New York Times
February 15, 2006
JERUSALEM, Feb. 14 — The United States and Israel are discussing ways to destabilize the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again, according to Israeli officials and Western diplomats.
The intention is to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections to the point where, some months from now, its president, Mahmoud Abbas, is compelled to call a new election. The hope is that Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement.
The officials also argue that a close look at the election results shows that Hamas won a smaller mandate than previously understood.
The officials and diplomats, who said this approach was being discussed at the highest levels of the State Department and the Israeli government, spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
Today, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, was quoted by The Associated Press as saying "there was no such plan."
But the officials and diplomats say Hamas will be given a choice: recognize Israel's right to exist, forswear violence and accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements — as called for by the United Nations and the West — or face isolation and collapse.
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 must 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, especially given that Hamas will try to secure needed support from the larger Islamic world, including its allies 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, in a sense beginning a third intifada.
The officials said the destabilization plan centers largely on money. The Palestinian Authority has a monthly cash deficit of some $60 million to $70 million after it receives between $50 million and $55 million a month from Israel in taxes and customs duties collected by Israeli officials at the borders but owed to the Palestinians.
Israel says it will cut off those payments once Hamas takes power, and put the money in escrow. On top of that, some of the aid that the Palestinians currently receive will be stopped or reduced by the United States and European Union governments, which will be constrained by law or politics from providing money to an authority run by Hamas. The group is listed by Washington and the European Union as a terrorist organization.
Israel has other levers on the Palestinian Authority: controlling entrance and exit from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for people and goods, the number of workers who are allowed into Israel every day, and even the currency used in the Palestinian territories, which is the Israeli shekel.
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 full salaries to its 140,000 employees, who are the breadwinners for at least one-third of the Palestinian population.
The employment figure includes some 58,000 members of the security forces, most of which are affiliated with the defeated Fatah movement.
If a Hamas government is unable to pay workers, import goods, transfer money and receive significant amounts of outside aid, Mr. Abbas, the president, would have the authority to dissolve parliament and call new elections, the officials say, even though that power is not explicit in the Palestinian basic law.
The potential for an economic crisis is real. 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, Israel and Western officials say. "But it's hard to move millions of dollars in suitcases," a Western official said.
The United States and the European Union in particular want any failure of Hamas in leadership to be judged as Hamas's failure, not one caused by Israel and the West.
The officials say much now depends on Mr. Abbas, the Fatah-affiliated president who called for the January elections, 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, the officials say.
Western diplomats say they expect Mr. Abbas to repeat those positions in his speech on Saturday when the new parliament is sworn in, laying the groundwork for a future confrontation with Hamas.
In preparation for a Hamas-led government, Mr. Abbas is also said to be insisting on reinforcing his position as commander in chief of all Palestinian forces, even though the prime minister and the interior minister also have control over them through a security council that the prime minister chairs.
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. "The parliament has no mandate and no authority to issue any new legislation," said a Hamas spokesman, Said Siyam, adding 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 the seat total makes it appear, said Khalil Shikaki, a pollster and the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.
In an interview in Ramallah, Mr. Shikaki said that if Fatah had forced members to withdraw their independent candidacies in constituencies where they split the votes with official Fatah candidates, it might have won the election. Half of the 132 seats were decided by a vote for a party list, and the other half by a separate vote for a local candidate.
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. The reason? "Fatah ran a lousy campaign," Mr. Shikaki said, and Mr. Abbas "did not force enough Fatah independents to pull out."
If only 76 "independent" Fatah candidates had not run, Mr. Shikaki said, Fatah would have won 33 seats and Hamas 33. In the districts, Hamas won an average of only 39 percent of the vote while winning 68 percent of the seats, Mr. Shikaki said.
"Fatah now is obsessed with undoing this election as soon as possible," he said. "Israel and Washington want to do it over too. The Palestinian Authority could collapse in six months."
New Hamas legislators were unimpressed. Farhat Asaad, a Hamas spokesman, and Nasser Abdaljawad, who won a seat in Salfit where two Fatah candidates split the vote, gave the United States "a year or two" to come around to the idea of dealing openly with Hamas.
Mr. Asaad, a former Israeli prisoner, said: "We hope it isn't U.S. policy. Because those who try to isolate us will be isolated in the region."
Hamas will move on two parallel fronts, he said: the first, to reform Palestinian political life, and the second, "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."
Hamas will find the money it needs from the Muslim world, said Mr. Abdaljawad, who spent 12 years in jail and got a Ph.D. while there. Hamas will save money by ending corruption and providing efficiency. Hamas will break the Palestinian dependency on Israel, he said.
Mr. Asaad laughed and added: "First, I thank the United States that they have given us this weapon of democracy. But there is no way to retreat now. It's not possible for the U.S. and the world to turn its back on an elected democracy."