JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The U.S. government began to lay the ground for President Mahmoud Abbas to dismiss the Hamas-led Palestinian government at least a year before the Islamist group’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip last week.
Western, Israeli and Palestinian official sources said over the weekend that, far from being an ad hoc response to Hamas’s offensive, Abbas’s declaration of a state of emergency and his replacement of a Hamas prime minister with Western favourite Salam Fayyad marked the culmination of months of backroom deliberations, planning and U.S. prodding.
In the end, pressure on Abbas to act against Hamas was as great — if not greater — from within his own Fatah faction as from Washington, which is seeking to play down its own role.
Only the triggering event, resulting in total Hamas control of the Gaza Strip, can be said to have come as a nasty surprise to the Americans. It left in tatters plans by U.S. and Arab allies to build up Abbas’s own forces in Gaza against Hamas.
Many Western officials and analysts see the offensive as a pre-emptive strike by Hamas before Washington could build up Fatah. Hamas says it made its move against a U.S.-backed “coup”.
“(Hamas leaders) knew what was going on,” one senior Western diplomat said. “They knew Abbas was going to try to establish his authority. They read it in the paper like everyone else.”
Exactly who was overthrowing whom is a fair question, said International Crisis Group analyst Mouin Rabbani.
“Hamas would argue they were merely defending their election victory whereas Abbas would claim he’s defending the legitimacy of Palestinian institutions,” he said. “You had powerful elements within Hamas who thought time was against them.”
Edward Abington, Abbas’s long-time adviser and Washington lobbyist, said the Bush administration made its intentions known to the president soon after Hamas was elected in early 2006. Abbas was told “Hamas is an illegitimate organisation and that they are doing everything they can to force it out of power”.
Abington recounted a meeting as long ago as July last year at which “(Abbas) said to me that the Americans were urging him to kick out the government, to form an emergency government”.
“He refused to do it because it would lead to civil war.
“(Abbas) did not want to get into a confrontation,” said Abington. But in the end, he said, “it was forced on him.”
Western officials said Abbas was able to move swiftly this week to form a new government because much of the advance work had already been done. In one closed-door briefing with U.S. lawmakers earlier this year, a senior U.S. official said Abbas could rule by decree for 6-12 months before elections are held.
On Sunday, faced with a constitutional article demanding any new government be approved by parliament, where Hamas has a majority, Abbas simply issued a decree scrapping that provision.
Current and former U.S. officials deny that overthrowing the government itself was their goal in cutting off funds last year to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority while quietly directing cash to try to rebuild Fatah and prepare for new elections.
They say Washington’s goal was to starve Hamas of financial and diplomatic support so it would fail in the eyes of voters.
U.S. security funds totaling nearly $60 million (30 million pounds), coordinated by Lieutentant-General Keith Dayton, won a congressional green light but were still in the pipeline when Hamas struck in Gaza.
Diplomats said poor planning by Fatah and Israel’s delay of weapons shipments to Gaza helped Hamas seize control. Congress held up funds and blocked training for many of Abbas’s forces.
Israel’s public security minister Avi Dichter said Fatah’s problems stemmed from “a lack of leadership” and a poor command structure, not Israel’s delay in approving weapons shipments.
Analyst Rabbani said Washington was hamstrung by “political restrictions it placed on itself. They weren’t able to send any (U.S.) weapons. They weren’t able to send all the money.”
Despite Fatah’s Gaza setback, some U.S. and Israeli officials see opportunities in Hamas’s victory. Abbas’s unity government blurred the line between Hamas and Fatah. Now, one European diplomat said, things may be more “black and white”.
“It does clarify things” and may help Israel and the United States create a broader front against Hamas and its major backer, Iran, said a former Bush administration official.
Hamas, they note, has been left isolated in a sealed-off, densely populated scrap of coast. Renewing the flow of funds to Abbas in the much bigger West Bank, where stability is more critical to Israel, could help drive a wedge between the Hamas leadership and Gaza’s increasingly impoverished population.
Some Western and Palestinian officials argue Washington fanned the flames as soon as Hamas and Fatah formed a short-lived “unity” government in March. U.S. officials pushed Abbas into giving Hamas’s nemesis, Mohammad Dahlan, control over security and then pushed him to deploy Fatah forces in Gaza.
Abington, a former U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem, said: “For us to be seen so clearly backing one armed Palestinian military against another is a very dangerous proposition, and in the case of Gaza, has failed totally.”
But Matthew Levitt, who until January handled terrorism issues at the U.S. Treasury, justified Washington’s approach: “People question ‘How can the United States promote democracy in the region and then not support an elected government?’
“There are consequences to electing terrorists,” said Levitt, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “One of them is you can’t expect the West to embrace them.”