TOPICS: US approach to Palestine is inviting disaster

The Bush administration’s approach to the divided Palestinian territories is inviting disaster. By favouring the “good” Fatah over the “evil” Hamas, it is letting a dysfunctional ideology trump a good opportunity to bring progress to the Palestinians — and to the larger quest for peace with Israel. There can be no peace process with a Palestinian government that excludes Hamas.

Here are specific steps that President Bush can take to correct course: Announce support for a Hamas-Fatah dialogue to revive a unity government and quietly open diplomatic contacts with Hamas; commit serious diplomatic muscle to restarting substantive Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in cooperation with its Quartet partners — the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations; and convene a peace conference informed by the US commitment to a two-state solution.

How did the US end up in its current predicament? In January 2006, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza cast their ballots. Voting for the first time in 10 years, and resentful of corruption and arrogance in the Palestinian Authority, they decided for Hamas, described by many in the West as a terrorist group.

Blindsided by its legitimate victory, the Bush administration faced a stark dilemma. If it accepted the result, a group that has launched terrorist attacks against Israel would be permitted to enjoy power. However, since the US had strongly backed the elections, rejecting the outcome would be hypocritical.

Seasoned diplomats urged a middle path: Work with Hamas and foster a pragmatic dialogue with Israel. But the US rejected this. Instead, it campaigned to isolate and financially undermine the Hamas government, while working secretly to overthrow it. Soon after the polls, Hamas sought to form a broad coalition government. Non-Hamas politicians committed to a two-state solution did consider joining a unity government with Hamas.

But they were warned off by the US, which subsequently led to the political and economic boycott against Palestine. Israel, for its part, confiscated taxes and duties that it collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority to drain the Hamas coffers.

The White House reacted to the Hamas conquest of Gaza by expediently supporting a rump Palestinian government under the elected president, Mahmoud Abbas. Despite the dangerous division of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, it is unlikely that Palestinians will cede their desire for a state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Can it truly be to America’s or Israel’s benefit to support a fractured Palestinian government that needs dictatorial powers to survive? The electoral and military success of Hamas was a verdict on the failure of the Fatah old guard. A smarter policy would work toward broadening the scope of Palestinian politics - not blessing a Fatah administration that is rapidly becoming a useful instrument of American and Israeli interests. — The Christian Science Monitor