TCS Daily

Five Blunders, One Terrorist State

By James Pinkerton - January 31, 2006 12:00 AM

The U.S. and Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and their new elected leaders, Hamas, represent a five-fold error. That's a lot of mistakes to make about such an important topic and region -- Israel and America will have to do better. But for now, we can simply note each blunder in hopes that corrections are being put in place.

First, the Israeli intelligence services, so vaunted, had assured one and all, there and here, that Hamas could not get more than 30 percent of the vote. And the far less vaunted American intelligence services, agreed with the Israelis. On Friday, The New York Post's Uri Dan, who is about as well-connected as any American reporter in Jerusalem, wrote, "The Israeli political, intelligence and defense establishment was caught off guard. There were no intelligence estimates or evaluation that forecast a Hamas victory, let alone the landslide that the world woke up to yesterday."

And the Hamas election was a big deal. "This is one of the blackest days in the history of the state of Israel," declared Silvan Shalom, who just gave up the foreign minister's portfolio. And back in DC, Fox News' White House correspondent, Carl Cameron, reported, "For President Bush, it's hard to overstate the disappointment." Secretary of State Condi Rice's caustic comments about her own staff, "I've asked why nobody saw it coming. It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse," were good enough to be The New York Times' "quote of the day" for Monday.

So what went wrong with the intelligence? Is it just because, as former Senator Sam Nunn told NBC News, those dealing with the Palestinians have been "rather naïve"? That's part of the problem, but another aspect can be found in the sum total of the previous two paragraphs: That is, if the news is bad enough, you don't want to think about it. And if you don't want to think about it, you don't see it coming. Since the victory of Hamas -- whose charter calls for the annihilation of Israel and also of Jews -- is about the worst possible electoral outcome imaginable, it's possible to see how the experts simply could not bring themselves to predict such a calamitous outcome. Yes, it's fun to be contrarian, to be right when everybody else is wrong, but inside a bureaucracy, there's a fine line to be walked between being correct and "not being a team player." So everybody in Jerusalem and Washington was "on the team," lowballing-Hamas-wise -- and now look where we are.

Second, the folly of a dual, or bifurcated, ballot. Wherever and whenever votes are "tiered," so that some ballots are manifestly less important than others, there's the chance that the voters will go a little -- or a lot -- crazy with that second-tier ballot. That's what has happened to the European Parliament in Strasbourg; it's got too many wackos and poseurs and expense-account-chiselers. Why? Because European think much more about elections that involve their home country.

Closer to home, the same throw-your-vote away phenomenon is observable in American elections for school boards and advisory neighborhood councils. In big cities especially, such low-profile bodies inevitably fill up with radicals and mau-mauers. Democratic elections are great, but they aren't so great when the electorate uses them to merely "send a message."

The Israelis made this mistake in 1992, when they amended their Basic Law to provide for the direct election of the Prime Minister, separate from the Knesset election. Three elections were held under this dual-ballot system, in 1996, 1999, and 2001.

In the words of one veteran observer of the Middle East, Lloyd Green, a foreign policy adviser in the 1988 "Bush for President" campaign, "A two-ballot parliamentary system is an invitation to electoral schizophrenia, mischief, and irresponsibility." He continues, "The ballot system allows the electorate to cast one ballot with its brain, and another with its heart or other organs, and then expect government to function. Good luck."

Pointing to the Israeli experience in particular, Green adds that the double-balloting "led to instability and the proliferation of third parties." In 1996, for example, Bibi Netanyahu won a bare majority of the vote for Prime Minister, but his Likud Party won only a quarter of the Knesset seats. And in the 1999 election, 15 different parties, representing every conceivable ideological permutation, won seats in the Knesset.

Mercifully, the system was put out of its dysfunctional misery in Israel, but somehow the same flawed system was bequeathed to the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas was elected President of the Palestinian National Authority on January 9, unopposed by any serious challenger; most obviously, Hamas did not field a candidate against him. So far, so good: Most observers felt that Abbas had the potential, at least, to be "partner for peace." But then, of course, came the Palestinian Parliamentary elections on January 25, which profoundly undercut Abbas. Did the Palestinians really mean to undercut their president? Or were they simply letting off steam? Middle East expert Green believes that if the Palestinians had voted for president and parliament at the same time, on the same day, the outcome might not have been so bifurcated -- that more support would have gone to Abbas' more moderate Fatah party.

Third, let's just say it so we can get it out there: The US is showing signs of being a "pitiful helpless giant" that can't get anything done. On January 22, The Washington Post reported on American efforts to help Fatah in the upcoming balloting. Here's the headline: "U.S. Funds Enter Fray In Palestinian Elections/Bush Administration Uses USAID as Invisible Conduit." One immediate reaction is that it's going to be darn hard for Uncle Sam to accomplish anything if everything leaks out; obviously the "conduit" isn't so "invisible" if it's being detailed on the front page of the Post. To put it bluntly, the US is going to have a hard time achieving its geopolitical objectives if everything leaks.

But just as interesting is the amount of money involved: $2 million, according to the Post. Wow. Two whole million dollars. Sort of reminds me of that scene in "Austin Powers" where Dr. Evil, who had been frozen for three inflationary decades, demanded the princely sum, so he thought, of "ONE MILLION DOLLARS." Which is to say, in both instances -- one real, one reel -- the amount of money seems abjectly inadequate to the situation at hand. Did the US government really think it was going to buy much last-minute change in Palestinian attitudes with two million clams? According to the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, a total of 1,011,992 people voted on the 25th. So that means that we spent less than two dollars a vote.

For purposes of comparison, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent $85 million against a weak opponent, which works out to approximately $113 a "Bloomie" vote. Now that's how to influence an election! I'll bet that even Bloomberg would agree that peace and security for Israel is more important than his own re-election, but Uncle Sam evidently couldn't get his act together, vote-buying-wise.

Fourth, and once again, we might as well be candid here: Democracy is not quite a panacea. "Hitler was also elected democratically," snapped Silvan Shalom explained to The New York Post. An important conservative voice for the moderation of the democracy-at-all-costs Bush Doctrine has been Peggy Noonan; a year ago, in the wake of Bush's hyper-visionary second inaugural address, her op-ed in The Wall Street Journal asked, "Was the president's speech a case of 'mission inebriation'?" Yes, was Noonan's answer. And just last week, reviewing Bush's latest encomium to free elections -- W. used the words "democracy" or "democratization" 13 times at Kansas State University -- Noonan further opined, "In the short term the president's preoccupation seem somewhat at odds with the needs of the moment."

Some pro-democracy thinkers, such as New York University's Noah Feldman, are thinking longer term. In his 2003 book, After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy, Feldman argued that if democracy is let loose in the Arab/Muslim world, the US would confront a generation of Iran-style "Islamic Republics" everywhere. To Feldman, that's acceptable, and it's also, he argues, inevitable. But of course, the Bush administration hasn't prepared the American people for such an outcome. Maybe that get-used-to-it process is beginning now.

And so to the fifth and final error. For two generations now, Americans and Israelis have thought that they could expand their political and geographic reach into the Middle East and not suffer a serious backlash. Over the last three decades, the Israeli vision of "Greater Israel" has included the entire Sinai Peninsula, part of Southern Lebanon -- and of course, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. And what about the Arabs who lived in those places? And what about the pride of Arab countries? Well, neither the Israelis, nor the Americans, saw what was coming. As we all know now, Jerusalem and Washington were both caught flat-footed by the rise of a new low-tech "wonder weapon," the suicide bomber. (To whom, incidentally, Ralph Peters, writing in the latest The Weekly Standard, offers an extraordinary and even weirdly admiring encomium). Nor did Israel come to grips with the demographic issue until after it had scattered settlements in little "Custer Camps" amidst a rising tide of Arab population growth.

Now, of course, the Israelis are moving toward more defensible borders, building the highest possible wall between themselves and the bulk of the Palestinian population. That's good news for Israel's security, finally, but there's still the dreadful concern about what the Arabs are going to do in the years and decades ahead. As an editorial in The Financial Times asked, "Would the Islamists have won if there were now a Palestinian state stretching across the West Bank with Arab east Jerusalem as its capital, rather than an Israeli occupation with expanding settlements and 400 checkpoints in an area the size of Delaware?" And the answer was a curt "no." Hamas, the FT continued, "has exceeded by far its natural constituency because of this deadly impasse" -- that is, the inability to reach a settlement in decades past.

Meanwhile, the US has bases and operatives in many Arab and Muslim countries. Are these Americans popular? What sort of leaders would come to power if truly free elections were held in, say, Egypt or Saudi Arabia? We probably don't want to know the answer to that question. Meanwhile, the US is busy conducting military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus the occasional strike in Pakistan. And oh yes, we can't forget about Iran.

The one safe thing to say about all these American actions is that they will cause a reaction. I made a tentative prediction about this reaction almost exactly three years ago, in the pages of The Jerusalem Post.

(It sure would be nice if I were wrong in that piece.)

James Pinkerton is a TCS contributor and Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.



Another perspective
A basic principle to follow in dealing with anyone is to leave them a viable option. The Israeli failure is in leaving the Palestinians no good choices. For a number of years the Pals have followed the Israeli lead in signing on to the "Peace Process". It has gained them nothing-- neither peace, nor land, nor economic viability. And so they have signalled their frustration by voting overwhelmingly for the only other party on the ballot. We should be surprised?

The sticking point is not Hamas violence. Hamas has successfully kept up their end of a truce for the past year, despite being the focus of targeted assassinations. And they have communicated to Israel that they will be happy to extend the truce if Israel agrees to comply. This Israel will not do, and thus Israel is the sticking point.

It takes a strange mindset to condemn Palestine for electing leaders who are subject to targeted assassination, while the state-sponsored assassins bear no burden of being labelled terrorists. Let Israel join Hamas in the truce so both sides may take a moment to sort out the new hand they've been dealt.

Regarding the bifurcated ballot, it is the fact that in our own, magnificent electoral system many of the states commonly elect one party to run their own state and the other party to go to Washington. For that matter, many of us commonly elect one party for President and the other to Congress. This is not proof that the system is less than perfect, but rather evidence that we want to see comity and balance in our governance. We are uneasy with one party holding all the cards. Could it be the same with Palestine? Horrors.

Be Careful Of What You Wish For
'Cause you might get it.

I agree, except about Hamas
I will give Hamas credit where it is deserved, they did indeed keep their end of the bargin, sort of. Why do you think the Israelis carried out those assassinations? I guess it is just because they are evil.
Get real.
Extending and "olive branch" to a group of people you have vowed to destroy sounds a bit to much like the "Trojan Horse" story for any realistic modern government to buy. I'm surprise any intelligent person would give Hamas credit for that one.
Still, I wasn't at all surprised in the outcome of the election for many of the reasons you stated. I can also see it being a good thing, as long as Hamas doesn't get to militant and avoids assassinating the Prime Minster. Remember, Hamas is not the only party with representives in the Parliment and the Prime isn't a Hamas member. As you pointed out, we in the U.S. often do the same. If the two will work together to improve things for Palestinians it could actually prove to be a banner day.
Best of all, if Hamas would renounce their vow to kill Jews and destroy Israel, it could prove to be a lasting and, eventually, prosperous thing for the Palestinians.

Warning: If Hamas keeps is committment to violence and starts messing with Israel, there won't be a Palestinian government, or much of anything else.
I believe the world will give Hamas an opportunity to prove itself. But, Israel in particular, will not hold their breath for long.

Paul-- Extremely unlikely that Hamas will resume terror attacks. They have everything to lose and nothing to gain that way. Even less likely they will renounce their stance on the destruction of Israel. That would erase their raison d'etre, and Hamas would cease to be.

So what does that leave? Two parties, both sworn enemies of the other, who find they must coexist while chained together at the ankle. To me, this sounds like an okay basis for the beginnings of a realistic policy.

Besides, the Israeli hard liners desperately need the dragon of terrorism to justify their existence. Palestinian hotheads have always rewarded their provocations with fresh atrocities, as was seen in the aftermath of Al Aqsa. Every time their was a lull in fresh outrages, Sharon would order another strike in a Pal neighborhood. In response, some shaheed would then obligingly blow himself up on a bus or in a disco. If you read the daily papers during this period you would have been struck by the regularity of this pattern.

This time I'd be very surprised if Hamas played along. Don't look for them to resume the ugliness, even if provoked by the IDF.

It is foolish to talk about this as a failure of democracy. This was a battle between two criminal enterprises, which have usurped the public stage. To call this a failed election misses the point. Mr Bush does understand. Just read his SOTU speech where he talked about democracy. We are fixated on elections and see to neither care nor understand the insititions and norms that have to be in place for people to actually select their leaders.

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