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There could hardly have been more agreement between President George Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at their White House press conference. They both saw a bright side of the disaster in Gaza. As Olmert put it, "I'm absolutely determined that there is an opportunity."
It was hard not to notice an odd sense of relief. The previously untenable policy of trying to support the better half of a two-headed monster has suddenly been simplified. The operation may have been barbaric, but now that Hamas extremists and Fatah "moderates" have separated, the screws can be tightened on the former and the floodgates of assistance can be opened to the former.
The only problem is that the enthusiasm with which Washington and Jerusalem are leaping into this new-old approach is matched only by the consensus that it won't work.
Writing in The Washington Post, Clinton-era peace processors Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller argue that the proposed approach "lacks grounding" because "it is premised on the notion that Fatah controls the West Bank," despite the fact that "Fatah has ceased to exist as an ideologically or organizationally coherent movement."
They note further that "Most attacks against Israel since the elections were launched by the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, the unruly Fatah-affiliated militias, notwithstanding Abbas's repeated calls for them to stop. Given this, why would Israel agree to measurably loosen security restrictions?"
Writing in the New York Times, Fouad Ajami agrees.
"We must not overdo the distinction between the "secularism" of Fatah and the Islamism of Hamas. In the cruel streets and refugee camps of the Palestinians, this is really a distinction without a difference.... Nablus in the West Bank is no more amenable to reason than is Gaza; the writ of the pitiless preachers and gunmen is the norm in both places."
In the Wall Street Journal, historian Michael Oren points out that since 1993, "the [Palestinian Authority] has garnered more international aid than any entity in modern history - more, per capita, than the European states under the Marshall Plan." The policy of showering Palestinians with aid has patently failed and, in the case of West Bank as Fatahland, "is tantamount to investing in the Titanic."
It would seem that this is not a moment for blindly applying the old policy to the new situation as if nothing has happened. If there is an opportunity, it is in the possibility of stepping back briefly to reassess policies that have proven catastrophic and, by most accounts, are headed for failure again.
There are essentially two alternatives to the current approach. The one that will likely be advocated by Western foreign ministries was represented by Malley and Miller, who called for "a push for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire in Gaza and the West Bank, which will require dealing - indirectly at least - with elements of Hamas." The other is to continue the bifurcation between "moderates" and extremists, but to do so differently than in the past.
In our view, the latter approach does hold promise, but is so far not sufficiently evident in the statements of Bush and Olmert. It is not enough, for example, to ignore Gaza or maintain the status quo.
The first, most urgent task is to force Egypt to shut down the flow of weapons through its territory to Hamas. There has been almost no public pressure by Olmert, Bush or European leaders on Egypt to do this, though all recognize that Egypt can do much more. This silence is as baffling as it irresponsible and shortsighted.
Meanwhile, the EU has announced that it will continue to pay the salaries of thousands of PA workers in Gaza. Why should Western governments do Hamas this favor? How can Hamas be forced to face the need to develop Gaza's economy rather than fight Israel if Europe is paying Palestinian salaries?
But neither should a similar mistake be made with Fatah. The enormous sums channeled through Fatah have produced rampant corruption and the largest police force, per capita, on the globe. Fatah must be weaned from its gravy train if it is to take economic development and the rule of law seriously. The fall of Gaza proves that being against Hamas should not alone qualify Fatah for massive Western support, even though Fatah - with some justification - is seen as no better, and perhaps worse, in Palestinian eyes.
The carrot and stick approach, while correct in theory, has been applied in an appalling way: true extremists continue to enjoy carrots and have barely received the beginnings of a stick, while carrots have been too freely showered on undeserving recipients. We do the "moderates" no favors by failing to expect anything better, and we condemn ourselves to more of the same.