Nathan Brown, senior associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Larry Garber, former USAID mission director for the West Bank and Gaza and current executive director of the New Israel Fund.

Ori Nir
, Washington correspondent, The Forward

Julia Choucair, project associate and assistant editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 

Nathan Brown presented his Policy Brief “Living with Palestinian Democracy,” published by the Carnegie Endowment in May 2006. Brown argues that by isolating the Hamas government financially and diplomatically, the United States and its allies have succeeded in bringing the Palestinian Authority to the brink of collapse.

Brown’s remarks focused on three questions: what have the United States and its allies done in response to the Hamas victory; what are the implications; and whether there is any alternative policy. Since January, the United States and its allies have effectively implemented a series of decisions but without clear policy objectives. The U.S. policy has been one of no-contact with Hamas. Politically, this means a severing of diplomatic relations between the United States and that American officials cannot meet with most officials in the Palestinian Authority. But the financial implications are even stronger given the Palestinian Authority’s dependence on foreign funds, be it in the form of taxes collected by the Israeli government on behalf of the Palestinian Authority or foreign assistance.

The implications of these measures are very clear: they have led to the bankruptcy of the Palestinian Authority.  But the purpose behind inducing bankruptcy are not clear. One possible—albeit unarticulated—purpose might be to bring down the Hamas government in an attempt to reinstall the Fatah leadership. Brown warned, however, that there is no legal mechanism to do that. This can only be done by shredding Palestinian legal and constitutional procedures.  A policy that is designed to foment a Palestinian coup is bound to lead to civil unrest. In fact, there are already incipient signs of civil war in the West Bank and Gaza. Such a policy would bring back to power an unreformed and discredited movement—whose leadership is no longer fit to rule. Not only are these policies leading to political and economic collapse, but they also may cause a humanitarian disaster. The Palestinian Authority has been unable to provide basic services or pay the wages of some 160 million employees. Recently, the European Union has been exploring ways of averting a humanitarian crisis. This would amount to a situation where the Palestinian population would survive indefinitely on international charity, offering no viable prospect for the resolution of deep economic and political problems.

Hamas’s electoral victory has implications for the prospects of democratic change in the Arab world. Significantly, the January election has, for the first time ever, unseated a ruling Arab party. The region is carefully watching the international reaction to Hamas’s victory. At the same time, there is a marked changed in American rhetoric about supporting political reform in the Arab world. There are already claims being made that you cannot understand the Egyptian reaction to the confrontation with the judges without reference to the Hamas victory.  Authoritarian governments feel free to take measures that they would have earlier been too intimidated to take. The region’s Islamist movements—especially those who have been arguing about the viability of participating in the political process—have been equally attentive to the reaction to Hamas’s victory. In addition to resulting in political and economic crises, the current U.S. response to Hamas’s victory is inviting questioning of the U.S. democracy promotion agenda in the region.

Brown suggests that there is an alternative to this policy, but argues that it can be reached only with the adoption of a longer-term perspective. Short-term solutions such as reinstalling Fatah or rolling back the results of the January elections will have very dangerous consequences. Instead, U.S. policy should capitalize on the significant strides towards political reform that have already been made in the Palestinian territories.  Especially unusual is the emergence of an embryonic two-party system. Attempts to undermine this by ousting one political party will have long-term negative implications. But attempts to foster it can help boost U.S. credibility in the region. The United States can support Palestinian democracy by helping to build an independent election commission and judiciary. It can also support reform in the two major parties themselves. It should disabuse Fatah of the idea that it will receive international support if it seizes political power and works to effect a change in Hamas’s position on Israel. The movement, Brown argues, may be capable of moderating its position on Israel. The movement is showing signs of real tensions; it is clear that the movement was prepared to run in the election but not govern. What might encourage its moderation is the prospect that it will have to face the voters in four years. The pressure of that election will probably moderate the movement.

Larry Garber complemented Brown’s analysis by exploring the potential role of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and examining some of the myths regarding U.S, democracy assistance in Palestine. He pointed out that Abbas too is faced with very serious policy dilemmas. Abbas can disengage either by resigning or by accepting his inability to influence developments, a track that is precedented in his record. Alternatively, he can confront Hamas aggressively by asserting presidential prerogatives as laid out in the Palestinian Basic Law, and accept that chaos and conflict may be a possible outcome. This would mean that Abbas would adopt a maximal view of the role of the presidency; there are a lot of ambiguities in the Basic Law regarding the role of the president vis-à-vis the prime minister. This would mean maintaining control of the security forces, establishing mechanisms under presidential authority for handling donor funds, exercising an activist role in influencing legislation, undertaking diplomatic activities with or without Hamas’s backing, and dismissing the current government  or individual ministers. From a strictly constitutional point of point of view, it is not clear how this helps remove Hamas from power. A third option is try to co-opt Hamas under the umbrella of the PLO and reach some type of modus vivendi with Hamas regarding control of the Palestinian Authority.

It is difficult to predict which approach Abbas is likely to adopt. Policy makers should be wary of predicting how this will turn out. First, there is a danger in personalizing this issue; the United States did this for many years with President Arafat, treating him at its sole interlocutor and pressuring him to amend the basic law to create the position of prime minister. When Arafat died, Palestinians were left with a constitution that at best had ambiguities and at worst was somewhat dysfunctional, providing a serious hindrance to the promotion of clear lines of authority. An effort to redress the current constitutional imbalance through a white coup or by allowing existing institutions to wither will have very serious consequences for the future of democratic development in Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East. A second reason to be cautious about predicting how Abbas will react is his own record. Abbas was the sponsor of the Oslo talks, which fell through after the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. According to most U.S. officials, he did not play an active role in the Camp David talks and resigned after three months as Prime Minister because he could not exercise the full scope of authority that he had hoped for. Even when he was elected as president last year, a much more powerful post, he failed to take steps to implement his own motto of “one authority, one gun, one law.” Controversially, he remained steadfast with his schedule for legislative elections, even after it became clear that Hamas was going to do well and that some policy makers, both in the United States and Israel, would prefer the elections be postponed.

The conventional wisdom of Abbas is that he is weak and indecisive. An alternative reading is that Abbas is a Palestinian nationalist who views his role as one of strengthening Palestinian institutions. From his perspective, then, pushing for the elections was the only available means to incorporate one whole segment of the population into the political sphere. If Abbas is indeed a nationalist, it would be a mistake to assume that he would play along with the effort to undermine Palestinian institutions. Alternatively, he might attempt to reach a national consensus, thus incorporating Hamas into the PLO institutions, and recognize Hamas’s right to continue governing until new elections. Garber suggests this might create an even more serious policy nightmare for Washington than the current situation.

With regards to U.S. democracy assistance in Palestine, Garber noted that there is a consensus in Washington on the need to continue with democracy assistance. What is less clear, however, is what policy makers think will be the likely outcome for such assistance. Garber attempted to debunk three myths about democracy assistance, which he argued might be true in some parts of the Arab world but not in Palestine. First, the United States did not push for elections; it was Palestinians who insisted that elections be held on time. Second, U.S. democracy assistance in Palestine did not place a lot of emphasis on elections. Instead, U.S. democracy promotion efforts in the past years have focused appropriately on institutional development and on civil society. Third, observers unfairly charge that by failing to support alternatives to Fatah and Hamas, the United States gave Hamas an inherent advantage. More accurately, the United States did not shy away from supporting third way politicians but was singularly unsuccessful in supporting them due to the difficulty of attempting to effect political change by picking winners.

Given these conditions, Garber echoed some of Brown’s policy recommendations, arguing that there should be an effort to build on what has been established. Although there is consensus on supporting institutions like the election commission and the judiciary, Garber fears that it will disappear when Hamas insists on some representation in these institutions. This would not be worrisome as long as these institutions maintain an underlying democratic orientation. Beyond the election commission and the judiciary, democracy assistance should extend to other institutions, including the Palestinian legislative council—despite Hamas’s sizable representation, and institutions beyond in the democratic arena, such as the professionalized Palestinian water authority.

Ori Nir agreed with Brown’s analysis but pushed him to define exactly what he means by tolerating Hamas, noting that different definitions raise different policy questions. If toleration means engagement, for instance, he asked how and to what extent? If it implies a passive policy, what does that mean? Alternatively, if it means that Washington can remain pure in its anti-terrorism policy, while tolerating European efforts to aver the humanitarian crisis, Nir pointed out that this is already taking place. The United States is tacitly approving Europe’s Temporary International Mechanism (TIM) policy while maintaining its no-contact policy towards the Hamas government.

While agreeing with Brown’s argument for why ousting Hamas prematurely might not be a good option, Nir contended that the solution should not necessarily be proactive support of Hamas and that a policy of trying to avoid and avert Hamas is a viable alternative. For him, it is a mistake to assume that while giving up on regime change, the United States should accommodate Hamas as long as Hamas does nothing to accommodate the legitimate concerns of the international community. Perhaps, Nir suggests, the most important question should be whether it is impossible to isolate Hamas while keeping the Palestinian Authority structure intact. To conclude, Nir made two observations.  First, the United States may pursue a more conservative policy towards Hamas than Israel. Israelis are beginning to realize that they will need to deal with Hamas. Second, Nir pointed out that while a strangulation policy will have negative consequences, it cannot by itself account for the infighting between Hamas and Fatah. In fact, in-fighting is already happening and is only bound to escalate.

During the question and answer period, all speakers emphasized importance of benchmarks in U.S. policy toward Hamas. Brown suggested that there are numerous realistic benchmarks that can be set if U.S. policy shifts from being one of isolation to one of toleration.

Synopsis prepared by Meredith Riley and Dina Bishara, junior fellows in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project.