Is Kerry Right to Put Peace First?

Forget Egypt and Syria. Israel-Palestine is still issue No. 1 in the Middle East.

As Secretary of State John Kerry continues to give much time and effort to the Palestinian-Israeli issue, with plans to convene negotiations in Washington this week, his critics have come from right and left: With all the pressing issues, why is Mr. Kerry focused on this one?

Critics miss the point: No issue is more central for Arab perceptions of the United States -- even as Arabs are focused on their immediate local and national priorities.

America has little influence in the events unfolding in the Arab world, from Egypt to Syria. More centrally, Arab perceptions of Washington are less dependent on short-term American policy and more a product of deep-seated Arab mistrust that ties everything the United States does to helping Israel and controlling oil. That's why both sides of every Arab divide -- the Assad regime and its opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Egyptian opponents-- blame the United States for supporting the other side.

Just the other day, even as many opponents of Mohamed Morsy blamed Palestinian Hamas for supporting him, leaders of the Tamarod activists who helped depose the Egyptian president refused to meet with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns because of American support for Israel.

How could this be the case? In part, it is a consequence of one of the few successes of U.S. policy over the past decade. As American officials, from the White House to Congress, have sought to project "no light" between Israel and the United States, Arabs have come to believe it. It is rare to hear the words "Israel" and "America" in the Arab world except in a pair. When Arabs are angry with Israel, they are also angry with Washington. When Arabs are asked to name the two countries that pose the biggest threat to them, they identify Israel and the United States -- far more often than Iran. For example, in May 2012, 94 percent of Egyptians identified Israel and 80 percent identified the United States as the greatest threat, with only 20 percent identifying Iran. These results were roughly comparable to poll findings in prior years.

It is of course true that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not the source of most problems in the Arab world and that most Arabs wake up in the morning thinking about their daily challenges, not about Israel, Palestine, or America.

But, as my research on Arab public opinion over the past decade shows, the conflict remains the prism of pain through which Arabs view Washington and much of the world -- even more so since the region's uprisings. In October 2011, when I asked Arabs in Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, and the UAE what two steps the United States could do to improve their view of Washington, 55 percent of respondents said "brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace" based on the 1967 borders, with 42 percent choosing "stopping aid to Israel" as the second step. In comparison, only 12 percent suggested providing more economic aid to the region, and 11 percent proposed greater efforts at democratization. In a 2012 poll in Egypt, 66 percent identified brokering peace followed by 46 percent who recommended stopping aid to Israel; only 12 percent suggested that Washington do more to spread democracy.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is part and parcel of collective Arab identity; a constant reminder of contemporary Arab history full of dashed aspirations and deeply humiliating experiences. It is seemingly unending, with repeated episodes of suffering over which Arabs have no apparent control. It is an open wound that flares up all too frequently, representing the very humiliation Arabs seek to overcome. Just this month an example was provided when Arabs watched helplessly as Israel expanded settlements in East Jerusalem. If the Arab awakening is first and foremost about restoring dignity, about raising Arab heads high in the world, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict represents dignity's antithesis.

In the absence of peace, there is another reason the Arab-Israeli conflict will remain an Arab focal point -- the Israeli response to its sense of insecurity. Without Palestinian-Israeli peace, Israelis assume that war with Arabs will remain possible. The net result is that Israelis feel their security requires strategic and technological superiority over any combination of Arab states. On this they have the unreserved support of the United States and assurance from Congress and the White House that Israel will receive what it needs to maintain its "qualitative superiority" and that Arabs will be denied similar capabilities.

Seen from the Arab side, this Israeli imperative entails exactly the sort of dominance they are revolting against. In an era of Arab awakening, 350 million Arabs find it impossible to accept the strategic domination of a country of 8 million people. This is at the core of Arab attitudes on the nuclear issue: Arab publics are suspicious of Iran, but in the past decade they have consistently opposed limits on Tehran's nuclear program in large part because they don't accept that Israel alone can have nukes. For example, in my 2011 six-country poll, 64 percent of respondents said they opposed international pressure on Iran to curtail its nuclear program. Remarkably, that same year a majority of Arab citizens of Israel, 57 percent, also opposed international pressure.

In the absence of Palestinian-Israeli peace, Israel and the Arabs are condemned to a relationship of confrontation and occasional war, and America will be caught in the middle.  

Peace would not of course determine the outcome of the battles in the Arab world, but its absence guarantees that Israel, and therefore the United States, will be the focus of almost every faction in the ongoing battles. And if Israeli-Palestinian violence ensues, this will become even more the case.

Israelis worry that acknowledging the centrality of their conflict with the Palestinians for American foreign policy means that they will be blamed for everything that goes wrong. This is improbable; Israelis also feared they might be blamed for Arab anger toward America after the 9/11 attacks, but American support for Israel only increased. More likely, Israel would be blamed if, in the absence of peace, Americans started to see Israeli control of the Palestinians as an apartheid relationship. The recent European Union decision to stop dealing with Israeli settlements in the West Bank is a flavor of things that could follow.

The Obama administration should be applauded for understanding the centrality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Certainly, an argument can be made that it is too late for the two-state solution; if it's not, few believe there is much time left. But few see good American options once Washington finally concludes that a two-state solution is no longer feasible.

The administration thus cannot be faulted for active diplomacy; no time is a good time, and soon enough there may not be any time left. But it will be justifiably faulted if, as in Obama's first term, it tries only half-heartedly and fails.

Fadi Arouri-Pool/Getty Images


Strangling Hamas

With Middle East peace talks coming and the Muslim Brotherhood on the rocks, now’s the time to bankrupt Gaza’s Islamists.

After six trips to the Middle East and tireless shuttle diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry somehow convinced the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel last week to agree upon "a basis" to hold peace talks. Kerry has a long road ahead if he is to bridge the gap between the two sides. He may not know it yet, but he has a secret weapon. He can help cripple Hamas.

The PLO and the Israelis cannot agree on much, but their hatred for Hamas is mutual. And the United States can leverage this by attacking the violent Islamist faction while it is at the most vulnerable point it has been in years.

The downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt earlier this month has been widely described as a blow to Hamas and its de facto government in the Gaza Strip. But the real damage has been to the Islamist group's pocketbook. The Egyptian Army's ongoing operations against the subterranean tunnels connecting Egypt to the Gaza Strip, which have long served as key arteries for bulk cash smuggling, are wreaking havoc on Hamas's finances. One senior Israeli security official told me that, in the current environment, an additional reduction of 20 to 30 percent in Hamas' revenues could "destroy" the movement.

Hamas's budget for running the Gaza Strip, which it violently took over in 2007, is estimated to be $890 million this year (Hamas doesn't submit to an outside audit, so consider this a ballpark figure). Until last year, the faction relied heavily on Iran and Syria for a great deal of its cash, but the civil war in Syria prompted Hamas to loosen its ties to the "Axis of Resistance." Funding from Tehran has dropped off precipitously since then, forcing the faction to turn to the Muslim Brotherhood bloc to make ends meet.

Qatar pledged $400 million to the group last year, when the emir visited Gaza. Turkey is believed to provide additional support -- as much as $300 million, according to some estimates. However, it is unclear how much of these funds are earmarked for the Hamas government bureaucracy, and how much is slated for the building of mosques, hospitals, and other Gaza Strip infrastructure that has been badly damaged during skirmishes with Israel over the years. It is also unclear how much of this is funneled to Hamas' military arm, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades.  

In addition to these funds, a whopping $1.4 billion per year reportedly flows from the Palestinian Authority (PA) to Gaza. Hamas and the Fatah movement fought a bloody civil war in 2007, but that has not stopped the PA from earmarking these funds for the people of Gaza, whom they still purport to rule. The PA has been careful not to provide any funds directly to Hamas, for fear of invoking the ire of Congress. These funds primarily pay the salaries of "civil servants" who lost their jobs after Hamas overran the Gaza Strip. In essence, the PA pays these former bureaucrats not to work for Hamas. The PA also directly subsidizes Gaza's electricity production and reportedly underwrites other municipal services. Nevertheless, it is a fair assumption that Hamas, which rules Gaza with an iron fist, pockets a portion of the PA funds anyway.

Hamas has also augmented its income over the past decade by taxing goods that come through the tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip to Egypt. The tunnels were first created as a means to smuggle weapons to the coastal enclave, but after Hamas conquered Gaza, prompting Israel to impose a blockade, the tunnels became a key artery for a wide range of goods necessary to keep the economy running. Hamas, as Gaza's de facto rulers, reportedly took in at least $365 million a year from the tunnel trade. 

But none of this matters much when Egypt's junta is engaged in a relentless effort to shut down the tunnels. Specifically, the crackdown has made bulk cash smuggling -- the key to Hamas's financial independence -- exceedingly difficult.

The reversal of fortune for Hamas is remarkable. During Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy's year in office, Egypt was a key Hamas base of operations. Senior Hamas figure Mousa Abu Marzouk was based in Cairo, and Hamas even held a round of internal elections in the Egyptian capital. In addition, it is widely believed that elements of the Brotherhood's financial network were bankrolling Hamas, even as Egypt's economy cratered.

These activities did not please the Egyptian military -- and for good reason. Last year, Gaza-based fighters attacked an Egyptian military outpost near the border with the Gaza Strip, killing 16 soldiers. Mounting concern that Hamas members might be sneaking in to Egypt with dangerous weapons led to a crackdown on the tunnels.

Since Morsy's ouster, the military has been unleashed: It has arrested at least 29 Brotherhood financiers, including at least one significant contributor to Hamas's coffers, according to a senior Israeli security official. It has also reportedly deployed 30,000 troops to the Sinai and purportedly destroyed roughly 800 of the 1,000 tunnels connecting Egypt to Gaza. Ala al-Rafati, the Hamas economy minister, recently told Reuters that these operations cost Hamas $230 million -- about a tenth of Gaza's GDP.

All of this presents U.S. Secretary of State Kerry with a rare opportunity to try to hasten the group's financial demise. And it is in his interest to do so.  The group, after all, carried out suicide bombings against Israeli civilian targets in the 1990s to torpedo the peace process. It's a fair bet that Hamas will launch a new campaign of violence now that talks are ramping back up.

What can Washington do, exactly?

For one, Congress and the administration could stop wringing its hands over whether the toppling of Morsy was a coup and instead openly encourage continued operations against the tunnels (while also holding the army to account as it navigates complicated transition). Congress, which dishes out some $500 million per year to the Palestinians, could also quietly work with the Palestinian Authority to scale back the funds that flow to Gaza.

From there, the United States could attempt to use whatever leverage it has to convince both Turkey and Qatar to cut back on their funding of Hamas. Admittedly, Washington doesn't have much pull in Ankara and Doha these days -- they have more sway with us -- but Congress could pull strings to speed up delivery of or withhold the advanced weapons systems that both countries are eagerly awaiting, depending upon how the conversation goes. Turkey, for example, is expecting Sidewinder missiles and Chinook helicopters, and it would like to purchase Predator and Reaper drones. Qatar, for its part, is expecting delivery of Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM) Systems, and 500 Javelin-Guided Missiles.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a strident proponent of Hamas on the world stage, is unlikely to be swayed. Erdogan insists that Hamas must be part of the political equation when negotiating peace with Israel. Qatar, however, presents possibilities. The former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani, recently abdicated the throne for his son, Tamim. The new emir is still learning his way on the world stage, and it is possible, some analysts suggest, that he could be persuaded to adopt new policies that promote moderation in the Middle East.

While the math is fuzzy, one thing is clear -- the Egyptian army's tunnel operations are slowly strangling Hamas. If one or more of the Islamist movement's other funders cut back their aid even a little, its financial crisis will only deepen. The more acute the crisis, the more Gazans will grow frustrated with their Islamist rulers. A Muslim Brotherhood government just fell unexpectedly in Cairo -- if Hamas doesn't watch its back, it could happen again in Gaza.

For John Kerry and his tenuous peace initiative, this is a window of opportunity that should not be ignored.