Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bush’s Mideast: Missing Shades of Gray

By conflating Hamas with jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Mr. Bush presented a picture that most Palestinians do not recognize. Their internal divisions — even with Hamas having routed Fatah in Gaza last month and Fatah running the West Bank — are much more complex that the one posited by Mr. Bush.

Palestinians elected Hamas in January 2006 to rule them, after all, and even many Palestinians who voted for Fatah say the United States-led boycott of Hamas has meant it has never been given a chance to govern.

They also know that Fatah has hardly been spotless, which is why they voted against it, and that Fatah has done very little to reform itself since....

Mr. Fayyad has no troops and no electoral mandate, but with Mr. Abbas’s support he promises to create a Palestinian administration in the West Bank that can deliver what Hamas won the election promising: change and reform, security and order.

But if Mr. Fayyad succeeds, it will be without democratic legitimacy. And a putative Palestine divided between the West Bank and Gaza only perpetuates a deep Palestinian political division, leaving out Hamas and the sizable minority who support it. That will undermine the credibility of whatever deal Mr. Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, and Mr. Fayyad might be able to reach with a skeptical Israel, where the rightist Likud Party leads the polls....

Accusing W of missing shades of gray is a bit like accusing water of being wet.

It's difficult to be sure whether NYT's Erlanger is buying into this analysis or just reporting it. He is surely correct that the present strategy of trying to build up Fatah and isolate Hamas has its difficulties and risks, but it is less clear what alternative, at this point, would be more promising. The focus on "democratic legitimacy", while sounding persuasive to Western ears, seems off key in the context of Arab politics, where such "legitimacy" is rarely, if ever, the norm. (The Bush Administration's near exclusive focus on elections as the determinative measure of "democracy" has been a fiasco throughout the Middle East; real democracy, as more than a dictionary simplification, requires protections for civil rights and liberties and functioning institutions of civil society (such as free speech, a free press, and robust mechanisms for political organizing), some notions of accountability (and limits to corruption), and certain democratic sentiments (and eventually traditions) among the citizenry.)

Hmm, it sounds like we could work on some of that in the U.S., let alone in the Middle East.

Actually, there may be some respects in which proto-Palestine is more advanced than some--indeed, many--of the "moderate" Arab governments with which we are allied--perhaps not the most helpful or impressive observation.

But I'm getting off track. What is Erlanger comparing the present strategy to, exactly? I guess a more supportive attitude (by the U.S. and the international community) toward a Hamas government for Palestine? We didn't give Hamas a chance? But the situation was rather like civil contempt in law--Hamas held the keys to its isolation cell in its own pocket, by meeting the international conditions for its legitimacy and recognition, and refused to use them. And suffered the consequences of that choice (as did the Palestinian population, ever captive to lousy leadership).

What exactly is wrong with those conditions as a basis for moving toward, if not an ideal peace, a better likelihood of moving toward a better future for the region?

Pray, tell.

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