Tamara Wittes, of the Saban Center at Brookings, had a very different reaction to Hillary Clinton's speech to the Sharm al-Shaykh summit on Gaza reconstruction than I did. I'm happy to reproduce her comments here as a guest post, followed by a few comments of my own in response:
I have to say I think you badly misinterpreted Clinton’s statement at the Gaza reconstruction conference and unnecessarily reinforced the pessimism you say is already taking hold in the region. And you missed entirely a major variable conditioning her statements and emerging US policy: Congressional attitudes.
There is a big difference, and there has to be, between what the United States is willing to do with its money, and what it might do diplomatically. Clinton’s statement carefully reflected this dualism, but you did not notice it.
The United States Congress will not approve a single penny for Gaza reconstruction or anything else Palestinian if it might end up benefitting Hamas. Clinton’s statement and the structuring of the aid pledge reflect that fundamental reality, as well as legislative and regulatory constraints related to “funding terrorism.” Congress has multiple overlapping riders on aid to the Palestinians already that hobble USG options and while you might argue (and I do) that the administration needs to work on Congress to ease this problem, the constraints are already there and have to be dealt with. In any event, the United States government has every right not to hand money over to people it fundamentally disagrees with. It is quite possible to reconstruct Gaza without giving money to Hamas.
It is not, however, possible to reconstruct Gaza or pursue peace without political acquiescence by Hamas, and this is the second, distinct element of Clinton’s remarks. On the diplomatic side, Clinton very carefully did not rule out a unity government, and referred in that paragraph to “our Palestinian partners,” not to Abbas and Fayyad as she did in the aid paragraphs. What she said, exactly, was:
The positive approaches I’ve outlined offer an opportunity for even greater progress if our Palestinian partners can continue to work with us and abide by the PLO commitments to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist. The Quartet, in adopting its own principles, has agreed with the Arab League that the interests of the Palestinian people are best served under a government that abides by the PLO commitments.
That leaves room for precisely the unity proposal the Egyptians are working for, with wide Arab support: forming a government of individuals (some of whom might be supported by Hamas) rather than parties that – as a government – can accept the Quartet principles while not binding Hamas as Hamas to them. It also explicitly refers to the other part of the Egyptian proposal -- incorporating Hamas into the PLO. This is an outcome that the Quartet might well accept – Clinton hasn’t said she would accept it, but she has more or less said that it would be acceptable. It would be a useful and face-saving outcome for all sides.
Clinton’s statement was meant to encourage the unity talks, not to scupper them – and I hope that, bad press notwithstanding, it will have the intended effect.
I sincerely hope that Wittes is right that Clinton "meant to encourage the unity talks, not to scupper them." But I'm afraid that if that was the signal that Clinton was trying to send it doesn't seem to have been received (at least judging by the commentary thus far in the Arab media or by Hamas/Hamas sympathetic figures). Clinton's frequent references in the speech to Abbas and Fayyad (identified elsewhere as the "Palestinian partners" in question), and pointed exclusion of Hamas, all seemed designed to reinforce the familiar "West Bank first, Fatah only" policy and to squash the enthusiasm for a unity government. If the lines about the PLO were meant to convey a different message, then I fear that it was too subtle and too little. Anyway, what likely matters more than the big public speech is what she says to the various parties in private, and we'll probably see that play out over the next few weeks. I was disappointed precisely because I had hoped for something explicitly encouraging to the Arab and Palestinian reconciliation initiatives. If that's what Clinton was trying to do, then it's my bad for misreading it. So quite frankly, I hope that I am wrong about this and that Wittes is right... I'm rooting against myself on this one!
UPDATE: more smart commentary from a Cairo-based friend here in the other direction:
...The conference has been held under the same basic premise - isolation of Hamas in favor of Fatah - that the whole “West Bank first” policy is based on. Yet, the Egyptian initiative and Palestinian reconciliation talks aimed at creating some kind of National Unity Government would suggest a move away from that scenario. The visits of John Kerry, Javier Solana and Tony Blair to Gaza also suggest a change of attitude towards Hamas - unless they are mere PR.
So what will it be? Full backing for Palestinian reconciliation, with the understanding that this means dealing with at least parts of a Hamas-staffed NUG? Or pretending to want Palestinian reconciliation but acting as if it has no prospects and continuing a failed policy?...
This does not mean engaging Hamas directly. But at the very least it means clearly, unequivocally, supporting Palestinian reconciliation as the most urgent priority in the next few months and providing some guarantees that the international community would not abandon a NUG because Ismail Haniyeh or some other Hamas leader is a member. You can figure out the money later, for now, will the Quartet continue to back isolating Hamas over Palestinian reconciliation?
If Clinton means to send a message supporting a Palestinian national unity government, as Wittes suggests, it's going to have to be clearer.