Ineptitude Foretold (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. There was an election on Hamas's mind when it canceled the cease-fire with Israel on December 19, leading to the current Gaza war. It wasn't the February Israeli election but rather the question of whether there would be a vote for a new Palestinian Authority (PA) leader after Mahmud Abbas's term expired in January. Analysts have generally ignored the proximity of Hamas's decision for war to its impending showdown with Abbas, his Fatah movement, and the PA that controls the West Bank. It was widely predicted that Abbas was going to announce that, given the impossibility of holding new elections, he would simply extend his term for another year. That was expected to spark a major widening of the rift between the two groups. Hamas, it was thought, would declare Abbas a usurper, name its own candidate for "president," and the institutionalization of two rival Palestinian governments would be complete. In the run-up to the showdown, the PA apparently enjoyed - with Israeli help - some real success in reducing Hamas's organization on the West Bank, ensuring that any takeover bid there would be impossible, and making progress toward restoring order and even improving the economy. Hamas, no doubt, saw choosing war as a way of upstaging Abbas, showing that it was the real fighter for Palestinian rights (principally the right to wipe Israel off the map), and even attracting support from some Fatah men who concluded that the Islamist Hamas was macho and their own secular nationalist organization too meek. In effect, it was a reiteration of traditional Palestinian politics, in which those who take the most extreme action, evidence the greatest intransigence and kill the most Israelis prove their credentials for leadership. In practice, though, Hamas played into Abbas's hands. Now he has the perfect rationale to insist that elections cannot be held, which is of course quite true, and he must remain leader for the indefinite future. Nevertheless, the relationship between Hamas and Fatah remains quite complex. It seems bizarre that Hamas set off a civil war, murdered Fatah men in cold blood and kicked the group out of Gaza in June 2007, yet still most of Fatah is ready to forgive and forget. There is a strong likelihood that if given the choice, Fatah leaders - though not necessarily Abbas himself - would prefer a conciliation with Hamas that would make any peace with Israel impossible to cutting a diplomatic deal with Israel and getting a Palestinian state. From Israel's standpoint, of course, how can it negotiate any comprehensive solution with the PA when the latter cannot deliver half of the territory, people and armed men that are supposed to be bound by such an agreement? Moreover, the possibility that either Hamas will overthrow Fatah at some future point or that the two will join together in a new war against Israel puts a damper on Israeli willingness to make concessions. The paradox of a simultaneous blood feud/brotherly love relationship between the two Palestinian organizations stems partly from the supposed sanctity of being fellow Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians, coupled with a deep and abiding loathing of Israel. Yet this also coexists with such deep Fatah detestation of Hamas that interviewed Fatah cadres told reporters that they were glad Israel was trouncing the Islamists in the Gaza Strip. The solution of this love-hate paradox was for the official PA line to be: It's all Hamas's fault but there should be an immediate cease-fire and Israel is behaving in an inhumane way. Prof. Barry Rubin is director of the Herzliya-based Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His books include 'The Israel-Arab Reader,' 'Revolution Until Victory,' 'The Tragedy of the Middle East' and 'Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography.' Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.