Blueprint for the Third Intifada – America’s Reverse Midas Touch
On May 4, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an account of a U.S. security plan for Gaza along with “Acceleration Benchmarks for Agreement on Movement and Access” that would govern travel inside the West Bank. The American plan would remove dozens of roadblocks to ease internal Palestinian travel, thereby strengthening Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ fading political fortunes. Within twenty-four hours of the plan’s publication, Abbas endorsed it. But the plan was swiftly dismissed by Hamas. The organization’s Damascus-based leader, Khalid Meshaal, declared the proposal was “a farce” — as it implied that Israeli checkpoints would only be removed as the Palestinians slowly ratcheted down their resistance to the occupation. “The equation has now become – dismantling the checkpoints in exchange for ending the Palestinian resistance,” Meshaal said.
Israel was also less than enthusiastic about the program. The Olmert government said that it would study the proposal, while Israeli defense officials announced that adopting the plan would harm Israeli security. But the Israelis were clearly worried. Would the Americans insist on imposing their plan? Did its publication signal U.S. disapproval of Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories? The State Department quickly moved to reassure its nervous ally. The plan merely promoted “suggestions and ideas that we have circulated,” a State Department spokesman said. “It’s not any kind of formal agreement nor is it something that is being enforced on anybody.” Four days later, the U.S. took further steps to reassure Israel that its “Benchmarks” document wasn’t really all that important. The U.S. proposal, an American embassy official in Tel Aviv said, is not a “take it or leave it” document, but “an informal draft” of “suggestions” that could “help facilitate discussion, engagement and action.”
And so, in less than four days, an American program intended to establish a positive atmosphere for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks was issued, rejected, and buried. In the wake of this mini-dust up, Condoleezza Rice — who not only endorsed the plan but urged its authors (U.S. Major General Keith Dayton, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dick Jones and U.S. Consul-General in Jerusalem Jacob Walles), to accelerate its completion, cancelled her planned May 15 visit to Israel, saying that her visit should not come at a time of internal “Israeli political turmoil.” The end result has been yet another mismanaged American intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian political process, reinforcing a widely held perception that Washington only knows how to break — it doesn’t know how to mend.
With the release of the Winograd Committee report on the Israeli-Hezbollah War and Ehud Olmert struggling for his political survival, this was the worst possible time for the U.S. to try to push a new initiative. So why now? Was the benchmark document leaked to Haaretz with the intent of undermining the proposal before it even had a chance to gain traction — or were there other factors at play? A possible explanation is that the U.S. document got bumped to the top of the negotiating agenda because a more significant, and classified, strategy document was unexpectedly made public.
The goals of the “Action Plan for the Presidency of Palestine” are to restore President Abbas’s political power, deliver “a strong political blow to Hamas by supplying the Palestinian people with their immediate economic needs through the Presidency and Fatah,” and establish presidential control over the Palestinian security apparatus. Its focus is to facilitate early elections that would remove Hamas from government. The hastily presented benchmarks document appears to be a component of this broader Action Plan.
The Action Plan’s existence first drew international attention on April 30, when Jordanian authorities banned that week’s edition of the independent newspaper Al-Majd, in which an Arabic version of the document appeared. Multiple linguistic markers (the use of stock phrases such as “Action Plan”; “strong and effective steps”; “decline in credibility”, “moving forward with political negotiations”) make it clear that the plan was written in English. Although the authorities banned the printing and confiscated the plates of the publication, the document had already been posted on the Al-Majd website, where it was picked up by “Missing Links” — a web site that provides translation and analysis of Arabic news publications. “Missing Links” is so far the only news source that has reprinted the Al-Majd information; the subject has been ignored by the Western media.
Why was Al Majd prohibited from publishing the Action Plan? According to a Jordanian government spokesman, the ban was imposed by the Jordanian Press Foundation’s printing house itself. The Jordanian government does not want to be seen applying censorship to the nation’s newspapers, preferring that the Jordanian press censor itself. Al-Majd is the lone exception: “I don’t remember such a problem occurred with any other paper,” the government spokesman notes. The newspaper’s offense was that it was attempting to publish material “taken from intelligence sources” that would harm Jordan’s national security and offend a “sisterly state” — apparently, the Palestinian government. The publication ban swiftly brought condemnation from the international Committee to Protect Journalists. “This flagrant act of censorship is further evidence of the poor state of press freedom in Jordan,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Officials should allow Al-Majd to be printed immediately.” The pressure brought by CPJ and others seems to have worked. By the end of last week Tareq al-Monami, head of Jordanian Press Association, announced that Jordanian authorities have lifted the ban and that the April 30 edition of Al-Majd will be reprinted.
The document outlines a detailed program “to protect the position of the presidency as the center of gravity of the Palestinian leadership.” In the wake of the Hamas-Fatah Mecca Agreement the apparently U.S.-authored “Action Plan” anticipates that international support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will diminish, while the position of Hamas will strengthen. The goal of buttressing Abbas’ political strength necessitates “avoiding the wasting of valuable time trying to alter the ideology of Hamas.” In fact, the urgency of marginalizing Hamas is underlined by the fact that the Action Plan emphasizes the need for Abbas to acquire sufficient credibility for him to call for new parliamentary elections in the early autumn of 2007. In that event — the authors of the plan expect — Hamas will be defeated.
The general thrust of the plan is that, through a combination of economic, political, and security measures, power will flow back into the hands of the Palestinian president. Such an effort to manipulate the political “center of gravity” appears to be merely another episode in which Washington works on shaping the Palestinian political landscape in accordance with the U.S.’s current political preferences. Such manipulation has a long, and failed, history. While Yasser Arafat was president and Abbas prime minister, Washington wanted to diminish the power of the presidency. With Hamas now in government, Washington wants to shift the tide of political power in the opposite direction. Washington will determine who will govern: the will and aspirations of the Palestinian people apparently have no relevance.
An American conviction that success — whether in business or politics — is always commensurate with purchasing power, never seems to be dampened by evidence to the contrary. In this case, the underlying assumption is that in throwing its weight behind Abbas and Fatah, the U.S. will ensure their success and hasten Hamas’ failure. What is ignored in this is America’s reverse-Midas touch. U.S. interference will only diminish the power, credibility, and legitimacy of its favored partner — in the process, the whole Palestinian Authority may collapse. In that event, Israel’s heavy military hand will push down even harder only to be met with renewed and determined resistance from the Palestinians. The result may well be that the Action Plan designed to shift power in accordance with Washington’s predilections, will instead turn out to be a clarion call for the next intifada.