Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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17 Shevat 5766 - February 15, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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U.S. and Israelis Are Said to Talk of New PA Elections

by M Plaut and Yated Ne'eman Staff

On Tuesday the New York Times reported that United States and Israel were considering a campaign to starve the Palestinian Authority of cash so that Palestinians would grow disillusioned with Hamas and bring down the Hamas government. The Times did not name any of its sources, so it was not clear if the report was based on policy scenarios exploring different options or if there were real policy plans. Responding to the news story, Hamas mocked both the U.S. and Israel. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, "There is no plan, there is no plot." An Israeli official also denied the report.

It is a matter of public record that the US and Israel have taken the lead in urging other countries not to recognize Hamas until they renounce violence and recognize the fundamental rights of Israel, including the right to exist. So far Hamas has done neither, and has insisted that it will not in the future either. The position of most countries of the world is that without this, Hamas cannot be considered a legitimate, civilized government, even if it was elected democratically.

According to the report, the plan is to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections in the hope that president Mahmoud Abbas is eventually compelled to call new elections. The hope is that Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return a chastened Fatah movement to office. The officials also argue that Hamas won a smaller mandate than previously understood.

The officials and diplomats who spoke to the New York Times said that they are not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. The Times did not explain if or how they had verified the speculation.

Opinion polls show that Hamas's promise to better the lives of the Palestinian people was the main reason it won. But the United States and Israel say Palestinian life will only get harder if Hamas does not meet those three demands. They say Hamas plans to build up its militias and increase violence and can be starved out of power.

The officials drafting the plan know that Hamas leaders have repeatedly rejected demands to change and do not expect Hamas to meet them. "The point is to put this choice on Hamas's shoulders," a senior Western diplomat said. "If they make the wrong choice, all the options lead in a bad direction."

The strategy has many risks. Hamas will certainly try to secure support from the Islamic world, including Syria and Iran, as well as from private donors.

It will blame Israel and the United States for its troubles, appeal to the world not to punish the Palestinian people for their free democratic choice, point to the real hardship that a lack of cash will produce and may very well resort to an open military confrontation with Israel.

One observer noted that there are other ways to measure an improvement in life besides money. Life has been so chaotic, lawless and corrupt under Fatah that Hamas can and probably will improve many areas even without a lot of money. They will get a lot of credit if they manage to get services running and control internal violence.

The supposed destabilization plan centers largely on money. The Palestinian Authority already has a monthly cash deficit of some $60 million to $70 million after it receives money from Israel that represents taxes and customs duties collected by Israeli officials for the Palestinians. Israel says it will cut off those payments once Hamas takes power, and put the money in escrow.

Also, some of the aid that the Palestinians currently receive will be stopped or reduced by the United States and European Union governments, which are constrained by law or politics from providing money to an authority run by Hamas which is listed by Washington and the European Union as a terrorist organization.

Israeli military officials have discussed cutting Gaza off completely from the West Bank and making the Israeli-Gaza border an international one. They also say they will not allow Hamas members of the Palestinian parliament, some of whom are wanted by Israeli security forces, to travel freely between Gaza and the West Bank.

On Sunday, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced after a cabinet meeting that Israel would consider Hamas to be in power on the day the new parliament is sworn in: this Saturday.

So beginning next month, the Palestinian Authority will face a cash deficit of at least $110 million a month, or more than $1 billion a year, which it needs to pay salaries to its 140,000 employees.

The employment figure includes some 58,000 members of the security forces, most of which are affiliated with the defeated Fatah movement.

The Palestinian stock market has already fallen about 20 percent since the election on Jan. 25, and the Authority has exhausted its borrowing capacity with local banks.

Hamas gets up to $100,000 a month in cash from abroad. "But it's hard to move millions of dollars in suitcases," a Western official said.

Mr. Abbas, the Fatah-affiliated president, has four more years in office and is insistent that Hamas has a democratic right to govern. But Mr. Abbas has also threatened to quit if he does not have a government that can carry out his fundamental policies — which include, he has said, negotiations with Israel toward a final peace treaty based on a permanent two-state solution. The United States and the European Union have strongly urged him to stay on the job and shoulder his responsibilities.

On Monday the departing parliament made an effort to boost Mr. Abbas's powers by passing legislation giving him the authority to appoint a new constitutional court that can veto legislation deemed in violation of the Palestinians' basic law.

Mr. Abbas would appoint the nine judges to the new court without seeking parliamentary approval. Hamas immediately objected, saying that Hamas would try to overturn the decisions once the new legislature convened on Saturday.

Hamas will control at least 74 seats of the 132-member parliament, and it is likely to have the support of six more members on key votes. But more than 10 percent of the new legislators are already in Israeli jails: 10 from Hamas, 3 from Fatah and one from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The United States and Fatah believe that the Hamas victory was far less sweeping than it appears, said Khalil Shikaki, a pollster and the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

If Fatah had forced its members to withdraw their independent candidacies in constituencies where they split the votes with official Fatah candidates, it might have won the election.

Hamas won 44 percent of the popular vote but 56 percent of the seats, while Fatah won 42 percent of the popular vote but only 34 percent of the seats.

A newly-elected Hamas legislator said that they will move on two parallel fronts: to reform Palestinian political life, and "to break the isolation of our government." If Hamas succeeds on both fronts, he said, "we will achieve a great thing for our people, a normal life with security and a state of law, where no one can abuse power."


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