As President George W. Bush said in his second inaugural address, and as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last summer at the American University in Cairo: “America will not impose our style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, to attain their own freedom and to make their own way.”
Contradicting their lofty rhetoric, the Bush administration, along with the European Union, is undermining democracy and U.S. credibility in the Middle East by sabotaging the result of the January 25 Palestinian elections. In completely rejecting the outcome they are also effectively giving up the biggest “carrot” in their arsenals for influencing Palestinian Authority policy.
This month the U.S. and EU officially cut all support to the Palestinian Authority because they object to the positions of Hamas, the Islamist party that won a majority of seats in parliament. The election was universally acknowledged to be free and fair even though the occupied territories remain under Israeli military rule. It is also widely understood that the PA cannot function without outside support. Dramatically cutting all PA aid sends a crystal clear message—Palestinians do not have freedom of choice, they are allowed to “find their own voice” only if it meets the approval of external powers.
Additionally, Israel is now in violation of the 1994 Paris Protocol—which governs the economic relations between Israel and the Palestinians—by halting the monthly transfers to the PA of roughly $60 million in tax and customs revenue collected on its behalf. Despite some arrangements for Palestinian self-governance, in the final analysis the basic needs of Palestinian civilians remain, according to the fourth Geneva Convention, the responsibility of the occupying power, Israel.
Hamas, as new leader of the PA, is now being pressured by the removal of those essential funds to accept three conditions before it will be allowed to govern—it must recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept all prior agreements signed by the Palestinian leadership and Israel, including the “Road Map.” As the weaker party in the conflict, the Palestinians cannot afford to give up their primary bargaining chip of recognizing Israel when Israel’s borders have not been mutually agreed upon and Israel has not, in turn, agreed to end the occupation. In effect, by agreeing to the conditions for continued funding, what the PA gets in exchange is only a continuation of the status quo, which is an internationally subsidized military occupation.
Certainly some of Hamas’s stated positions towards Israel are unacceptable in the long run. However, the only way to change them is through negotiation. By choosing to participate in government, the pragmatists of Hamas have already shown they are willing to pursue their goals through political means. Should Hamas be allowed to grapple with the difficulties of governing, the international community can maintain leverage to pursue a realistic policy of persuasion by engagement. Instead, the U.S. and the EU are dictating ultimatums to the PA while turning a blind eye to Israel’s own unacceptable behavior, such as the more than 200 artillery shells it’s been firing daily into Gaza since last week.
More broadly, Palestinians see that although Hamas is being asked to accept the parameters of the road map without further negotiation, Israel has never fully agreed to it. When the Israeli cabinet “approved” the Road Map it simultaneously registered fourteen preconditions and specifically exempted settlements and Jerusalem from its purview. The Israeli government under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon abandoned the Road Map by deciding to unilaterally determine the borders with Palestinian areas. Current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is vigorously pursuing this course.
How did it come about that the U.S. and the EU can effectively veto the results of the Palestinians’ democratic elections by pulling the rug out from under the PA? The Palestinian Authority was originally established in the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians in the early 1990s as an interim body authorized to manage Palestinian affairs until an agreement on ending the conflict and the occupation was made through final status negotiations.
In other words, the PA took over responsibility from Israel for much of the day-to-day governance of their still-occupied people. The Palestinians themselves were then expected to curb Palestinian resistance to occupation and provide civil services. With a weak economy dependent on Israel and later mismanagement in the PA this has only been possible with heavy subsidies from the U.S. and EU.
With no possibility of giving in to the sweeping demands of the U.S., EU and Israel, cutting off funding can only further destroy the already weak structures of Palestinian society. According to the World Bank, personal income will decline 30 percent just this year, poverty will increase to 67 percent of the population and unemployment will nearly double to 39 percent. The PA has already missed the April 1 pay date for their approximately 140,000 employees. Government institutions could disintegrate, along with the many schools and health services that they run. Water supply and sewage treatment will also be affected. The decision to continue or increase support for humanitarian efforts and non-governmental organizations cannot compensate for discontinued PA services. At the end of the day, they are no alternative to a functioning civil service, police force and public administration.
Perhaps the U.S. and the EU hope that starving Hamas out of power will bring the former Fatah leaders back. However, if the structure of the PA begins to crumble, there will be no government for Fatah to return to.