Obama at Ramallah
President Obama's plans in the Middle East include three and a half hours in Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. The president's hope is to find a mechanism for advancing Israeli-Palestinian "peace." The appearance of the President of the United States in "Palestine" is calculated to provide Abbas with a tangible benefit in hopes of moderating/modifying his behavior vis a vis Israel and strengthen him vis a vis Hamas. If President Obama succeeds, however, the result will be to strengthen a dictator by betraying his people on behalf of their enemy, Israel.
It won't be the first time the United States has tried to entice -- OK, bribe -- dictatorial governments into doing what we want. Bribery didn't work in Iraq or in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, or Tunisia. It hasn't moved Iran or North Korea, and it didn't keep U.S.-armed and trained Malian troops from overthrowing their elected civilian leadership. In none of those cases was Israel a factor. But Ramallah will be more like Egypt, where President Obama did it twice.
First, he continued unquestioning American support for the dictator Hosni Mubarak as a quid pro quo for the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. From the point of view of the Egyptian public, American support for Israel meant American support for their misery. When Mubarak resigned, the administration quickly threw itself behind the Muslim Brotherhood. Mohammed Morsi, winner of the hastily arranged election, was pronounced "democratically elected" despite his post-election power grab. An even more rushed referendum on the "constitution" was also deemed democratic, despite the objections of Egyptian judges and parliamentarians. Both Morsi and the constitution have religious biases that can easily be used for the repression of others, and Copts have already found themselves targeted. Hoping to strengthen Morsi, though, the administration delivered top-of-the-line American planes and tanks even as the opposition was in the streets and the security forces are becoming ever more brutal and lethal.
The administration points to the Peace Treaty as its top priority. Eighty-seven million Egyptians might see it -- and us -- differently, resenting Israel's top billing in their drama.
So too on the West Bank. The PA is corrupt, spendthrift, and repressive. A wave of public demonstrations against the government beginning last year and continuing through January has been met with violent repression. Only some of the protests were directed at Abbas' engagement with Israel. Others focused on police brutality, the cost of living, government-imposed austerity measures, and Abbas himself. Salam Fayyed, the unelected prime minister and favorite of the U.S., has been the focus of popular unhappiness over limited economic prospects. Pro-Abbas gangs have assaulted protesters, according to Palestinian media sources, and journalists have been arrested and beaten.
Senior Palestinian officials, happy to have Western activists supporting their anti-Israel activities, were furious to find them marching with Palestinians against PA corruption. "The involvement of Western nationals in protests against the Palestinian Authority is completely unacceptable," one official said. "We will be forced to cut off all ties with non-Palestinians who incite against the Palestinian leadership."
The U.S. should find such heavy-handed behavior against civilians unacceptable.
In an effort to shift popular anger away from the Palestinian Authority, Abbas has encouraged demonstrations against Israel, which have become more intense at precisely the moment Palestinian security cooperation with Israel has declined. In December, the PA authorized post-mosque pro-Hamas rallies near IDF checkpoints. The rallies predictably turned into skirmishes with border guards and injuries ensued. Tensions between the IDF, border guards, and Palestinians continue to escalate.
That should also be unacceptable to the United States.
From the strictly American point of view, the PA is in the midst of negotiations with Hamas -- a U.S.-designated terrorist organization -- to form a "unity government." If Abbas does, as he said he would, decree a unity government and announce new elections, how will the U.S. respond? Conversations about "unity" have taken place since 2009, two years after Hamas wrested sole control of Gaza from Fatah in a bloody civil war. Abbas has always said such a government depended on Hamas recognizing Israel, an understanding that lip service to Israel must be paid in order to obtain the financial and political benefits of dealing with the U.S. and the West. Hamas, supported by Iran, has no need even for lip service. Khalid Mashaal announced last week that the new deal would create greater unity simply "in order to be free for confronting the enemy."
With Fatah under pressure by its own people and Hamas rising, what does it mean for the U.S. to try to strengthen Abbas with a presidential visit? Are unhappy Palestinians going to be pleased with U.S. support for their dictator on behalf of Israel? Will they be encouraged to support Hamas and its rejection of both the U.S. and the Jewish State? Is the president pushing Palestinians in precisely the direction we don't want them to go?
U.S. policy should first and foremost be to support people in their efforts to achieve consensual government and for governments to pass Natan Sharansky's "Town Square test," an expression of Franklin Roosevelt's "Freedom from Fear." This will ultimately be a better guarantee of Israel's security than presidential bribery designed to make dictators pay lip service to the U.S. and Israel while riding roughshod over their citizens.
Three and a half hours in Ramallah isn't likely to get the Palestinian Authority where it needs to be, but if the president and his entourage use it to discuss individual rights and civil liberties, they would keep faith with the people instead of their dictator.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center