The tragedy of Washington’s narrow to the point of dysfunctional “debate” about the Middle East is that few American political players are willing to comment in a serious manner about the fact that George Bush’s mishandling of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has done more than money or guns could have to advance the cause of the Islamic fundamentalists who now control of the Gaza Strip.
Disengaged when engagement was called for, meddling when a hands-off approach would have been wiser, and always staggeringly ignorant — remember Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s shock when Hamas won the Palestinian elections early in 2006 — the Bush administration’s approach has been so disastrous that the International Crisis Group’s Robert Malley is actually being generous when he says: “Almost every decision the United States has made to interfere with Palestinian politics has boomeranged.”
“Almost”? Let’s be realistic here. Bush and Rice responded to the electoral victory of Hamas — as a political party that had expanded far beyond its fundamentalist base to draw significant support from Palestinians who simply wanted an end to the corruption of the rival and more secular Fatah group’s administration — by throwing U.S. support fully behind Fatah.
The point of the U.S. maneuvering was to isolate and destroy Hamas. According to a recent report in London’s Guardian newspaper, the United Nations Middle East envoy, Alvaro de Soto confirmed that the US pressured Mahmoud Abbas to refuse Hamas’ initial invitation to form a “national unity government.”
The strategy was a miserable failure. The Bush administration only strengthened the hand of militant factions within Hamas, which had argued that it would be necessary to flex military rather than electoral muscles.
This should not surprise anyone. In February, 2006, former President Jimmy Carter, who expertise with regard to the Middle East is respected almost everywhere but the United States, warned that, “My concern is that in order to try, on behalf of the United States and Israel, to punish Hamas, we’ll actually going to be punishing the Palestinian people who are already living in deprivation. And it’s going to turn the Palestinian people even more against the West and against Israel, against us and make Hamas seem to be, you know, their only friend. So this will strengthen Hamas and weaken the Palestinian people. I think it’s a counterproductive ploy to try to punish Hamas.”
Carter’s taken brutal hits for being right. A friend of Israel who — like prominent Israelis such as veteran Knesset member Haim Oron and — found himself disagreeing with Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, the former president was accused of anti-Semitism and charged with failing to understand the intricacies of a region with which he has remained deeply connected for more than three decades.
The fact that his warnings hproved to be prescient will not earn Carter any forgiveness from his critics. Even the urgency of the moment is unlikely to bring much improvement in the quality of the debate within the U.S. about the Bush administration’s failed Middle East policies. Carter tried, and he was ridiculed, smeared and dismissed for doing so — not merely by sincere if misguided supporters of the Israeli right but by a media that polices rather than encourages meaningful dialogue regarding complex foreign-policy issues.
It is this reality that has led most prominent political players in the U.S. — especially those who are seeking the presidency — to avoid saying much of consequence about the monumental blunders of the Bush administration in a region where Washington’s mistakes invariably invite blowback.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. One presidential candidate, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, is wading into the thick of the debate. “The chaos and factional violence in Gaza that ultimately led to the Hamas military takeover of the Presidential Compound and the National Security Guard building demonstrates a failure of President Bush’s strategy in matters relating to Hamas,” says Kucinich
Picking up on Carter’s assessment, the congressman adds, “The humanitarian, economic and political boycott imposed on the elected Hamas government were meant to force Hamas to accept U.S. and Israeli conditions or alternatively to force it out of power. The boycott has accomplished neither goal and instead has created a severe humanitarian crisis that is now marred by political factionalism, violence, and unrest.
Give Kucinich credit for recognizing the crisis on the ground. As the congressman notes, since the suspension of aid to the Palestinian Authority began in April 2006, the number of Palestinians living in abject poverty has risen to more than a million. And a Palestinian Authority budget that was once $1.5 billion annually has shrunk to $500 million, making it impossible to maintain basic services.
Those circumstances made Gaza what Jan Egeland, the special advisor to the United Nations Secretary General, described months ago as “a ticking time bomb.” Now the bomb has gone off and Egeland says, This is the product of failed Palestinian policies, failed Israeli policies, failed international policy.”
Kucinich argues that the U.S. should now play a role in shifting the failed international policy to which Egeland refers.
The Ohioan is calling on Congress to pressure the Bush administration to:
1. Announce that the U.S. will immediately extend diplomatic recognition to the former national unity government coalition of Hamas and Fatah;
2. Ask for the reconstitution of the coalition government;
3. Initiate high level diplomatic talks in the region, including representatives chosen by the coalition government;
4. Send emergency food and medical aid to Gaza, under auspices of UN and NGOs.
Those are rational proposals — admittedly optimistic, but not irrationally so.
Unfortunately, Kucinich’s voice is a lonely one — not just in the presidential race but in the broader politics of the Washington.
Congress is not likely to even begin to exert the sort of pressure Kucinich proposes. In the absence of meaningful debate and serious challenges to their approach, Bush and Rice will continue to get it wrong. In so doing, they will make life worse for Palestinians, and for Israelis. The will place the propsect of stability further out of reach in the entire region. And, despite all their pronouncements to the contrary, they will make the world a dramatically more dangerous place.
John Nichols’ new book is