It's Not the Economy, Stupid

The United States must tackle the dysfunctional Palestinian political system for the peace process to have any chance of success.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits down with U.S. President Barack Obama tomorrow, the economic plight of the Palestinian citizens of Gaza will be near the top of the agenda. The United States hopes to follow up on Israel's decision to ease its blockade of Gaza, working with the Israeli leadership on further steps that could be taken to allow more goods into the area. Netanyahu, for his part, will no doubt remind the president of the security threat posed by the militant group Hamas, and Israel's need to restrict the flow of any goods that could be used for military purposes.

Although the situation in Gaza is dire, we should not view this dispute solely or even primarily through the prism of economics. The flawed policies of the United States, Israel, and the international community toward Gaza -- and indeed toward the entire Israeli-Palestinian issue -- go far beyond the failure to allow cement and other construction materials into the strip. Without reconciliation between Palestinian factions and the political reunification of the West Bank and Gaza, not only a better future for Gaza but the two-state solution itself will remain out of reach.

Gaza's economic plight is a symptom of a larger failure of U.S. policy. The U.S. approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue -- which sets the tone for policies by Europe and other interested parties -- is based in part on two assumptions that are almost certainly false.

First, the United States assumes that indirect talks between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can lead to direct negotiations, which can then lead to a comprehensive peace agreement that would allow Abbas to outmaneuver Hamas and regain control of Gaza. Secondly, U.S. policymakers believe that a process of internationally funded reform, led by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, can create the strong, efficient institutions needed for a future Palestinian state.

The problem with both of these assumptions is that Palestinian leaders such as Abbas and Fayyad are deplorably weak, due to the deep political, social, and territorial rift between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank enclaves. Without a unified Palestinian community behind him or even a valid electoral mandate, Abbas cannot take risks in negotiations with Israel, one of the many factors -- which also include the lack of will within the Israeli government -- making progress extremely unlikely. And Fayyad's hands are tied in building durable, democratic institutions for many reasons, among them the fact that the Palestinian Authority's legislative branch has been unable to meet in three years, preventing it from making laws and developing political consensus.

Although there is plenty of blame to go around, Washington must evaluate where its policies have gone wrong and stop making the same painful mistakes.

The U.S. inclination to delay, ignore, or manipulate internal Palestinian politics in the service of short-term goals related to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has been a fundamental error in Washington's policies in the region. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton's administration ignored the authoritarian tendencies of then-President Yasir Arafat, allowing him to undermine the elected legislature and develop a corrupt, ineffective Palestinian Authority, which eventually lost popular support. Then, after the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, George W. Bush's administration tried to manipulate internal Palestinian politics to deprive Arafat of power -- only to have Hamas emerge victorious in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections and gain the premiership that had been "empowered" at U.S. behest.

Obama has continued Bush's efforts to isolate Hamas and Gaza while also pumping economic and security assistance into the West Bank. But the desired results of such policies are as elusive now as they were in 2006. Hamas is proving to be more capable than expected in controlling and governing Gaza, while the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah becomes increasingly politically isolated and dependent on U.S. and European support.

Is there a way out? First, the United States must stop sacrificing other priorities, such as the need for Palestinian reconciliation and institution-building, to achieve short-term victories in the peace process. Second, though the United States need not engage Hamas directly at the moment, it should signal its support for efforts -- including elections -- to broker a power-sharing arrangement that would reunite the West Bank and Gaza.

Washington should stop impeding reconciliation and providing an excuse to Fatah and Hamas to avoid the necessary compromises. Although there are definitely obstacles the United States would need to overcome in order to support Palestinian reconciliation -- including Israeli objections and U.S. legislation establishing stringent regulations for any assistance to a Palestinian Authority in which Hamas takes part -- efforts to address these problems are more worthwhile and necessary than pursuing the mirage that a negotiated solution is at hand and will resolve internal Palestinian problems.

The United States should signal its openness to a Palestinian modus vivendi even if it does not meet all principles laid out by the Middle East "Quartet," composed of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia in 2006, as long as whatever Palestinian government that emerged would allow the PLO to negotiate directly with Israel and would continue security cooperation aimed at preventing violence.

The way out of the Gaza crisis requires more than easing the blockade and offering a few economic blandishments. In the aftermath of Israel's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, Obama referred to the situation in Gaza as "unsustainable." When he meets with Netanyahu, he should acknowledge at least in private that U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which is sinking under the weight of facts proving its ineffectiveness, is as well.

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Hiding In Plain Sight

Combating terrorists in Pakistan's borderlands was hard enough. Just wait until they take over the country's most populous province.

Pakistan's Punjab province is not usually cited among the areas in danger of imminent takeover by terrorists, but that will likely soon change. On July 1, suicide bombers had no problem launching a triple attack on a famous Sufi shrine in Lahore, its bustling capital city. At least 35 were killed and over 175 injured in the assault. In fact, it was only the latest in a string of terrorist attacks that have rocked Pakistan's densely populated heartland over the past year. Last month, Taliban gunmen torched 50 U.S. and NATO supply trucks headed for Afghanistan just outside Islamabad in northern Punjab. And the problems are likely to get worse in Punjab before they get better.

While U.S. and Pakistani military strategists focus on the terrorist threat in Pakistan's tribal areas, the Taliban and al Qaeda are expanding into Punjab and teaming up with local terrorist organizations such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, the alleged recruiter of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.

Punjab is an attractive refuge for the Taliban for two reasons. First, the area allows a convenient strategic retreat as the Pakistani military recaptures key Taliban strongholds in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan and mulls a further offensive into North Waziristan, the key power base of Pakistani Taliban groups, the Afghan Taliban's Haqqani network, and al Qaeda. The Taliban has reason to think of Punjab, home to nearly half of Pakistan's 20,000 madrasas, many of them incubators for radicalism, as an accommodating new home.

The second reason is that militants know that in Punjab, with its dense cities and a population of more than 90 million, they can hide in plain sight, safe from U.S. drone strikes, which according to CIA officials, have killed more than 500 militants, including high-profile Taliban leaders, in the past two years. After all, with the international community already harshly criticizing drone strikes in which a dozen Pakistani civilians are killed, al Qaeda calculates correctly that the White House would never risk hundreds of civilian casualties by ordering a strike in the heart of Rawalpindi.

Suicide attacks in Punjab doubled in 2009 from the previous year, and this year will likely be deadlier. In a March interview with, Qari Hussain Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban's deputy commander, promised, "A new series of suicide attacks will take place soon" and said, "The focus would be on Punjab, where policies are made." Al Qaeda's al-Jihad Punjab group claimed credit for the March 8 assault on the Special Investigation Agency in Lahore, as well as a series of attacks there in May that killed 80. In some villages, the extremists openly demand Islamic law, ban video and music shops, and urge the local population to prepare for an Islamic revolution, the same process that preceded the Taliban's seizure of Swat.

The Pakistani government's willingness to turn a blind eye to militancy exacerbates the problem. The Punjabi-dominated Pakistani Army is unwilling to fight its brethren. In a June 24 interview with the BBC, Pakistani Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas ruled out a Waziristan-style military operation in Punjab. "There needs to be a political decision to crack down on the jihadi organizations," he noted. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League runs the provincial government and openly courts the terrorist groups for political support.

In February, Punjab's law minister, the Pakistan Muslim League's Rana Sanaullah, campaigned for by-election in Jhang district together with Maulana Muhammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, the leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a banned organization that facilitates al Qaeda recruitment in Punjab, in an official vehicle escorted jointly by police and militants. He also paroled two terrorists ahead of the polls. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif's brother, pleaded with the Taliban to "spare Punjab" because his party shares the Taliban's anti-Western agenda.

The Punjabi government's support to banned terrorist groups recently came under fresh scrutiny after last year's budget allocated around $1 million to Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity on the U.N. terrorist watch list and a front organization of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group responsible for the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks.

The fight in Pakistan will not end when the U.S. and Pakistani armies expel terrorists from the border regions with Afghanistan. For Pakistani leaders, violence in the tribal areas is an irritant; they seem not to realize that the same type of militancy in Punjab threatens to rock Pakistan to its very core. Barring effective action in Islamabad, Washington must plan for a greater terrorist threat emanating from Pakistan over the horizon.

What can the White House do? Walking away from the region -- irrespective of President Barack Obama's July 2011 deadline -- is not an option. If the situation in Punjab worsens, the war in Afghanistan will seem mild compared with the coming conflict. And Predator drones won't be the answer this time. Targeting Taliban in an open field is one thing; targeting them in a teeming apartment block is quite another. But the American public likely won't have the stomach for another far-off urban ground war.

Only preventive medicine will do: The Obama administration must not allow Pakistan to evade U.S. and international pressure to attack the terrorist cancer eating away at its heartland. Rather than military attacks, counterterrorism and intelligence operations are the best way to make inroads. But above all, Pakistani leaders must end their selective approach toward terrorist organizations. Pakistan's elites must realize that if Punjab becomes a terrorist safe haven, they will not be spared.

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