The United States yesterday lifted its embargo on direct aid to the Palestinian government, joining the European Union and other countries in a swift demonstration of support for embattled President Mahmoud Abbas in his struggle against the anti-Israeli militant group Hamas.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she had called Salam Fayyad, the new prime minister named this week by Abbas, to tell him she was ending bans on aid and diplomatic contacts imposed after Hamas's unexpected victory in legislative elections last year. "We want to work with his government and support his efforts to enforce the rule of law and to ensure a better life for the Palestinian people," she told reporters.
Why do I say that, given that lifting the embargo is exactly the right move to demonstrate support of Abbas? Oh, because of statements like this:
"We are trying to push the restart button," one senior administration official said, bringing U.S. policy back to before the Hamas victory in elections that were certified as free and fair.
Going back to the old policy of "we support your democracy as long as you elect who we want" is not the appropriate strategy to take advantage of this situation. The point is not to permit Abbas to roust out Hamas sympathizers in the West Bank and impose his own rule under Fatah; the point is to pressure Hamas to moderate itself, by demonstrating through Abbas that moderation will get them aid, legitimacy and a seat at the table. The goal is eventual reunification of the two territories under one political entity, and this will not be accomplished by propping up Abbas as a tool of the U.S. and Israel and giving Israel free reign to punish Hamas in Gaza. Let Hamas see for themselves what it's like to rule a poor, hungry and desperate people alone; calling for the destruction of Isarel won't put food in the mouths of Gaza's Palestinians.
So, this is a step in the right direction. We have yet to see if it's for the right reasons.
UPDATE: Also in today's Washington Post, Robert Malley and Aaron Miller seem to have the same thing in mind:
Since Hamas's election in early 2006, the United States and its allies have behaved as though isolating the Islamist movement could undo its victory and that supporting Fatah politically and militarily would hasten that outcome. The wreckage of that policy is clear. Yet, having witnessed the consequences of those myths, they are hastening to adopt others. Efforts to deepen the split between Hamas and Fatah or between Gaza and the West Bank will compound the disaster, for there can be no security, let alone a peace process, without minimal Palestinian unity and consensus.
As the United States and others seek to empower him, they should push for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire in Gaza and the West Bank, which will require dealing -- indirectly at least -- with elements of Hamas. They should resist the temptation to isolate Gaza and should tend to its population's needs. And should a national unity government be established, this time they should welcome the outcome and take steps to shore it up. Only then will efforts to broker credible political negotiations between Abbas and his Israeli counterpart on a two-state solution have a chance to succeed.
In other words, don't try to starve or beat Hamas out of Gaza. Support Fatah and Abbas, but don't punish Gaza and leave the door open for reunifcation. Hamas will eventually realize that they overplayed their hand; that's the moment of opportunity. Unfortunately it's also a moment of danger, as the possibility exists that Hamas will act out, launching rockets at Israel and prompting Israeli retaliation that will only further radicalize the Palestinians and delay peace. This result must be avoided at all costs, and that can only be done by carefully managing Hamas, neither provoking them nor "rewarding" them for their provocations. This is a subtle strategy which is exactly why I fear the Bush administration will fail to either recognize or adopt it. But it's the only recipe for peace.