Israeli offensive disrupts US-Hamas contacts

The Late-September siege of the presidential compound in Ramallah brought a particularly vocal and heavy-handed reaction from the US – even more so than its condemnation of a similar Israeli siege in May and June. The US slammed the Israeli action in language that it had never used against Sharon (“this is not acceptable”) and then, for good measure, publicly endorsed a column on the siege written by New York Times editorial guru Thomas Friedman.

“The Sharon response is not working,” Friedman wrote of the Israeli prime minister. “Months ago Mr. Sharon dismissed Mr. Arafat as ‘irrelevant,’ smashed his security services and announced Israel’s intention to assume responsibility for its own security in the West Bank. But when Palestinian suicide bombers from Hamas and Islamic Jihad then perpetrate more suicide bombings, Mr. Sharon attacks Mr. Arafat’s headquarters as if he sent the bombers himself.”

The Israelis were shocked by the US reaction. The Sharon government had concluded that the US would never defend Arafat, that its statement that Israel “has the right to defend itself against terrorism” was heartfelt, and that (in light of America’s fight against Al Qaeda) it had a free hand in determining how best to defend itself in the West Bank and Gaza. So what happened? Or, as one Israeli minister asked bluntly in one newspaper interview: “Why now?”

The idea that the Bush administration had finally understood the political calculus of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and that the Palestinians are actually occupied) – doesn’t wash. The Bush administration knows the Palestinians are occupied. They don’t care.

So the search for other explanations began, and has continued. One of the more mainstream explanations, and one that has been largely adopted by the Washington political community, is that the Bush White House is sensitive to how the Arab world views its influence on Sharon and decided, just to show that “the tail does not wag the dog,” to pressure Sharon to do what Bush wanted him to do. Whether he liked it or not.

A second explanation, and one that is more plausible, is that the Bush White House was involved in delicate discussions with the Saudis, Qataris, Bahrainis and others to provide logistical and basing rights for its offensive against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein – and thus viewed Israel’s attack as a bothersome interruption of those discussions. A third explanation, similar to the second, has now been discredited: that an errant Israeli tank shell could have killed Arafat and “enflamed the Arab street.” “What Arab street?” a White House spokesman replied.

Now, it seems, there is yet another and even more plausible explanation – and one that is slowly becoming known to a small group of Middle East analysts and diplomats: that, in the days leading up to the Muqata siege, the US had “talked” with senior Hamas officials and pledged to them that, in exchange for their agreement to become a part of a secular, democratic, “unity government” in a new Palestinian state (a discussion that Hamas officials were also carrying on with emissaries of President Arafat), they would pressure Israeli officials to end their policy of targeted assassinations and arrests of Hamas leaders.

The “talks” were, in fact “indirect” – and took the form of a series of messages between a senior US envoy and a select number of Hamas officials. The messages were exchanged in early September, when an American envoy visited the region to have discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. While the US envoy made it clear that he could not guarantee Israeli cooperation, he told his intermediaries that the US welcomed Hamas’s decision to become “a legitimate part of the political process” and, in exchange, he pledged that the US would make its position known to the Sharon government. Moreover, he said, he would go even further. He would advise the Sharon government to “let the process work” in the hopes that it would end the violence and that, therefore, the Israelis should not take any steps that would interfere in the discussions or undermine the American position. Hamas leaders were reportedly buoyed by these “signals” – and especially by US indications that it would w! elcome Hamas’s participation in the Palestinian political process.

But why would the US open even indirect communications with Hamas? “We are much more sophisticated than you might think,” a senior US diplomat noted in commenting on this story. “There is a difference between Hamas and, say, the Iranian mullahs. The one tradition is nationalist and revolutionary, the other is clerical and religious. We know the difference. We know who the honest actors are. We don’t happen to like Hamas tactics, but we know there’s a world of difference between what they want and what, say, Mullah Omar wants.” “

There is another even more rational explanation: the United States cannot and does not want to fight everyone, everywhere. It is one thing to attack Al Qaeda, and another to launch operations against a panoply of targets that do not directly threaten American interests. In other words, while the US has maintained strong support for Israel’s efforts to end attacks on its citizens, it would be irresponsible for the US to follow a strategy that would make Israel’s enemies America’s enemies (with all that that implies for American security). So far, at least, that has not happened.

Unfortunately, the American “signals” to Hamas were stillborn. On September 9 – only days after the US envoy had “signaled” an American endorsement of the Hamas-Fatah talks, and only days after “signaling” a US pledge that it would advise the Sharon government to not “interfere” in the discussions progressing after a six-week lull in suicide bombings in Israel – an Israeli army unit arrested a moderate Hamas political figure in Ramallah. According to senior American diplomatic officials, the Hamas leadership interpreted the arrest as a purposeful attempt by Sharon to undermine its exchange with the Americans.

Five days after that arrest an Israeli attack in Rafah killed nine Palestinians, including a large number of civilians. The State Department, according to one diplomat, worked frantically to reassure the Hamas leadership that the US had not betrayed its trust, and that – in fact – the State Department had directly warned the Sharon government against any escalation that could be interpreted as interfering in “a hopeful political process.”

But, according to this same diplomat, the Hamas leadership did feel betrayed by the Americans and the Israelis – and they felt they had to respond. “We told them we thought they were making a good faith effort and that we appreciated that, and then all hell broke loose,” the diplomat said. On Thursday, September 19, two bombs exploded in Tel Aviv. The next morning, a Friday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher condemned the bombings, but then added that the US hoped that Israel would “do everything in its power not to escalate the situation.” Boucher then did something unusual – he refused to issue the other “standard condemnation” of “Palestinian terrorism.” Instead, without blinking, he noted that “the current situation is very complex.”

That was it. Clearly, something had happened, but no one in the State Department pressroom knew what it was. Boucher wasn’t saying.

Ariel Sharon responded to the Tel Aviv bombings by calling a meeting of his security cabinet and then laying siege to Arafat’s compound. On Saturday, Israeli troops fired on Arafat’s office and living quarters and demanded that he turn over “nineteen” and then “fifty” and then “twenty” wanted “terrorists” who were “holed up with him.” American officials looked on in horror as the crisis mounted. On Sunday, Secretary of State Colin Powell dispatched US Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer to confer with Israeli government officials. Kurtzer’s mandate was not only to “signal” American concern, but to tell the Israelis that their siege was “counterproductive to American interests.” When Israeli officials responded that they were sensitive to the US need to gain allies for its attack on Iraq, Kurtzer nearly lost his temper. “That’s not what’s happening here and you know it,” he reportedly snapped.

The next week, the US kept up the pressure. On Monday, September 23, Colin Powell telephoned Ariel Sharon and told him that the siege was “contrary to President Bush’s goals for peace in the Middle East and reform of the Palestinian hierarchy.” According to one of Powell’s aides, the conversation was “very unpleasant.” Sharon had not agreed to end the siege. Powell immediately called the White House with a message for the president – Sharon wasn’t listening. Now fully informed of the US “signals” to Hamas, and Sharon’s blatant actions to undermine them, Bush decided to step up the pressure.

On Tuesday, September 24, the Bush administration issued its harshest condemnation of Sharon: “We’ve urged Israel to consider carefully the consequences of its recent actions and their effect on the goals of Palestinian security cooperation and reform of Palestinian institutions.” The message, the White House hoped, was clear: the “consequences” of its recent actions would be severe and would strain US-Israeli relations. There was a lot at stake, including America’s “word.”

That evening, after US Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte called a Palestinian resolution condemning the siege “too one-sided” he was given different instructions. He was to draft a new US-sponsored resolution that would condemn both sides in the conflict – a significant shift in US policy. Negroponte called Israel’s ambassador to the UN with the message, knowing that he would call Sharon. Still, the Israeli government remained intransigent. On Wednesday morning Negroponte issued his draft: clear evidence that the US was not bluffing. By the end of the week, faced with this unexpected pressure, Sharon dispatched a special envoy to Washington to “clear up the misunderstanding.”

As President Arafat took phone calls from world leaders at the Muqata (as well as telephone calls from leading Palestinians in Washington urging him to “turn over the wanted men” – advice dismissed out of hand), American diplomats took a further step. They told UN delegates that they would welcome a second Palestinian draft resolution and this time (they said) “we won’t veto it, and we won’t abstain.” Word of the American change-of-heart reached Sharon at his ranch in southern Israel, even before his special envoy arrived in Washington to meet with Bush. Faced with the possibility of a US endorsement of a UN resolution condemning Israel – the first of its kind, ever – he gave in, ordering an end to the siege, but instructing his cabinet to tell the public that the operation was a “success.”

“There is a clear line here and he crossed it,” an American diplomat says of Sharon. “It is one thing to slap the Palestinians, it is another to slap us.” That is only a partially true: there is no clear line, as events of recent days have shown.

Faced with six weeks of calm, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has purposely undermined an attempt by Palestinian leaders to end attacks on Israel and then, when the attacks came, targeted his nemesis in what is clearly a personal battle. Then, faced with more weeks of quiet, Sharon’s military purposely targeted a crowd in Gaza – killing fourteen civilians and calling the operation “a success.” This last incident may be, as we say in America, “the deal breaker.” As in September, it is now likely that more bombs will target Israelis, after which the Israeli army will escalate attacks on Palestinians. This new round of violence comes at a particularly bad time for Palestinians and the US. But, as one White House official noted just this week, “someone had better tell the Israelis.”