Germany's new leader Merkel is demonstrating toughness, the UK has been equally strong and even France has acquired a new reserve.
3) Hamas is experiencing demonstrations led by Fatah outside its offices daily. Palestine has 76,000 armed people under no central authority. People have not been paid salaries for 3 months. The tension is rising palpably.
4) Abbas, though a weak leader, is making strides with his effort at forging a referendum to agree a Palestinian negotiating position which undermines Hamas. The associated tension is fomenting some violence between Hamas and Fatah, and it is playing out daily.
5) No Arab nations feel as though they have any influence with Hamas. In fact, Hamas scares them.
6) Hamas prefers to remain at some distance from Iran, and Iran is reluctant to part with money for Hamas.
Where does all this lead? Completely uncertain. Israel, led by Olmert, is staying out of it, focused instead on controlling its own destiny by building its fence and dismantling some settlements. Abbas is shrewdly working to peel the EU away from consensus with the rest of the Quartet. If he succeeds in this, and is responsible for re-establishing a flow of money from Europe to support the PA budget, he may be able to call for new elections and defeat Hamas. But he may fail, in which case there is the high likelihood of a humanitarian crisis in Palestine as it sinks further into chaos.
Israel's approach is again a) stay out of PA power struggle and b) work diligently to prevent a humanitarian crisis for both moral and strategic reasons. Israel worries about being blamed for it, and also worries about the EU's ability to stomach such a crisis without rolling over to Hamas.
On Iran, the speaker added little to the already much discussed debate. He thinks Ahmadinejad should be taken at his word. He has been told that there is essentially a one-year window between mastering the nuclear fuel cycle and industrial execution of nuclear bomb-making, and we are probably now in that window. He asserted that the US is committed to working together with the EU on Iran and would like to have China and Russia onboard as well, but thinks the latter two are unlikely. He commented that his Institute often has roundtable discussions with representatives from the entire political spectrum who also have related expertise. On the question of Iran, and whether a deal would be made with the US, the unanimous conclusion was "it will not happen." He also commented that whereas the Administration may have previously entertained the notion of leaving the Iranian problem to the next administration, the acceleration of Iran's nuclear ambition has made it impossible to "kick the can down the road."