The Bush administration is once again committing a major policy blunder in the Middle East by actively supporting the Israeli government in its refusal to recognize a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas. This precludes any progress toward a peace settlement at a time when progress on the Palestinian problem could help avert conflagration in the greater Middle East.
The US and Israel seek to deal only with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. They hope that new elections would deny Hamas the majority it now has in the Palestinian Legislative Council. This is a hopeless strategy, because Hamas would boycott early elections, and even if their outcome would result in Hamas’s exclusion from the government, no peace agreement would hold without Hamas support.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is pursing a different path. In a February summit in Mecca between Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, the Saudi government worked out an agreement between Hamas and Fatah, which have been clashing violently, to form a national unity government. According to the Mecca accord, Hamas agreed “to respect international resolutions and the agreements [with Israel] signed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization,” including the Oslo Accords. The Saudis view this accord as the prelude to the offer of a peace settlement with Israel, to be guaranteed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. But no progress is possible as long as the Bush administration and Ehud Olmert’s Israeli government persist in refusing to recognize a unity government that includes Hamas.
Many of the causes of the current impasse go back to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip unilaterally, without negotiating with the then-Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority. This strengthened Hamas, contributing to Hamas’s electoral victory. Then Israel, with strong US backing, refused to recognize the democratically elected Hamas government and withheld payment of the millions in taxes collected by the Israelis on its behalf. This caused economic hardship and undermined the government’s ability to function. But it did not reduce support for Hamas among Palestinians, and it reinforced the position of Islamic and other extremists who oppose negotiations with Israel. The situation deteriorated to the point where Palestine no longer had an authority with whom Israel could negotiate.