Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Palestinian cause is being hijacked

I first met Kamal Medhat, whom I always knew as Kamal Naji, in early 2007, when I was looking for background information to review a book on militant Islam in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp. At the time, Kamal could still claim to have abandoned everything for the attractions of academia, though you knew even then that the finality of the man was not a fastidious thesis and a chalkboard.

Kamal had been an aide to Yasser Arafat in the 1980s and was the official who surrendered the Palestinians' heavy weapons to the Lebanese government in 1991, when the army, backed politically by Syria, attacked Palestinian forces east of Sidon. When Abbas Zaki was named the Palestinian Liberation Organization's representative in Lebanon after the Syrian pullout in 2005, he chose Kamal as his deputy. Zaki needed a man with experience and decisiveness on the ground. He also used him as a counterweight to the secretary of the Fatah movement in Lebanon, Sultan Abu al-Aynayn, whose allegiances, typical of a Palestinian official who had to maneuver through the years of Syrian domination, were complicated when it came to the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority.

The speculation over who killed Kamal Medhat will continue for some time. Hamas is a prime suspect, however that theory doesn't seem particularly credible. That's not because the Islamist movement is incapable of such a thing, but because in Lebanon Hamas probably doesn't have the political latitude or wish to take such a drastic measure, which risks a major backlash. The identity of the murderers in such cases does not remain secret for very long. That doesn't mean that Hamas will not benefit from Medhat's elimination, but it seems more likely that others calculated that consequence on the movement's behalf.

Was Syria involved, or Hizbullah, or a cutout acting on behalf of one or the other? That's possible; both have an interest in marginalizing the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas, which means weakening Fatah and undermining the independence of Palestinian decision-making in Lebanon. However, men like Medhat stand at the nexus point of complex relationships, where political, security, and intelligence interests intersect, buried in layers of ambiguity, so that while it may be tempting to jump to obvious conclusions, the truth may be more complex. Soon enough we will have a better sense of what happened, but until then what are the broader consequences of Kamal Medhat's assassination?

It is surely no coincidence that Medhat was killed at a particularly sensitive moment in the negotiations over a Palestinian-unity government in Cairo. Those talks have gone nowhere in recent weeks, which is hardly a surprise. Neither Syria nor Iran is eager to cede to Egypt a diplomatic victory on the Palestinian front, or to lay the diplomatic groundwork for a revival of the Saudi peace plan adopted by the Arab League in 2002. As the Doha Arab summit looms next week, the struggle over who holds the Palestinian card seems to be intensifying, with Syria and Iran, each for reasons of its own, wanting to ensure that it can veto, through Hamas, any possible consensual Arab policy on Palestinian negotiations with Israel.

Does Medhat's killing signal the final nail in the coffin of the troubled Palestinian unity talks? Not necessarily. In fact it may be an upping of the ante to soften Fatah's stance by sending the movement a warning that the next battlefield between it and Hamas will be the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Who has the advantage? Since Hizbullah is bound to oppose Fatah, and the Lebanese state will undoubtedly be too timorous to take sides in an inter-Palestinian confrontation, particularly if Syria prevents it, Fatah may find itself under increasing duress, allowing Hamas and pro-Syrian Palestinians to regain the initiative in the camps.

Fatah retains much support among the Palestinians in Lebanon, and it's not the murder of Kamal Medhat that will reverse this. However, if Fatah's leadership comes under more attack and is unable to distribute money and services in the way it has managed to in the past year, and is unable to protect its political independence and Ramallah's sway in the camps, the balance may slowly shift away, perhaps even within the movement. The Syrians, for example, may be more comfortable with the Fatah leadership in place before Zaki arrived, over which it had greater influence.

Doha will determine whether the so-called moderate Arab states have any valid rejoinder to the very plain Syrian and Iranian efforts to hijack the Palestinian cause. It's no secret that Hamas leaders would like to take control of the PLO away from Fatah, just as it's no secret that Syria tried during the Gaza war to persuade other Arab states to distance themselves from the 2002 Arab peace plan. Damascus prefers to talk to Israel alone, so that it is not blindsided by parallel progress on the Palestinian track; and with Hamas these days largely doing Syrian and Iranian bidding, the Syrians are in a position to strengthen their bargaining hand by manipulating Palestinian affairs. The late Yasser Arafat spent three decades trying to avoid that situation. It's no wonder, then, that Medhat, once one of his collaborators, should have paid so high a price.

In that context, doesn't the Saudi-led project to renew Arab amity risk creating an opportunity for Syria, and with it Iran and Hizbullah, to cripple an autonomous Palestinian track led by Mahmoud Abbas? More perniciously, isn't this precisely what a government led by the next Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would welcome? Netanyahu and Syria's President Bashar Assad share a longing to discredit Abbas. A strengthening of Hamas would allow Netanyahu to say that he has no Palestinian interlocutor, which would allow Assad to respond: "Well, you will always have Syria to talk to."

We don't yet know who killed Kamal Medhat, and who is targeting an independent Fatah in Lebanon. But we can say who stands to gain from this, whether they were involved in the crime or not. Pity the Palestinians for once being a powerful idea now in serious risk of becoming an afterthought.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The suspects are many in Kamal Medhat’s assassination

The assassination of Kamal Medhat yesterday in the Miyeh Miyeh refugee camp is a sad moment for the Palestinian cause and a worrisome development for Lebanon. It’s unclear who killed Medhat, even if the suspects are many. Some blamed Israel, but the murder was likely the work of someone more familiar, amid fears that Lebanon may emerge as a new battlefield in a regional struggle over Palestinian decision-making.

There was speculation that Medhat was accidentally killed in the place of the real target, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s representative in Lebanon, Abbas Zaki. That’s not likely. Good killers know their mark. Medhat had vast experience in Lebanese affairs, and his loss will be sorely felt by the PLO. Zaki was the public face of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, but Medhat was the man on the ground, in the shadows, who could implement decisions.

Who had an interest in killing Kamal Medhat? Take your pick. His antagonism toward Hamas was no secret. In recent months, the movement, especially its Damascus-based leadership, had made no secret of its desire to take over the PLO, making the elimination of Fatah leadership cadres more probable. However, there is no certainty that the Islamist movement had the latitude to carry out such an attack, let alone the wherewithal, especially as it became the most likely suspect.

Medhat was also someone little appreciated by other enemies of the Palestinian Authority. If Hamas is eager to lead the Palestinians and marginalize Fatah, it is sustained in this effort by a variety of Arab states and groups, notably Syria and Hezbollah. It’s perhaps somewhere in there that we should look for those behind Medhat’s elimination. But we might also want to be careful. Medhat had not lived unmolested in Lebanon without keeping lines open to both parties, and to many others.

Then there were other attendant details: Medhat’s declared hostility toward certain Palestinian Salafist groups in Ain al-Hilweh; or the fact that he was brought in by Zaki as a counterweight to Sultan Abu al-Aynayn, once the senior Fatah representative in Lebanon (whom Medhat had preceded in his post). Could either have been involved? Again, there is no evidence to suggest that they were, particularly when there was a high risk that those responsible would be exposed.

The main Palestinian interlocutor of the Lebanese state is the PLO. Someone could be trying to change that. The Palestinian camps are houses of many mansions: Fatah remains the largest armed group, and thanks to Zaki and Medhat, and fresh funds from Ramallah, it was making a comeback. Hamas also has a presence, if a less powerful one, while smaller Salafist groups, particularly in Ain al-Hilweh, have the ability to cause serious trouble. As for the Syrians, they have relations with all the parties, in addition to their direct authority over Ahmad Gebril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

In dealing with this complex situation, the Lebanese state needs an address. But who is the go-to person now on the Palestinian side? Abbas Zaki has the title, but he’s not much without men under him who can play the politics of the refugee camps, distribute the money to the right people, and defend the independence of the Palestinian decision.

Syria has for decades been the largest single threat to that independence. When the Syrians left Lebanon in 2005, they managed to retain leverage over the Palestinians. However, the Palestinian Authority, by naming Zaki, sought to reassert the authority of Ramallah over a refugee population that had mainly come to serve Syrian priorities. Damascus has no interest in allowing this to succeed, eager as it is to use the Palestinians as a card in its negotiations with Israel and in inter-Arab politics.

Iran and Hezbollah may not be particularly pleased with a resumption of Syrian negotiations with Israel; however, like Syria, they understand that a weaker Fatah and a stronger Hamas will earn them a greater sway over the Palestinians and their future political choices.

If Medhat’s assassination is the first stage in a conflict to dominate Lebanon’s Palestinian population, then what can the Lebanese government do? For starters, it should limit the scope of possible damage by making it a priority to disarm Palestinian armed groups outside the camps, and it must be adamant about settling the matter of pro-Syrian Palestinian military bases inside Lebanese territory along the Lebanese-Syrian border. Syria will resist, but Lebanon should insist that this remain a leading item on their bilateral agenda, as well as on the US-Syrian agenda, and that between Syria and European states.

Secondly, Lebanon should take steps to ensure that the balance of power in the camps stays unchanged, while making it clear that the PLO is the only organization the government will recognize as the official representative of the Palestinians. That’s because what happens in the camps will have a bearing not only on Resolution 1559 but also on Resolution 1701, which the PLO alone, and Fatah above all, is committed to defending among the Palestinians. The prevailing Lebanese policy of benign neglect toward the camps may no longer be sustainable.

The first time I met Kamal Medhat, he was still in the midst of his long interregnum between his days as Fatah representative and his recall by Abbas Zaki. He was focusing on academic pursuits, he told me. But there was too much to the man to believe he could be satisfied solely with cracking textbooks. In retrospect, he would have been better off doing just that. Sharp and decisive, he was always bound to be troublesome to those who see Lebanon’s Palestinians as pawns to be played without pity.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Christian path to assisted suicide

In 2007, Marcel Ghanem hosted a program commemorating the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the late Lebanese Forces leader who in 1982 was the president-elect for a mere three weeks. Invited on the show was Nadim, Bashir's son and today a candidate for the Achrafieh constituency. Ghanem asked Nadim what the Taif Accord meant to him, and his answer told us a great deal about the mindset in the Maronite community. "Taif means Christian surrender," he replied.

That helps explain why Michel Aoun, though his popularity has doubtless gone down since 2005, has managed in recent years to make so much headway among Christians, and Maronites in particular. Even those who politically oppose him, like Nadim Gemayel, but no less the family's other candidate in the Metn, Sami Gemayel, think in much the same way as he does; or rather, Aoun and the Gemayels, and they're not alone in the Maronite community, derive their popularity from the fact that they express a Maronite fear of decline, but also manipulate this fear and transform it into a caustic and disturbing form of sectarian paranoia.

The obligatory target of their efforts is Taif. More than a surrender, the accord is viewed as an instrument for the redistribution of Maronite power to the Sunni community, in that the Maronite president's prerogatives were handed over to the council of ministers under a Sunni prime minister. However, this conviction is not only flawed, it ignores the lessons of recent Lebanese history. The problem with Taif is not that it hands power over to the Sunnis; it's that it establishes a triumvirate at the top of the state between a president, a prime minister, and a speaker of parliament in which authority is ill-defined and shifts depending on who is in office. Taif is a mechanism for equilibrium, not for effective government.

Rafik Hariri was indeed a powerful Sunni prime minister, and it's on that basis that many Christians judge Taif's outcome. However, between 1998 and 2000 the head of the government was Salim al-Hoss, who was rightly seen by most Lebanese, and by his own community in particular, as weak in the face of a more dominant Maronite, Emile Lahoud. That was one reason why Hoss was easily defeated in the elections of 2000. However, the irony is that Lahoud was so unpopular among his coreligionists for being Syria's man, and for using the army and intelligence services to impose his writ, that few Maronites took satisfaction in his ascendancy.
Meanwhile, the senior official who has lasted longest in the post-Taif system is neither a Maronite nor a Sunni; it is Nabih Berri, the Shiite speaker of Parliament, who came to power in 1992 and, in all likelihood, will be given a fifth mandate after the June elections.

In seeking to undermine Taif, many Christians display inexcusable shortsightedness. Reversing the accord, which for now guarantees a 50-50 distribution of power between Christians and Muslims in Parliament, will not alter the reality of the Christians' demographic decline. Yet an absurd notion is circulating among Aounists that Christians can do better by replacing Taif with a system of thirds, whereby Christians, Sunnis and Shiites would each get a third of parliamentary seats. Michel Aoun himself has floated the idea on occasion. Yet how is the formal recognition of depleted Christian numbers an improvement over Taif? Aounists reply that it could work better because, in exchange, the Maronites would demand that the president regain the power Taif took away from him.

The logic is impeccable. The Christians, for starters, would admit that their numbers have dropped, therefore that the Sunnis and Shiites are entitled to have greater representation in Parliament; and then, based on that admission, the same Christians would persuade the Muslims to give them more clout at the top of the state by returning to the Maronite president the powers he lost in Taif - powers which greatly subordinated the Sunni prime minister and Shiite speaker to the president.

Taif remains the only realistic passage to a new Christian relationship with the state. Defective or not, it is a reality, and whether it is Aoun, the Gemayels, or anyone else, Maronites in general should understand that they are far better protected by a formal written document than by personal reveries for alternative paths to a Christian revival. Aoun talks about thirds; Sami Gemayel has floated a federalist scheme; Nadim Gemayel's thoughts are likely fragmentary. Everything should be on the table, but only in the context of an agreement that everyone has signed on to, therefore must respect. For better or worse, that agreement is Taif.

In Paris on Tuesday, President Michel Sleiman was asked about the establishment of a Senate, which Taif reinstitutes. His answer was interesting, and in some ways courageous: "The Lebanese Constitution establishes a Senate, and the Senate is the basic and salutary resolution to creating a balance in states." Sleiman said he hoped that the Lebanese would begin the process "after setting up the national committee to abolish political confessionalism, which will naturally take a long time."

In the post-Taif Constitution, the idea is for Parliament to abandon sectarian quotas after deliberations between communal representatives in the committee to which Sleiman referred. As a counterweight to this, the Constitution installs a Senate in which Christians and Muslims would be evenly represented, to address "major national issues." Sleiman took a risk in mentioning the abolition of political confessionalism, which is unpopular among Christians, and no doubt in the coming days his critics, many of whom would otherwise advocate setting up a system of thirds, will bellow that the president is selling the Christians out.

However, Sleiman is right in taking the Christians back to Taif, and his anodyne phrase was, in reality, quite a significant shot across the bow of Michel Aoun and all those Maronites who deem Taif an act of Christian surrender. The president is being sensible. He knows that Taif is one of the few instruments that Christians in general still have to protect their rights in a system with a Muslim majority. He knows, too, that all those who rail against Taif offer no realistic alternative, and that their strategy is to jump off one ledge to another, only to notice halfway that the other ledge doesn't exist. The result is bound to be a resounding crash.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Syria prepares for a Lebanese vacation

You have to wonder if, during their talks last week in Damascus, the acting US assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, and the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Moallem, mentioned Hawaii. Why Hawaii? Because in April 2007, at another meeting in Damascus, this one between the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, and the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, Moallem accused the United States and France of playing a "destructive" role in Lebanon. He said he wanted Feltman (who was then the US ambassador in Beirut) out of the country, and he offered to pay for a vacation in Hawaii.

That meeting was more sinister for being the venue in which Assad threatened to destabilize Lebanon if the Hariri tribunal were passed under Chapter VII authority by the UN. The president told Ban that Lebanon's "most peaceful years were when Syrian forces were present. From 1976 to 2005 Lebanon was stable, whereas now there is great instability." The exchange was later leaked to the French daily Le Monde, perhaps because Assad's reaction to the tribunal made rather less convincing his assurances that Syria was innocent in Rafik Hariri's assassination.

When the Syrian regime offers vacations, they usually are the kind that one doesn't come back from. However, Feltman, in his final days as ambassador to Lebanon, also earned a goodbye present from Syria and its local allies. In January 2008, a US Embassy vehicle was damaged in a bomb attack that killed three people, on the same day that the ambassador was to hold a going-away reception at the Phoenicia Hotel.

In politics, such pages are made to be turned. However, the decision of the Obama administration to start a dialogue with the Assad regime by sending Feltman to Syria, along with Daniel Shapiro of the National Security Council, seems neither a page turned nor one unturned - at least not yet. If anyone must deal with Syria on Washington's behalf, then Feltman is the man, and it must have irritated the Syrians to no end that his being handed their portfolio probably means he will officially be confirmed in the assistant secretary post. Feltman is cynical, or the operative word these days is "realistic", about Syria, and he really is persuaded that turning Lebanon into a Syrian meal is not the way to move ahead with Assad. However, with the containment of Iran now the name of the game in the Arab world, Syria sees new possibilities looming ahead.

It wasn't surprising, in that case, to hear what Assad had to say to the Al-Khaleej newspaper several days ago. The president is unable to utter a phrase on Lebanon without decorating it with words of intimidation, and this was no exception. He echoed, sort of, what he had told Ban two years ago, namely that if the Hariri tribunal were politicized, "Lebanon would be the first to pay the price." When Assad uses the word "politicized," he means that the tribunal should not accuse Syrians - a promise he hopes to elicit from the US in exchange for a better relationship. And if the Americans don't go along with this, then the Lebanese may feel the rod.

However, Arab containment of Iran adds a dimension to the current diplomacy that didn't exist a few years ago. Yesterday, Assad was received in Riyadh by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, and there he was "reconciled" with Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak. The Syrians still very much view an improvement of ties with the Arab states and the West as a chance to reimpose their writ in Lebanon. They understand that it is more difficult to drive their tanks into Beirut than it used to be (though they haven't lost hope), but Assad is looking for a mechanism allowing him to dominate Lebanon from across the border, through which his local allies, notably Hizbullah, can be called upon to maintain order when needed.

There are two variables here, though, that the Syrians will need to consider. The first is that the Saudis, and now the Egyptians, in exchange for patching things up with Syria, will demand that Assad take a clearer position with regard to Iran, as well as to Hizbullah and Hamas. The Syrian intention, however, is to maintain thorough ambiguity on this front. Assad has no desire to distance himself from Tehran, because that would mean surrendering a very good reason for why everyone is talking to Syria. On the other hand, if he simply does nothing, that may jeopardize Syria's normalization process with the Saudis and Egyptians, which risks marginalizing Syrian regional influence down the road.

One way out of this dilemma for Assad may be a second variable, which he will have to be careful in manipulating: a reshaping of the nature of Syria's connection with Hizbullah. There should be no illusions about what this means. The Syrians will not disarm Hizbullah, nor are they capable of doing so; and they see no advantages whatsoever in a decisive break with the party. After all, Hizbullah plays the role of Syrian enforcer in Lebanon. But where the Syrians very probably do want to adjust things is in forcing Hizbullah once again to take on Syria's agenda as its priority, just as it was in the days when Syrian soldiers were still deployed in Lebanon. Since their withdrawal in April 2005, with Hizbullah having gained wider latitude to act on the ground and Syria more dependent than ever on the party to defend its Lebanese stakes, it has become increasingly apparent that Iran is the one primarily calling Hizbullah's shots.

This bothers Assad, but it also provides him with an opportunity. If containment of Iran is everyone's chief concern, the Arab states' and the Obama administration's above all, then any Syrian effort to raise the heat on Hizbullah could serve three simultaneous purposes: it could force the party to embrace Syrian interests more heartily; it could bring Syria plaudits from all those states delighted to see an Iranian surrogate put under pressure; and it could permit Assad to reimpose a measure of the hegemony over Lebanon that he lost in 2005. The end result would be a compromise. As Syrian power in Lebanon increases, Iran, and with it Hizbullah, would have no choice but to bend to Assad's conditions, as that would at least guarantee Hizbullah's political and military survival.

However, are things likely to be as clear-cut? Would Hizbullah go along so quietly, and would Iran sign off on this? Would the United States and the Arabs be so easily gulled? And would the Lebanese agree, years after managing to get out from under Syria's thumb? The Syrians sometimes presume too much of their capacities, imagining that a bomb can substitute for a vacation. They might remember that a particularly large bomb on February 14, 2005, is what ended their long Lebanese interregnum.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Will the real March 14 please stand up

March 14 approaches and we can already smell the burns as different members of the majority chafe against each other in their pre-election jockeying for space on candidate lists. It’s in moments like these that it is useful to ask what the March 14 coalition is really all about, and how it fits into the reality of Lebanese political life.

There are two very different ways of looking at March 14. It can be seen as the embodiment of a liberal ideal of cross-sectarian amity, a desire for political renovation, but also for justice in the trial of Rafik Hariri’s killers (and the killers of all the others assassinated in the past four years). Those, in many ways, were the sentiments picked up here and there at the historical March 14 demonstration of 2005, and that continue to be expressed, in disjointed ways, by the orphans of that day.

A more restricted definition of March 14 is that it is a collection of disparate political forces joined pragmatically against a return of Syrian control over Lebanon. That fear alone is what keeps its different constituents together. This view is far less idealized than the first, but it is probably truer; it is also why March 14 has lasted for so long.

Four years after the Independence Intifada, let’s look back for a sobering moment at what really happened then. Were the month-long demonstrations against Syria spontaneous, democratic expressions of a desire for emancipation? Doubtless they were, for a moment, which is what made that moment so special. However, they were also, perhaps mainly, a culmination of what began as a revolt of a part of the political elite in defense of its parochial interests – one not so very different than previous revolts in Lebanese history. Had a rump of the political class not challenged Syria’s extension of Emile Lahoud’s mandate, Hariri would not have been killed and the Lebanese would have stayed home in 2005.

For a month the public slipped out from under the grip of the leaders into something looser and more uninhibited. Once the March 14 demonstration was over, however, the politicians took matters in hand again in preparation for the elections. Many people later saw this as a betrayal, but there was something terribly naïve in that view. There never was a “revolution” in the Cedar Revolution, nor does Lebanese society lend itself to such a high aspiration. The elections were about interests, calculated by leaders emerging from the sectarian recesses of society, whose adage was balance rather than abrupt new departures.

Once we understand that, we can better understand what is going on today, as March 14 prepares for the June elections. The game is, quite simply, about defining one’s political weight along the margins of the coalition – and this applies as much to those in the opposition. Consequently, we might do best to set aside for a moment illusions about the lasting nature of the March 14-opposition bipolarity before June. What the elections this year will likely confirm is that the fiercest contests will be over power within the two political alignments, rather than between them.

It will be about whether Walid Jumblatt can retain the influence he has over the majority, while also juggling his requirements to protect the Druze and his control over them; it will be about whether Saad Hariri can use his sway to advance his preferred agenda among his allies; it will also be about whether Samir Geagea or Amin Gemayel can better claim to speak for the Christians of March 14; it will be about whether Hezbollah can use its share of seats to defend itself amid growing regional efforts to contain Iran and its extensions; it will be about whether Nabih Berri can loosen the Hezbollah stranglehold around his neck, and about whether Michel Aoun can persuade his Shiite allies to save him from evaporation.

The regional catchphrase is defense against Iran. That is the Saudi priority, and the American one. Syria sits uncomfortably in the middle, not wanting to make decisive choices vis-à-vis its Iranian friends, but also unwilling to jeopardize better relations with the Arab world and the United States merely to stick with Tehran without payback. Nor are the Syrians pleased to see Lebanon becoming more an Iranian card than a Syrian one. So Damascus will preserve its relationship with Hezbollah, but it also wants the party to respond to Syrian stimuli above all else.

The outcome of these changes will define whether March 14 survives or not. If Syria remains a threat, the coalition will endure to fight another day; if the Syrians are looking for an “acceptable” say in Lebanon, but promise not to otherwise murder its leaders and use violence against Syria’s opponents, a new modus vivendi may be reached. But don’t hold your breath. Just as you would be wrong to overplay the idealism in March 14, you would do poorly to underplay the yearning of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to regain in some way his former Lebanese inheritance. The months ahead will be a pre-election interregnum, during which everyone will watch everyone else. Expect no finalities until the masks of duplicity fall.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Talking much gibberish about Hamas

You can say many disparaging things about the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but he did manage, until his dying breath, to preserve what was known as the independence of the Palestinian decision. Under Arafat's guidance, the Palestinian Liberation Organization was able for decades to avoid falling under the sway of an Arab state, particularly Syria, which tried as of the late 1960s to bring the PLO to heel.

That's why you have to wonder whether those who argue today that the international community, and Western nations in particular, should initiate a dialogue with Hamas, have really thought the idea through. In times of stalemate a novel idea is often mistaken for a good one. With the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations going nowhere, and not likely to in the coming year, the inventive proposal is that talking to Hamas may help bring about a negotiated settlement.
Once you've disregarded the counter-intuitive view that legitimizing a movement that opposes a settlement will make a settlement more likely, you can address the matter of definition. For many Western states, Hamas is a terrorist organization, which alone should deny it any measure of endorsement. However, those in favor of engaging Hamas would argue that definitions can cut both ways in the Middle East, and often stifle creative thinking. In some ways they are right, but let's for the moment, to carry our argument further, set aside the momentarily irresolvable matter of definition and suggest where the engagers are more strikingly wrong.

For one thing, opening a dialogue with Hamas would signal the political end of Fatah and of the PLO as we know it. Once states begin normalizing their relations with the Islamist movement, the nature of the Palestinian Authority will change, and President Mahmoud Abbas' de facto marginalization will virtually be formalized. Hamas' priority in recent years has been to assert its authority over the Palestinian political scene. It seeks a long-term truce with Israel to buy time to impose its writ on the home front. Hamas dreams of a day when it will run the PLO in the place of Fatah, and when it will rule over the Palestinian Authority.

Do those who want to see the Palestinians regain their rights really feel that their cause will gain once it is represented by a militant Islamist movement? That Palestinian secular nationalism should devolve to a religious brotherhood that interprets the struggle for Palestine in messianic terms, and justifies violence in the name of God, would be a catastrophe worse than the defeat of 1948 for the Palestinians.

You also have to question why the engagers, many of them Western or Arab liberals who tend to be secular and nonviolent, see so many possibilities in a movement that is deeply illiberal, religiously intolerant, and violent. The only explanation is that in their innate positivism, in their fervent desire to find happy endings in Palestine, where none have been forthcoming, the engagers have abandoned the liberal principles that should be underpinning any serious peace effort.

Preserving the independence of the Palestinian decision is another reason why any invitation for a dialogue with Hamas should be thought through very carefully. In its ambition to weaken Fatah, Hamas has pawned much of its political liberty to Syria and Iran. At no time was this better shown than before the recent fighting in Gaza, when Hamas' Damascus-based leadership worked to scuttle Egypt's attempt at mediating a new truce with Israel. This served mainly a Syrian and an Iranian agenda to pry the Gaza card out of Cairo's hands, thereby gaining for Syria and Iran, each for its own reasons, the initiative on the Palestinian front.

It may have made tactical sense for Hamas to go along with this, as the movement is chafing at the Egyptian stranglehold on Gaza, and needs Damascus and Tehran for its weapons and financing. However, when the plan backfired, the consequences were dire for Gaza's inhabitants, who were made to endure weeks of brutal Israeli retaliation.

For some, the solution to these dilemmas is the creation of a Palestinian unity government. The idea is appealing, but is it realistic? The fact is that no unity government is possible when Hamas and Fatah cannot even agree over the fundamentals of what such a government would be called upon to address: peace with Israel. Hamas continues to reject recognition of Israel as a precondition for its entry into such a government. And the movement can afford to do so. With the arrival of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister, the prospects for progress in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations will descend to nil. Hamas sees no reason to concede anything on the recognition front; indeed, it has an interest in not doing so, so as to derail diplomatic movement that would only benefit Abbas.

This leaves the most powerful argument of the Hamas engagers: That the movement is so strong on the ground that it cannot be circumvented. For practical reasons, international organizations in Gaza already have open channels to the movement. Many governments also carry on formal or informal discussions with Hamas. However, if the idea is that Arab and Western governments should offer the movement heightened recognition so that they would come to deal with Hamas in Gaza as a legitimate parallel power to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, then this would harden Palestinian divisions and encourage Hamas to accelerate its efforts to wipe out Fatah and take over the PLO.

Sometimes, no solution is better than a bad one. Hamas is undeniably a difficult interlocutor to avoid on Palestinian issues. The movement has effective veto power over most major Palestinian decisions. However, negotiating with Hamas would only better allow it to change the subject away from what it wants most to avoid: a settlement with Israel along the post-Oslo lines defined during the 1990s. If deadlock is assured on the Palestinian track in the coming year, then it's best to avoid talking to Hamas, allowing the Palestinians themselves, perhaps in the next elections, to cut the movement down to size first. And if they don't do so, then they should prepare to see their national aspirations postponed indefinitely.