Who 'lost' the PA?

Hamas's victory was inevitable because both the US and Israel missed the chance to build on Palestinian moderation

On Wednesday, US Senator Lincoln Chafee, chairman of the Middle East Subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee, asked the secretary of state to explain why the United States did not do more to prevent the Hamas win in the January 25 election. He was not suggesting that the Bush administration should have obstructed the election or withheld recognition of it as "free and fair." He simply wanted to understand why the United States had not done more to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas so he would be able to withstand the Hamas challenge. Chafee is too modest to mention that he had repeatedly warned the administration that our tepid support of Abbas would lead to a Hamas victory, and that unless the US went all out to help Abbas we would face disaster. Condoleezza Rice told Chafee that she probably devotes "more time on this issue than any other," noting the trips she has made to the region and her success at producing the Gaza Movement and Access Agreement. But Rice herself has acknowledged that the United States did not have "a good enough pulse" on the Palestinian electorate's attitudes. No doubt Chafee's question resonates with her as well. How, in fact, did it happen? Pursuing an answer to that question is not Monday morning quarterbacking. Knowing the answer could help prevent more "missed opportunities" - opportunities which could, if seized, prevent the next round of bloodshed. By now everyone has heard the canard: The Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. There is no arguing with that. But neither the US nor Israel should casually invoke that tired mantra lest someone point out that when it comes to missed opportunities the Palestinians have plenty of company. THE FIRST thing to know about the Hamas win is that it was eminently predictable - and widely predicted, including in this space - and perhaps even inevitable in the sense that the actions of Fatah, the Americans and the Israelis made it so. The Palestinians were sick and tired of Fatah's corruption and cronyism. Perhaps they would have forgiven Fatah's sleaziness if it had eased the burden of the Israeli occupation. Palestinians thought that the death of Yasser Arafat and the election of Mahmoud Abbas a year ago would lead the United States to push Israel to ease up on them. It didn't happen. The Bush administration said the right things. But with a few notable and significant exceptions - especially Rice's successful efforts at getting the route of the separation barrier altered to ease Palestinian movement and the Gaza border crossings agreement - the US let Prime Minister Ariel Sharon do more or less whatever he wanted to do. Rightly supporting Sharon's Gaza withdrawal, we couldn't even get Sharon to negotiate its terms with Abbas, or even to symbolically bring him in. Accordingly, Abbas and Fatah got no credit for the Gaza withdrawal, while Hamas was credited for producing the unilateral pullout by force of its arms. Congress, for its part, did everything in its power to prevent President Bush and Secretary Rice from taking actions that might have strengthened Abbas vis-a-vis Hamas, repeatedly acting as if it was Arafat and not Abbas who was in power. In fact, Congress put more restrictions on Palestinian aid under Abbas than under Arafat, putting politics before policy. That isn't likely to change now. The other day the House passed a strong and necessary resolution (already passed in the Senate) expressing the sense of Congress that "no United States assistance should be provided directly to the Palestinian Authority if any representative political party holding a majority of parliamentary seats within the Palestinian Authority maintains a position calling for the destruction of Israel." But that was not enough for some House members. Like it or not, Hamas won fair and square in an election certified as such by the United States. ISRAELIS ARE the last people who should be surprised by the Hamas victory. In fact, in the 1980s Hamas (and previous incarnations of Islamic resistance) were quietly supported by the Israelis as alternatives to the PLO. Prior to Yitzhak Rabin's election in 1992 and the Oslo Agreement, successive Israeli governments preferred any alternative to Arafat and his organization, largely because they were not interested in negotiating with the Palestinians at all. And the Islamicists - unlike the PLO - were not interested in negotiating with them either. But their biggest contribution to the Hamas victory was more recent. After boycotting Arafat since his election in 2001, it was assumed that the Sharon government would be more forthcoming with his moderate and democratically-elected successor who, after all, ended the intifada. It wasn't. Sharon rarely negotiated with Abbas and simply ignored most of Israel's responsibilities under the road map (freezing settlement expansion, for one). Other than calling Abbas a "partner," Sharon treated him little differently than Arafat, and the Americans didn't press him hard to do so. Abbas could not even win the release of political prisoners, something Arafat was able to achieve. To Palestinians, Abbas looked like a dupe. ABBAS, FOR his part, did not live up to his responsibilities either, making only the feeblest of efforts to disarm the militants, although - and this is of supreme importance - he maintained the cease-fire that has allowed Israel to flourish over the past year. I visited Israel several times during the intifada, and also after the cease-fire was implemented, and the difference was night and day. Israel feels like Israel. Those who would dismiss the significance of the cease-fire and the Palestinians' commitment to it simply do not know Israel, and that is why its continuation has to be Israel's and America's number-one priority in the region. But Palestinian responsibilities are less significant in this context than Israel's or America's. One, the Palestinians are by far the weaker party. Any Palestinian government's room for maneuver will be less than Israel's. And, two, neither Israel nor the US has control over what the Palestinians do. Israel can make choices for Israel, and America for America. Unfortunately, too many wrong choices have been made. It is, then, no surprise that Hamas won. Those who didn't see the Hamas triumph coming were not paying enough attention. At this point it is impossible to know what is likely to happen. There are conflicting signs coming out of Gaza, the West Bank and the Arab capitals as well. Some are hopeful; some aren't. The lesson to be derived from the policy failures that produced the Hamas win is that there is no Israeli-Palestinian status quo. The situation either gets better - or it gets worse. Arafat's replacement by Abbas presented the opportunity to move swiftly toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. But virtually every opportunity was missed - with the exception of Ariel Sharon's Gaza withdrawal - and even that success was marred by the failure to coordinate with the Palestinians. And now there is Hamas. Is the diplomatic process dead? It isn't. There will be more opportunities to stabilize the situation and ultimately advance toward an agreement even now, even with a Palestinian Authority dominated by Hamas. But only if Israelis, Palestinians and Americans seize opportunities rather than ignore them in the hope that they will just go away. The alternative? Terrorism, Intifada 3, and ever-deadlier violence. Nobody can say they weren't warned. The writer is the director of Policy Analysis for Israel Policy Forum.