Is Palestinian Chaos a Road to Peace?

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As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepares to visit the Middle East as early as next week, U.S. officials are predicting that an opportunity may be opening to revive the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Her spokesman, Sean McCormack, declined to last weekend to offer specifics on why such an opportunity may now present itself, but plainly, the conditions for peace can't be divorced from the state of Palestinian internal politics — and the escalating confrontation, if not a brewing civil war, between the Fatah movement of President Abbas and Hamas, the democratically elected governing party.

Abbas on Sunday declared Hamas's main Gaza security force illegal, while his key security strongman, Mohammed Dahlan, vowed that for every Fatah member killed in the internecine confrontation, his own men would kill two Hamas men. The Islamists responded by vowing to double the size of their security forces and to fight any attempt to disarm them or to oust the government. Following Fatah's mass rally on Sunday in Hamas's Gaza stronghold, Hamas is planning later this week to hold similar shows of strength on the streets of key West Bank cities, traditionally Fatah's stamping ground. And observers on the ground are expecting the two sides to raise the stakes by escalating the wave of assassinations of each other's leaders.

The Bush Administration may view the current chaos as an opportunity because Washington has come to see the Hamas government as a primary obstacle to peace. The U.S. has made no secret of its desire to oust the government elected a year ago, and to that end has enforced financial sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, substantially boosted armed forces loyal to Abbas, and egged on the Palestinian President in moves to oust the government — by calling new elections, for example, even though none are due until 2010. Effectively, this has made getting rid of the Hamas government a precondition for progress in Abbas's prime goal, which is negotiating a peace agreement with Israel.

And Washington is not the only group putting pressure on Abbas to confront Hamas: Much of the leadership of Fatah responded to their electoral rebuke by insisting that Abbas simply oust the Hamas government and restore them to power. Abbas, however, preferred negotiation, seeking a government of national unity with Hamas in the hope of averting a civil war — despite the skepticism of many Fatah leaders and of the Bush Administration. But the slow, grinding poverty brought on by the financial blockade has prompted much of the Fatah rank-and-file — many of whom are employed by the PA, and therefore are not being paid salaries — to press for a more aggressive response to Hamas.

Last month, in a gambit aimed at forcing Hamas to accept his terms for a unity government, Abbas called for new elections. He did not, however, name a date, and it remains unclear whether he has the constitutional authority to demand an early poll. So, while Hamas accused him of carrying out Washington's orders and vowed to boycott and disrupt any such poll, Fatah hawks complained that his failure to actually name a date or put the election process in motion signaled continued indecision. Meanwhile, on the ground, the militants of both organizations began trading fire as never before.

The optimism of U.S. officials over the political outcome of a confrontation between Abbas and Hamas is not shared by many in the region. Arab governments, including those that have helped bolster Abbas, are reportedly alarmed at the prospect of a Palestinian civil war. Even Israeli intelligence officials are reported to have warned their government that any attempt to hold new elections or try to forcibly replace the Hamas government is doomed to fail — for the simple reason that Hamas is more popular than Fatah, especially now that the U.S. is so strongly perceived as backing Abbas.

The U.S. strategy appears to have missed what many Middle East analysts long ago concluded: that Hamas is now an intractable part of the Palestinian body politic that represents close to half of the population, and cannot simply be wished or blown away. For any U.S. peace plans that are predicated on giving it a knockout blow, the group's mass support — to borrow a phrase from Al Gore — is an inconvenient truth.