'West Bank First': It Won't Work

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By Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Having embraced one illusion -- that it could help isolate and defeat Hamas -- the Bush administration is dangerously close to embracing another: Gaza is dead, long live the West Bank. This approach appears compelling. Flood the West Bank with money, boost Fatah security forces and create a meaningful negotiating process. The Palestinian people, drawn to a recovering West Bank and repelled by the nightmare of an impoverished Gaza, will rally around the more pragmatic of the Palestinians.

The theory is a few years late and several steps removed from reality. If the United States wanted to help President Mahmoud Abbas, the time to do so was in 2005, when he won office in a landslide, emerged as the Palestinians' uncontested leader and was in a position to sell difficult compromises to his people. Today, Abbas is challenged by far more Palestinians and is far less capable of securing a consensus on any important decision.

But the more fundamental problem with this theory is its lack of grounding. It is premised on the notion that Fatah controls the West Bank. Yet the West Bank is not Gaza in reverse. Unlike in Gaza, Israel's West Bank presence is overwhelming and, unlike Hamas, Fatah has ceased to exist as an ideologically or organizationally coherent movement. Behind the brand name lie a multitude of offshoots, fiefdoms and personal interests. Most attacks against Israel since the elections were launched by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the unruly Fatah-affiliated militias, notwithstanding Abbas's repeated calls for them to stop. Given this, why would Israel agree to measurably loosen security restrictions?

"West Bank first" also relies on the notion that Abbas -- or any other Palestinian leader -- can afford to concentrate on the West Bank at Gaza's expense. There is raw anger among Palestinians. But once the dust settles, Abbas will want to be viewed as president of all Palestinians, not of a geographic or political segment of them. For him to accept funds that can be spent only on the West Bank, or international dealings that exclude Gaza, would critically undercut his position as a symbol of the Palestinian nation.

Finally, the theory assumes that Hamas has little influence in the West Bank. Fatah may have more guns, but Hamas retains considerable political support. More important, it takes only a few militants to conduct attacks against Israel and few such attacks to provoke an Israeli military reaction. If Hamas is convinced that there is an effort to strangle its rule, it is likely to resume violence against Israel -- either directly or through one of many militant groups, Fatah offshoots included. There will be no shortage of militants angry at Fatah leaders' dealings with Israel or hungry for cash. If such violence occurs, hope for progress in the West Bank will come crashing down.

Since Hamas's election in early 2006, the United States and its allies have behaved as though isolating the Islamist movement could undo its victory and that supporting Fatah politically and militarily would hasten that outcome. The wreckage of that policy is clear. Yet, having witnessed the consequences of those myths, they are hastening to adopt others. Efforts to deepen the split between Hamas and Fatah or between Gaza and the West Bank will compound the disaster, for there can be no security, let alone a peace process, without minimal Palestinian unity and consensus.

The United States and others should support Abbas and encourage progress in the West Bank, but smartly. Sticks for Gaza coupled with carrots for the West Bank will divide Palestinians, radicalize Gazans, provoke violence by those who are left out and discredit those the United States embraces. Dividing Palestine geographically is no more a recipe for success than dividing Palestinians politically.

We should not be fooled by Abbas's rhetoric. Sooner or later he will be forced to pursue new power-sharing arrangements between Hamas and Fatah and restore unity among Palestinians. As the United States and others seek to empower him, they should push for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire in Gaza and the West Bank, which will require dealing -- indirectly at least -- with elements of Hamas. They should resist the temptation to isolate Gaza and should tend to its population's needs. And should a national unity government be established, this time they should welcome the outcome and take steps to shore it up. Only then will efforts to broker credible political negotiations between Abbas and his Israeli counterpart on a two-state solution have a chance to succeed.

The diplomatic equivalent of the medical precept is do no harm. Since Hamas's electoral victory, U.S. policy has helped strengthen radical forces, debilitate Palestinian institutions, undermine faith in democracy, weaken Abbas and set back the peace process. Why ask for more of the same?

Robert Malley is director of the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group. Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and author of the forthcoming "America and the Much Too Promised Land."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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