WASHINGTON (Feb. 6)
Total shelf life for the “inevitability” of Palestinian accountability to the international community: A year and change.
The cost to the international community of propping up Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas while isolating Hamas: An estimated $700 million and change.
Percentage of Palestinians who want the West to end Hamas’ isolation: 80 and change.
Watching a senior U.S. government official belittle the Russians for pretending to matter: Priceless.
When it comes to Middle East diplomacy, nothing much seems to change. Barely a year after the “Quartet” — the grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations that guides the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — committed to isolating Hamas, which had just been elected to lead the Palestinian Authority, the consensus appears to be falling apart.
Russia and the United States especially are renewing decades-old antagonisms in the region: The Americans will not deal with terrorists, while the Russians recognize Hamas as the Palestinians’ “legitimate representatives” because they won January 2006 elections.
Asked about Russia’s defection from the Quartet consensus to isolate Hamas, a senior U.S. official sought to minimize Russian clout, noting repeatedly that Russia contributed just $10 million of the $700 million in international assistance sent to the Palestinians in 2006.
Officials initially heralded last Friday’s Quartet meeting in Washington as an endorsement of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s efforts to reignite Israeli-Palestinian talks.
To be sure, the official statement after the meeting welcomed plans for a summit later this month that will bring together Rice, Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, saying it “could begin to define more clearly the political horizon for the Palestinian people and help engender a sense of partnership.”
More significant, however, was what was missing: A repeat of the commitment in the Quartet’s Jan. 30, 2006 statement, issued days after Hamas won P.A. legislative elections, that “it was inevitable that future assistance to any new government would be reviewed by donors against that government’s commitment to the principles of nonviolence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations.”
A year later, Hamas still won’t recognize Israel or renounce terrorism, and its failure to do so in recent national unity talks with Abbas’ more moderate Fatah party has precipitated weeks of internal Palestinian warfare.
Rice reassured journalists that the Quartet had “reiterated the commitment to the principles that we outlined because it goes without saying that in order to have a partner for peace, you have to accept the existence of the other partner.”
But in fact, nothing in the formal statement enforced those principles through the threat of isolation. New U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had just read out the statement, State Department staff were handing out copies of the text and the room rustled with turning pages as reporters searched vainly for the earlier pledge that foreign assistance would “inevitably” be measured against Hamas’ commitment to peace and coexistence.
As soon as Rice finished speaking, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dashed any hopes that the omission would be overlooked.
“I don’t think that to resolve this problem — just like any problem that exists in the world — that you could do it through boycott and isolation,” Lavrov said. “I think that today’s meeting of the Quartet was able to issue a document which talks about other things.”
Rice stared at Lavrov; she was the only diplomat on the dais not to don interpretive headphones. A former Sovietologist, she understood every word he said in the original Russian.
The “other things” Lavrov was glad to see included were the two-state solution that the international community backs — but this time the commitment wasn’t qualified by the isolation of Hamas that had lent it teeth throughout 2006; and the “political horizon” for the Palestinians cited not just in the statement but three times by Rice in her press conference.
A week or so ahead of the Rice-Abbas-Olmert summit, that political horizon is shrouded in mist. Though the Palestinians were promised a state within three years if they would only combat terrorism, Abbas rejected “provisional” statehood, as outlined in the road map’s second stage, when he met with Rice last month; Olmert has made clear that full-fledged statehood, as outlined in the road map’s third and final stage, is not an option with Hamas leading the P.A. legislature and Cabinet; and the streets of the Gaza Strip, which graduated last week from gunfire to mortar exchanges and firebombings, seem very much stuck in the here and now.
Almost every sentence out of Lavrov’s mouth began with a statement of Hamas’ legitimacy, and only then expressed hope for a peaceful solution
“Hamas is a political force,” Lavrov began, “and we would like this to be the only direction in which they work. We’re all against violence; we’re all against terrorist acts.
“Hamas received support from the Palestinian people during the elections a year ago,” Lavrov began, “and they should understand their responsibility, where this responsibility lies for their own people.
“The Palestinians should decide for themselves how to structure their life,” Lavrov began, “but they should understand that there are some agreements between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”
U.S. officials said Lavrov’s defection was not of much consequence. Russia is one-quarter of the Quartet, one senior official acknowledged to reporters but — and here the official smiled — “they gave $10 million of the roughly $700 million in assistance” the Palestinians received last year. The official referred to Russia’s relatively small contribution at least twice more in the briefing.
The official insisted that the policy of channeling assistance away from Hamas to nongovernmental organizations and Abbas was working. International assistance effectively doubled in 2006, according to a U.S. assessment, from $350 to $700 million. Barely $50 million of that went to Hamas, a figure the official described as “chump change” when the P.A. government costs $150 million a month to run.
According to one poll, Palestinians hope the Quartet meeting and its follow-up will reopen the spigot of direct aid to the Palestinian Authority. The Jan. 20-25 poll, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, recorded 81.5 percent calling for assistance to the Palestinian Authority to be renewed; the same percentage expressed concern about their well-being because of the isolation.
The poll, taken door-to-door in the West Bank and Gaza, had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
The U.S. official saw little hope that Hamas would meet the conditions laid down in the Quartet’s Jan. 30, 2006 statement.
“I see Hamas representatives as recorded in public as increasingly uncomfortable with having to come out and say no” to recognizing Israel and renouncing violence, the official said. “I also see that they not ever have said yes.”