U.S. and Israelis Discuss Hamas Regime Change
Israel and the United States are looking at ways to undermine the Hamas-led government in Palestine.
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. They 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.
Not surprisingly, Hamas has reacted angrily.
Hamas derided the United States and Israel on Tuesday following reports they were exploring ways to topple the militants’ incoming government. Israeli security officials said they were looking at ways to force Hamas from power, and were focusing on an economic squeeze that would prompt Palestinians to clamor for the return of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ ousted Fatah Party. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said, “There is no such plan.”
The New York Times, citing anonymous U.S. and Israeli officials, reported Tuesday that the United States and Israel were considering a campaign to starve the Palestinian Authority of cash so Palestinians would grow disillusioned with Hamas and bring down a Hamas government. U.S. Embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle had no immediate comment.
The reports came a day after the outgoing Fatah parliament gave sweeping new powers to Abbas, allowing him to set up a sympathetic court that would be able to veto Hamas legislation unchallenged. Mushir al Masri, a Hamas spokesman and incoming legislator, said attempts to bring down a future Hamas government were hypocritical. “This is … a rejection of the democratic process, which the Americans are calling for day and night,” al Masri said. “It’s an interference and a collective punishment of our people because they practiced the democratic process in a transparent and honest way.” “We need a firm Islamic and Arabic position to confront this challenge,” al Masri added.
While the desire to undermine Hamas is understandable and quite likely in the strategic interests of Israel and the United States, a good bit more subtlety is warranted. The goals must always be couched in terms of protecting Israel’s security and fighting the war on terrorism, not undermining a democratically elected government.
Granting Palestine statehood and treating its border with Israel as an international one has long struck me as the right way to go. It has the merits of giving the Palestinians what they say they want while at the same time massively increasing their accountability. And refusing to deal with specific Hamas officials who are wanted for crimes is also perfectly reasonable.