Monday, May 21, 2007

Palestinian Pinochet Making His Move?

By Tony Karon

15 May 2007

There's something a little misleading in the media reports
that routinely describe the fighting in Gaza as pitting Hamas
against Fatah forces or security personnel "loyal to President
Mahmoud Abbas." That characterization suggests somehow that
this catastrophic civil war that has killed more than 25
Palestinians since Sunday is a showdown between Abbas and the
Hamas leadership -- which simply isn't true, although such a
showdown would certainly conform to the desires of those
running the White House Middle East policy.

The Fatah gunmen who are reported to have initiated the
breakdown of the Palestinian unity government and provoked the
latest fighting may profess fealty to President Abbas, but
it's not from him that they get their orders. The leader to
whom they answer is Mohammed Dahlan, the Gaza warlord who has
long been Washington's anointed favorite to play the role of a
Palestinian Pinochet. And while Dahlan is formally subordinate
to Abbas, whom he supposedly serves as National Security
Adviser, nobody believes that Dahlan answers to Abbas -- in
fact, it was suggested at the time that Abbas appointed Dahlan
only under pressure from Washington, which was irked by the
Palestinian Authority president's decision to join a unity
government with Hamas.

If Dahlan takes orders from anyone at all, it's certainly not
from Abbas. Abbas has long recognized the democratic
legitimacy and popularity of Hamas, and embraced the reality
that no peace process is possible unless the Islamists are
given the place in the Palestinian power structure that their
popular support necessitates. He has always favored
negotiation and cooperation with Hamas -- much to the
exasperation of the Bush Administration, and also of the Fatah
warlords whose power of patronage was threatened by the Hamas
election victory -- and could see the logic of the unity
government proposed by the Saudis even when Washington
couldn't. Indeed, as the indispensable Robert Malley and
Hussein Agha note, nothing has hurt Abbas's political standing
as much as the misguided efforts of Washington to boost his
standing in the hope of undermining the elected Hamas

Needless to say, only an Administration as deluded about its
ability to reorder Arab political realities in line with its
own fantasies -- and also, frankly, as utterly contemptuous of
Arab life and of Arab democracy, empty sloganizing
notwithstanding -- as the current one has proved to be could
imagine that the Palestinians could be starved, battered and
manipulated into choosing a Washington-approved political
leadership. Yet, that's exactly what the U.S. has attempted to
do ever since Hamas won the last Palestinian election,
imposing a financial and economic chokehold on an already
distressed population, pouring money and arms into the forces
under Dahlan's control, and eventually adapting itself to
funnel monies only through Abbas, as if casting in him in the
role of a kind of Quisling-provider would somehow burnish his
appeal among Palestinian voters. (As I said, their contempt
for Arab intelligence knows no bounds. )

But while the hapless Abbas is little more than a reluctant
passenger in Washington's strategy -- and will, I still
believe, repair to his former exile lodgings in Qatar in the
not too distant future -- Mohammed Dahlan is its point man, the
warlord who commands the troops and who has been spoiling for
a fight with Hamas since they had the temerity to trounce his
organization at the polls on home turf.

Dahlan's ambitions clearly coincided with plans drawn up by
White House Middle East policy chief, Elliot Abrams -- a
veteran of the Reagan Administration's Central American dirty
wars -- to arm and train Fatah loyalists to prepare them to
topple the Hamas government. If Mahmoud Abbas has been
reluctant to embrace the confrontational policy promoted by
the White House, Dahlan has no such qualms. And given that
Abbas has no political base of his own, he is dependent
entirely on Washington and Dahlan.

Seeing the disastrous implications of the U.S. policy, the
Saudis appeared to have put the kibosh on Abrams' coup plan by
drawing Abbas into a unity government with Hamas. And as Mark
Perry at Conflict Forum detailed in an excellent analysis
Dahlan was just about the only thing that the U.S. had going
for it in terms of resisting the move towards a unity
government. Although his fretting and sulking in Mecca
couldn't prevent the deal, the U.S. appears to have helped him
fight back afterwards by ensuring that he was appointed
national security adviser, a move calculated to provoke Hamas,
whose leaders tend to view Dahlan as little more than a
torturer and a de facto enforcer for Israel.

But Dahlan appears to have made his move when it came to
integrating the Palestinian Authority security forces
(currently dominated by Fatah) by drawing in Hamas fighters
and subjecting the forces to the control of a politically
neutral interior minister. Dahlan simply refused, and set off
the current confrontations by ordering his men out onto the
street last weekend without any authorization from the
government of which he is supposedly a part.

The new provocation appears consistent with a revised U.S.
plan, reported on by Mark Perry and Paul Woodward, that
emphasized the urgency of toppling the unity government. They
suggest the plan emanates from Abrams, who they say is
operating at cross purposes with Condi Rice's efforts to
appease the Arab moderate regimes by reviving some form of
peace process. They note, for example, that Jewish American
sources have told the Forward and Haaretz that Abrams recently
briefed Jewish Republicans and made clear to them that Rice's
efforts were merely a symbolic exercise aimed at showing Arab
allies that the U.S. was "doing something," but that President
Bush would ensure that nothing would come of them, in the
sense that Israel would not be required to make any

Whatever the precise breakdown within the Bush Administration,
it's plain that Dahlan, like Pinochet a quarter century, would
not move onto a path of confrontation with an elected
government unless he believed he had the sanction of powerful
forces abroad to do so. If does move to turn the current
street battle into a frontal assault on the unity government,
chances are it will be because he got a green light from
somewhere -- and certainly not from Mahmoud Abbas.

But the confrontation under way has assumed a momentum of its
own, and it may now be beyond the capability of the
Palestinian leadership as a whole to contain it. If that
proves true, the petulance that has substituted for policy in
the Bush Administration's response to the 2006 Palestinian
election will have succeeded in turning Gaza into Mogadishu.
But it may be too much to expect the Administration capable of
anything different -- after all, they're still busy turning
Mogadishu into Mogadishu all over again.

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