Yet despite the Bush administration’s bungling, perhaps something can
still be done to salvage U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Although Hamas calls for Israel’s destruction, the Israelis
originally secretly supported Hamas as an alternative to the then
stronger Fatah organization, led by Israel’s archrival Yaser Arafat.
Arafat is now dead, Fatah is in shambles, and Hamas has grown into a
Also, instead of negotiating with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,
Arafat’s more moderate successor, the Israelis undermined him by
unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza, building a security wall through the
West Bank, and continuing settlement expansion there. The Bush
administration wholeheartedly supported Israel’s unilateralism and
agreed that Israel could keep large settlements in the West Bank and
could refuse refugees the right of return to Palestine.
Many analysts, trying to find any sort of silver lining in a dark
cloud, emphasize that most Palestinians were voting against Fatah’s
corruption rather than for Hamas’s policy of destroying Israel. To some
extent, this may be true, but Palestinians were also radicalized by the
Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and the pre-election exposure of
its attempt to aid Fatah at the polls by funding public works projects
The Bush administration told us that the road to peace in Jerusalem
passed through Baghdad—that is, ousting the authoritarian Saddam Hussein
would create democratic dominoes in despotic Arabic countries. The
implication was that those new democracies would be more amenable to
settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Many experts on that part of the world, however, believed that in
democratic elections, uncompromising fundamentalist Islamic forces, such
as Hamas, would do well or even win. Unfortunately, the administration
did not consult many of these specialists, who turned out to be right,
not only about Palestine, but also about Iran, Iraq and Egypt.
Clearly democratic elections do not guarantee freedom, liberty, and a
respect for human rights.
At the same time, the administration has underestimated how much the
United States is hated in the Islamic world. The best recommendation to
improve U.S. policy in the Middle East: Stop coercing and threatening
autocratic governments in order to promote democracy and take a lower
profile in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
President Bush initially took a lower profile in the Middle East but,
like his predecessors, was sucked into the swirling vortex of Middle
East politics. Now that Hamas has won a resounding victory, hardliners
will probably do well in the upcoming Israeli elections.
Although Hamas and any new Israeli government probably will have to
be more pragmatic than their rhetoric indicates, Palestinians and
Israelis will be farther than ever from settling the decades-old
conflict. The Israelis were unable to reach a final negotiated
settlement with Arafat and the moderate Abbas and are even more unlikely
to do so with the more strident Hamas.
Many experts say that democracies that appreciate liberty—that is,
liberal democracies—have to grow from an incipient culture of freedom
rather than being coerced from the top down by an outside power. The
United States can rhetorically support democratic forces in any country,
but those elements can also be easily discredited if the U.S. funds them
or tries to support them by intimidating the target authoritarian
Contrary to conventional wisdom, settling the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict—let alone guaranteeing any settlement with U.S. prestige and
money—is not a strategic necessity for the United States. When the
Israelis and Palestinians are truly ready for genuine negotiations,
which neither party is currently and may not be for some time, the
United States could act as a neutral mediator—rather than a guarantor—of
In the meantime, President Bush should follow his natural instinct
and lie low.
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace &
Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.