By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 16, 2007
Several intelligence assessments have warned that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, the man U.S. policymakers hope can help salvage the Middle East peace process, may not be politically strong enough to achieve that goal, according to U.S. officials.
The assessments have also cautioned that his opponents in Hamas -- the Islamic movement that is being shunned by Abbas, Israel and the United States -- will not be easily marginalized.
The White House is now betting that Abbas, replenished by the return of aid from the West and tax revenue withheld by Israel, can create a stable enclave in the West Bank and resume peace negotiations with Israel, a view reiterated yesterday by national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. He said on ABC's "This Week" that President Bush today will publicly discuss "what we are going to do to support [Abbas] . . . financially, diplomatically."
The administration intends to continue politically isolating the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. Abbas dismissed the Hamas government, which was democratically elected and has refused to recognize Israel, after it routed his security forces in Gaza.
The "West Bank first" strategy is the White House's biggest and potentially riskiest policy departure in its dealings with the Palestinian Authority since it was created in 1994. The administration is moving into uncharted territory in trying to aid Abbas even though he and his Fatah political party control just a portion of the Authority.
Intelligence reports over the past month, since Hamas's seizure of the Gaza Strip effectively split the Palestinian Authority into two parts, have assessed Abbas's position as vulnerable even in the West Bank. Hamas's popularity has dropped slightly since the split, but a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research taken a week after the fissure said that Hamas was still more popular than Fatah among more than one-quarter of West Bank Palestinians.
Hamas, which is supported by Iran, swept the three largest West Bank cities in elections 18 months ago.
With the de facto help of Israeli troops still in the West Bank, Fatah may be able to purge or at least reduce the Hamas military presence in the West Bank, but Abbas faces a difficult challenge in limiting its political presence, especially in Hebron and Nablus, according to officials who described the intelligence assessments on the condition that they not be named.
The Palestinian president does not control all armed groups, including the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, that are linked to Fatah, and he may not be able to stem all terrorist plots, the intelligence reports have also warned. Hamas members and other extremists have significant incentive to target Israel from the West Bank to undermine new peace efforts -- and Abbas's ability to build a Hamas-less state, the assessments suggest.
"Fatah faces significant challenges in effectively governing the West Bank. Israeli military operations are the major factor restricting Hamas activity, and Abbas can at best influence, not control, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade forces that are the power on the street in several towns," said a senior intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the assessments are classified.
Intelligence officials have cautioned that Hamas, cut off in Gaza from the outside world under a strategy supported by Israel and the Bush administration, could even enhance its position among Palestinians. The assessments warn that many may blame Israel or outsiders for their plight, which the World Bank warned in a report last week could lead to irreversible economic damage.
Among some Palestinians, Abbas is already being called a "collaborator" and "quisling" for his decision to side with the United States and Israel over his brethren.
"The challenges confronting Abbas are significant. He must stymie further support for Hamas, reverse his government's reputation for corruption and demonstrate that it can provide greater security and economic opportunity in the West Bank," said a U.S. official who has seen the array of intelligence reports.
"Hamas is working hard on a parallel track to show that it can effectively govern and represent the interests of the Palestinian people. Should Abbas fail and Hamas succeed, the implications are problematic for Abbas's internal constituencies and external supporters," the official said.
But Hadley said on "This Week" that Bush sees "an opportunity . . . to show the Palestinian people a choice between the kind of violence and chaos under Hamas in Gaza and the prospect, under President Abbas and Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad, for an effective democratic Palestinian state."
U.S. intelligence has warned that Abbas will have difficulty following through on what he has promised for the past 18 months and what most Palestinians want from him domestically: to clean house and rebuild Fatah with a younger generation of politicians. Broad reform -- by the Fatah-dominated emergency government or within Fatah itself -- is unlikely to happen anytime soon, analysts have warned.
In the nearly three years since he took over after Yasser Arafat's death, Abbas has not been able to exert enough authority to command or produce action. "He doesn't have the political legitimacy of either Arafat or [Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed] Yassin," said Bruce Riedel, a recently retired CIA Middle East analyst now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center.
Despite Hamas's money problems, the intelligence assessments note that the party intends to be taken seriously and is trying to institute smoother local rule in Gaza.
"On the one hand, a West Bank-first strategy is a commendable effort to make lemonade out of lemons. But it also seems to be an extension of the mistaken belief that sufficient efforts to isolate and pressure Hamas will make Hamas go away. Hamas will not go away," said Paul Pillar, a former chief Middle East analyst on the National Intelligence Council. "Hamastan in Gaza has tremendous potential to rebound to everyone's disadvantage -- not just to the Palestinians', but also the Israelis'."
Riedel and Pillar both said they believe that the Bush administration is not listening closely to the intelligence community on the Palestinian crisis.
With support from the international community, including Israel, Abbas may appear to have the upper hand in the near term, but Hamas is also not without allies intent on its long-term survival. "The Iranians, Syrians and Lebanon's Hezbollah do not want to see a West Bank-first strategy succeed, and all have great potential and means to be able to make this thing go downhill very quickly," Riedel said.
Abbas is also likely to be conflicted about the impact of isolating Gaza indefinitely, the assessments warn. "It will be very hard for him to turn his back on the plight of 1.2 million Palestinians in Gaza," Riedel added. "He may be angry at Hamas today, but he will not be in a position to tolerate a policy that punishes 1.2 million people, and as a political leader, he can't afford to do it."