PALESTINE: Avoiding failure with Hamas
Robert Malley

Washington, April 21, 2006

Can Hamas change? For European officials in the midst of formulating policy toward the Palestinian Authority the only answer they can offer at the moment is a resounding maybe.

In a dizzying fluctuation between the conciliatory and the confrontational, the Islamist movement has more or less maintained a ceasefire; its government has suggested respect for past agreements with the caveat that these must serve Palestinian interests; and officials hint that one day they would accept a two-state solution, only to contradict themselves the next.

But though there`s genuine uncertainty over whether Hamas ultimately can come up with the right answer, halting aid to the Palestinian Authority almost certainly will yield the wrong one. Humanitarian assistance will continue, and rightly so, but it is only part of the story, and a marginal one at that.

Of far greater importance are funds provided to meet the Palestinian Authority`s operational costs. Already Israel has withheld the largest component of revenues, roughly $55 million a month in customs, while another $35 million a month in direct donor aid - much of it European - is at stake. These sums keep the Palestinian Authority afloat, enabling it to pay salaries for civil servants (including security personnel), and provide basic services.

Starving the Palestinians of such resources almost immediately after Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has taken office and before his government`s policies can be assessed would be tantamount to ensuring the experiment in Islamist political integration is stillborn. Should Hamas conclude that failure is its only option, it will eventually revert to its proven methods of violence.

The impact on Hamas is one item to consider, the impact on the Palestinian people another. Without tax revenues and support from donors, the World Bank estimates that unemployment would climb to near 50 percent and three out of every four Palestinians would fall beneath the poverty line.

There are also repercussions for Israel, and a full-scale resumption of hostilities may be the least tricky of all to handle. If the Palestinian Authority lacks resources to prevent an environmental or health catastrophe, such as a human strain of the avian flu virus, no barrier will contain it. Such threats will affect Israelis no less than Palestinians.

With the European Union divided over its response and pondering its next move, a few suggestions may help.

First, the priority ought to be what Hamas does, not what it says. If its government can sustain a cease-fire and restore law and order in Gaza, it will have achieved more than Fatah. Recognition of Israel`s right to exist is eventually necessary, but it is useful to recall that Egypt and Jordan provided such recognition only at the end of their negotiations, and that governments like Saudi Arabia and Morocco continue to withhold it.

Second, and assuming Hamas makes genuine efforts to impose calm (something that inevitably requires Israeli reciprocity), the EU should declare a 100-day trial period during which aid to the Palestinian Authority would be channeled through a transparent World Bank trust fund while Israel would be held to its agreement to release the Palestinian revenues. During this period, a third party, such as the United Nations, could act as a go-between.

At the end of this period, the Palestinian Authority`s performance would be assessed against a series of benchmarks: Has it allowed contacts with Israelis to promote mutual security, service delivery and commerce? Has it begun to prune the payroll of fraud? Has it begun to get arms off the streets and integrate or demobilize militiamen? And has it accepted what every other Arab government has endorsed: applicable UN resolutions, as well as the Beirut Declaration, committing them to normalization with Israel in exchange for an end to the 1967 occupation and a negotiated resolution of the refugee question. Future EU assistance and contact with a Hamas government would depend on the results.

Adopting such an approach has nothing to do with endorsing Hamas` ideology or previous conduct, and everything to do with devising a realistic policy to deal with a real problem. It entails assessing whether Hamas is prepared to transform rather than assuming that it cannot. More importantly, it entails the West deciding whether it wants the Islamists to change or fail. If the West chooses failure, Hamas will probably do just that.

But a lack of success would not only hurt Hamas. Failure won`t get the West any closer to its stated objectives. And it most certainly won`t get the parties any closer to peaceful coexistence.

Robert Malley, who was special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, directs the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group. This article first appeared in the International Herald Tribune on April 10. Distributed by the Common Ground News Service.