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Big loser in Palestinian election? U.S. policy

Hamas' dramatic victory in Palestinian elections is a setback in the Bush administration's campaign for greater democracy in the Middle East, analysts and some officials say.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Standing in a sunny Rose Garden on June 24, 2002, surrounded by his top foreign policy advisers, President Bush issued a clarion call for resolving the deadly Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror."

This week, Palestinians gave their answer, handing a landslide victory in national legislative elections to Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings and desires the elimination of Israel. Bush's statement calling for new leaders was aimed at the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but in the same speech he also said it was necessary to thwart Hamas -- formally the Islamic Resistance Movement -- and other militant groups.

The election outcome signals a dramatic failure in the administration's strategy for Middle East peace, according to analysts and some U.S. officials. Since the United States cannot deal with an organization labeled a terrorist organization by the State Department, Hamas's victory is likely to curtail U.S. aid, limit official U.S. contacts with the Palestinian government and stall efforts to create an independent Palestinian state.

A stinging blow
More broadly, Hamas's victory is seen as a setback in the administration's campaign for greater democracy in the Middle East. Elections in Iran, Iraq, Egypt and now the Palestinian territories have resulted in the defeat of secular and moderate parties and the rise of Islamic parties hostile to U.S. interests.

The administration has long been criticized for being reluctant to get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; even after Bush's 2002 speech, the policy drifted except for occasional high-profile speeches and events. But after Arafat's death in late 2004 and the beginning of the new presidential term, Bush vowed things would be different, saying he would invest "political capital" in ensuring a Palestinian state before he leaves office three years from now.

The effort went wrong on three fronts, according to interviews inside and outside the administration:

  • The administration put its hopes on the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and poured hundreds of millions of dollars to fund public works projects. But it failed to back him when he asked for concrete help, especially in his dealings with the Israelis.
  • The administration was highly attuned to the shifts of Israeli politics but tone-deaf to the upheaval in Palestinian society. It was so focused on facilitating Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip that it did not press Israel to end settlement expansion, release additional prisoners or take other measures that might have reduced Palestinian indignation.
  • Despite deep Israeli misgivings, the administration late last year shifted policy and decided Hamas could participate in the elections even though it had not disarmed its militias, in contrast to rules set for elections in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland.

Words, not deeds
To be sure, a large share of the blame for Hamas's victory rests with Abbas -- widely perceived as weak and indecisive -- and his quarreling and often corrupt Fatah party. The Palestinian Authority proved incapable of governing Gaza after the Israeli withdrawal, adding to the perception of incompetence.

Analysts credit the Bush administration with focusing on building some governing institutions, such as a well-functioning Finance Ministry that handles the foreign aid that keeps the Palestinian Authority afloat. But many experts fault the administration for issuing high-sounding rhetoric without sustained involvement on the ground.

"There were eloquent speeches and praise for Abbas" but little else, said Robert Malley, director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East program, who was on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council. "There was an abstract faith in the idea that if you do the right thing, you will get a two-state solution."

Little appetite for direct involvement
The administration at the start of last year pledged it would take a low-key approach that would rely much more on nations in the region to carry the diplomatic burden. Officials were disdainful of the Clinton administration's deep involvement in the peace process, which they believed amounted to micromanaging. But over the course of the year, a top general was dispatched to help organize Palestinian security forces, former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn was recruited to assist on the Gaza withdrawal and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in November personally negotiated the opening of a border crossing.

The key to the administration's plan was Abbas, who was elected president after Arafat's death. Abbas had briefly been prime minister under Arafat in 2003, after international donors threatened to abandon Arafat if he did not allow the creation of a strong prime minister. Abbas quit after a few months, blaming both the United States and Israel for failing to back him up. Administration officials had said they would not repeat the mistake when he became president.

But Abbas faced a steep road. The administration was already perceived in the region as biased toward Israel, in part because Bush backed the Gaza withdrawal plan with pledges that Israel could keep large settlements and refuse the return of Palestinians in a final peace deal. Israel's departure from Gaza was designed to be a unilateral step, depriving Abbas of a negotiated peace victory he could claim; instead, Hamas asserted it had driven the Israelis out with its uncompromising approach.

Assurances trumped by voters
Abbas cut a deal with Hamas, winning its agreement for a cease-fire in exchange for allowing it to participate in elections. But Abbas did not put conditions on its participation, such as giving up its weapons or even pledging not to attack Israelis -- a problem that did not capture the administration's attention until it was too late.

Abbas privately convinced U.S. officials that a Fatah victory would be a blow to Islamic extremism in the region, making the election showdown more enticing to an administration promoting democracy in the Middle East. He also pledged to quickly pass a law requiring the dismantling of militias as soon as the new legislature was elected. The original argument that he should take action against the militias sooner rather than later faded.

When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned in September that he would try to block Hamas's participation unless it disbanded its militia and accepted Israel's right to exist, the administration forced the Israelis to back off. "Elections are fundamental to the continued evolution and development of the Palestinian process," Rice said.