I recommend to readers a recent New York Times story on political friction between the U.S. and Israel - less for its reporting then as an instructive specimen of Beltway narrative.
The article, by White House correspondent Mark Landler, chronicles the rupture between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over a Palestinian unity government that includes the militant Islamist group Hamas. The White House has said it will work with the new regime towards a revival of peace efforts, pointing out that Hamas has been relegated to junior-partner status relative to its secular partner, Fatah, and that in joining the ruling circle it has renounced violence. The Israelis insist they will not negotiate with any authority that includes Hamas, which it fears could dominate the cabinet should it poll well in elections to be held six months from now.
As a cautionary tale, Landler cites the January 2006 Palestinian elections that swept Hamas to power. The ballot was encouraged by then-President George W. Bush as part of his policy to promote democracy in the Middle East, but also because “nobody thought [Hamas] had a chance of winning,” writes Landler. The decision to allow Hamas to contest the ballot was “a mistake,” Elliot Abrams, who served as a Middle East envoy during the Bush years, told the Times. “And I hope we will will not make the same mistake twice.”
Like most political conceits, Landler’s account is conspicuous for what it omits. He quotes Abrams at length but fails to mention how the career civil servant negotiated Israel’s 2005 withdraw of Jewish settlers from Gaza - a unilateral exercise deeply resented by Fatah - followed by Gaza’s internment inside an Israeli-controlled concrete wall. It is also worth noting that Abrams, while working as a senior aide in the Reagan administration and under pressure of indictment for his conduct during the Iran-Contra scandal, pled guilty to lesser charges of withholding information from Congress.
Tellingly and without irony, Landler allows that Abrams “sympathized” with White House fears that isolating the Fatah-Hamas government could trigger a financial crisis in occupied Palestine which, according to the reporter, “would be dangerous for Israel’s security.” If Abrams - or Landler, for that matter - were concerned about the welfare of Palestinians in the event of such a collapse there is no mention of it. Either way, given Abrams’ rap sheet and his reputation as a Likudnik functionary, one wonders why Landler couldn’t have solicited the views of another Middle East expert in a city lousy with them.
Landler’s reference to the 2006 election is misleading for its lack of context. For one thing, while Hamas’ victory was a surprise in Washington it was widely anticipated in the Arab world and in Palestine itself, where prospective voters made their intentions clear to election monitors before the balloting began. I was attending a dinner party in Riyadh on the day the election results were announced and it was the Bush administration’s panicked response more than Hamas’ victory that aroused my fellow guests. Here was more proof, as if any were needed, of the deep chasm between Middle Eastern reality and Washington’s queered comprehension of it.
Nor does Landler mention the short-lived Hamas-Fatah unity government brokered a month after the election by Saudi intermediaries. Under its terms, Hamas authorized Fatah leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate peace with Israel. Though far from the de jure acceptance of the Jewish state demanded from Hamas by the international community, it signaled an implied recognition that went far beyond what the Islamist group allowed Yasser Arafat, Abbas’ predecessor. In the Levantine world, such gestures matter.
Rather than exploit Hamas’ concession, however, Washington imposed a crippling embargo on the Palestinian Authority with a raft of legislation authored by the American-Israel Political Action Committee, Israel’s primary influence peddler in Washington. AIPAC had drafted the bills well before the election as a contingency against an “upset” Hamas victory, after which both chambers of Congress enthusiastically wove them into law.
The collapse of the Mecca accords was followed by a Palestinian civil war that the Bush administration attempted to manipulate with disastrous results. In July, Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan, with furtive assistance from the U.S., led a failed coup against Hamas in its Gaza stronghold. Hamas counter-attacked, killing scores of Fatah fighters and driving the rest out of Gaza.
If, as Abrams puts it, allowing Hamas to contest the 2006 vote was a mistake, so too was his administration’s decision to intervene on behalf of a corrupt apparatchik like Dahlan, entrenching the Palestinian divide and associating the U.S., yet again, with the losing side in an historically free Arab election. (At the same time the White House was meddling in Gaza, it was signaling a green light to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak to crack down on members of the Muslim Brotherhood who done well in similar balloting.)
It may sound churlish to expect Landler and other Beltway reporters to clutter their stories with facts that inconvenience the narratives framed by Likudnik shills like Abrams. To suggest, for example, that the Zionist movement in its formative stage employed terrorist acts in pursuit of its objectives not unlike Hamas would be as enlightening for many readers as it would be condemned by Washington elites. (The comparison is far from perfect. As far as I know Hamas has yet to assassinate foreign envoys; the Zionist group Lehi, on the other hand, famously gunned down Britain’s Lord Moyne and Sweden’s Folke Bernadotte in the 1940s.)
Absent such historical points of reference, readers are left with a flat, compartmentalized landscape from which to survey a part of the world where both the past and the present battle over the same bloody terrain.
Which, needless to say, is exactly the way Netanyahu and his proxies in Washington would have it.