Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Be Careful What You Wish For

Marc Lynch, writing at his fancy new digs, passes along this disturbing account of a lecture he attended given by Israel's Ambassador to the United States Sallai Meridor:

It was a profoundly dismaying experience. Because if Ambassador Meridor is taken at his word, then Israel has no strategy in Gaza.

Asked three times by audience members, Meridor simply could not offer any plausible explanation as to how its military campaign in Gaza would achieve its stated goals...The goal, he explained, was to create "a better, more secure situation for us and the Palestinians" by degrading Hamas's capabilities and by re-establishing the credibility of its deterrence.

But how, exactly?...No guidance as to whether Israel would re-occupy Gaza, or on what terms it would accept a cease-fire. No thoughts as to whether the campaign would cause Hamas to fall from power or help the Palestinian Authority regain political power. An absolute refusal to entertain a question about the negative effects of the images from Gaza on the wider region (the important image of the war, he nearly spat, should be that "terror is not allowed to win"). Would the military assault at least change Hamas's strategic calculus? "This is for the future, only the future will tell."

Unfortunately, there is good reason to believe that such a purposeless application of violence will achieve the opposite of the intended outcome. In the context of such conflict, and the blockade of food and medicine applied to Gaza in recent months, degrading Hamas will not necessarily empower more moderate voices. On the contrary: a weakened Hamas may provide an opening, and support amongst a beleaguered population, for even more radical and pernicious forces like al-Qaeda and similar groups. Desperation and violence have a tendency to beget more desperation and violence, not less.

Hamas is not the worst possible faction to gain power in Gaza, and the US and Israel should be mindful of the alternatives and differences. While lumping all Islamist movements together under one all-encompassing "Islamofascist" umbrella is a preferred tactic of neoconservative thinkers, in truth, there are serious tensions, competing goals and doctrinal differences between groups like Hamas and al-Qaeda et al. Along these lines, there is a greater possibility of reaching a political accommodations with a group like Hamas with the right incentives, whereas no such outcome is possible with al-Qaeda and its ilk.

Further, it's important to note that Hamas and al-Qaeda-like Salafist groups (and other more radical domestic groups such as Islamic Jihad) have long been competing for the "hearts and minds" of Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere. Rather than allies, they have tended to view each other as rivals. From an article in Der Spiegel discussing the competition:

Abu Mustafa says, he and his comrades in arms realize they need to be patient. There’s a long way to go before they can begin their struggle for global influence. First, they have to take care of an enemy closer to home: Hamas.

So far, Hamas has done what it can to keep the Salafis under control. They know the ultra-radicals are just waiting to take over Hamas’ position of leadership. “They are traitors,” Abu Mustafa says of Hamas. “Compared to us, they are Islamism lite.” […]

The group’s greatest sin, says Abu Mustafa… is its effort to bring Islam and democracy together. “Hamas represents an American style of Islam. They have tried to curry favor.” Which is not such a bad thing for Abu Mustafa and his Salafis. “Hamas is like a block of ice in the sun,” he says. “Every minute they get smaller — and we get larger.”

Shadi Hamid provides further background:

A political organization has domestic competitors to both the right and left. Hamas’s major competitor to the left is Fatah. Hamas is not threatened by Fatah in any ideological sense, since the latter has no recognizable ideology. On the other hand, Hamas’s competitors from the “right” represent both political and ideological threats. They fall into two main categories: 1) domestic terrorist groups such as Islamic Jihad, and 2) transnational terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It is worth nothing that Hamas and al-Qaeda have not exactly gotten along since Hamas has prevented al-Qaeda, thus far, from gaining a foothold in Gaza.

Not only will the Hamas organization - left in a weakened state by the recent Israeli military actions - be less able to ward off challengers, but Hamas could feel pressure to outflank its rivals by assuming more radical positions than it would have been inclined to take were it not feeling such pressures. Put simply, as Matt Duss does, the recent violence in Gaza could redound to the benefit of Hamas' rivals and push Hamas itself in the wrong direction.

Further complicating this potential trajectory, there is an internal struggle between hardliners and more moderate voices within Hamas that should not be ignored - as its contours are relevant to any analysis of the likely impact and even impetus - of US and Israeli policy. Shadi Hamid:

Mass-based Islamist groups have, in recent years, become increasingly prone to internal factionalization. Hamas is no exception. I wrote earlierabout divisions between Hamas “politicians” (the Gaza-based faction led by Ismail Haniyeh) and Hamas “militants” or “hardliners” (the Damascus-based faction led by Khaled Meshal). [...]

Let’s backtrack to the days leading up to the end of the cease-fire (Dec. 19). Meshal announced on Sunday December 14th that the ceasefire would not be renewed. Meanwhile, Gaza-based Ayman Taha, presumably with support from Haniyeh, saidthat Meshal’s positions were not binding on the organization. Meanwhile, Haniyeh, when asked to comment, did not secondMeshal’s position and instead issued a non-committal statement. What this likely means is that the intensification of rocket attacks after December 19 was authorized by Damascus rather than Gaza. If Meshal could not bind his Gaza counterparts with his words, he could presumably bind them with actions. If this is indeed the case, then internal posturing within Hamas may have played a greater role in the current conflagration than is originally thought.

The last thing Israel and the US should seek to be creating is a situation in which Hamas' hardliners gain the upper hand over the more political-minded faction, and/or that al-Qaeda and like-minded organizations gain a viable foothold in Gaza at the expense of Hamas. Yet, by immediately seeking to undermine and isolate Hamas after its electoral victory, by instituting a punitive blockadeof food and medicine seeking to enter Gaza, and by Israel's most recent military incursion, Israel and the US may be doing just that. With al-Qaeda increasingly turning its eyes to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as the next battle with which to rally its forces around, the timing could not be worse. Matt Duss again:

Note that the competition between Salafists and Hamas eviscerates (once again) the neoconservative conceit of a united Islamofascist front against the West. These are different groups with different ideologies and goals. Treating them merely as different heads on a Islamic terrorist hydra is just bad policy. In addition to addressing underlying causes when possible, a better policy would involve exploring whether these differences can be aggravated and exploited, as they have been in Iraq.

Since 9/11, neoconservatives and other supporters of a “war on terror” have tried to conflate Israel’s war with the Palestinians with America’s war with Al Qaeda, playing upon Americans’ fear and trauma to obscure the very different issues that in fact motivate the Israel-Palestine conflict. But just as an Iraq invasion premised in part on the myth of an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection resulted in a foothold for Al Qaeda in Iraq, so a U.S.-Israel policy that admits essentially no difference between Hamas and Al Qaeda — and that continues to blindly support attempts to crush extremism without addressing the conditions that drive extremism — could very likely do the same for Al Qaeda in Palestine.

Given this potential, ending the latest round of violence, and shifting the US government's posture with respect to Hamas and Gaza, takes on an extra sense of urgency. Daniel Levy, as usual, has some trenchant analysis and recommendations for what should happen next. In particular, rather than seeking to drive a wedge between Fatah and Hamas, US policy should seek to foster a unified Palestinian leadership.

In pursuit of this, the US and Israel should abandon attempts to isolate and punish Gazans for their selection of Hamas via the ballot box, and seek to push Hamas to the middle by creating political incentives. In trying to peel the Gaza population away from Hamas through military force and punitive tactics, the US and Israel should fear what the fruition of that strategy might yield. Gazans might just abandon Hamas, but the replacement might be considerably worse. Just as the purposeful degradation of Fatah led to Hamas' ascendance in the first place.

[UPDATE: Marc Lynch has even more]

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