NOT QUITE AS PRONOUNCED

Former Obama administration Middle East advisor Dennis Ross:

In the Bush administration, elections were a fundamental part of the Freedom Agenda, and it led to, for example, strong support for elections across the board, but particularly for elections within the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority in 2006 had elections when Hamas ran…

Well Hamas ended up winning those elections, and I think it’s fair to say that though the Bush administration at least on a rhetorical level never walked back its commitment to democracy promotion, the level of its investment after 2006 in promoting elections and so forth was not quite as pronounced as it was prior to 2006.

When Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, despite US financial support for Fatah’s electoral campaign, the US and Europe responded by subjecting a people already suffering ‘the worst economic depression in modern history‘ to ‘possibly the most rigorous form of international sanctions imposed in modern times‘ – ‘the first time’, UN special rapporteur John Dugard observed, ‘an occupied people have been so treated’.

Israeli forces kidnapped a third of the Palestinian cabinet and a substantial portion of its legislature, fragmented the West Bank with a 40% increase in military checkpoints and destroyed Gaza’s only power plant, in an act of ‘collective punishment’ condemned by Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem as ‘a war crime’.

The US built up a Fatah-aligned militia to undermine and ultimately overthrow the Hamas government, as it forced the collapse of a National Unity government that might have averted a disastrous and on-going internecine conflict. When Hamas thwarted the US-backed coup, seizing Gaza, the US and Europe responded with a ‘West Bank first’ policy, resuming budgetary support for the Palestinian Authority while strangling the life out of Gaza. The death grip hasn’t loosened, and while the PA remains barely propped up by international aid, Gaza’s economy has been extinguished, along with many hundreds of its inhabitants.

But if the US’s ‘commitment to democracy promotion’ was ‘not quite as pronounced as it was prior to 2006’, this was not because of any deep change of heart.

The Clinton administration backed Palestinian elections in 1996 to bolster the domestic authority of its favoured interlocutor, Yasser Arafat.  As a result, they ‘did not usher in democratisation’ but instead ‘reinforced Arafat’s authoritarianism and one-party rule’.[1]  The first Bush II administration supported Palestinian parliamentary elections in an effort to strengthen the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) as a counterweight to Arafat, who, having failed to sign away Palestinian rights at Camp David, was now persona non grata. The administration was however deeply ambivalent about Palestinian presidential elections, because, despite President George W. Bush’s call on Palestinians to ‘elect new leaders‘, an Arafat victory seemed certain.[2]  The US fully swung behind calls for new presidential elections only after Arafat’s death in 2004.[3]

Responding to Hamas’s 2006 victory, the Bush administration reversed course, seeking to strengthen the Palestinian presidency and moving specifically against the cabinet and parliament.  In December 2006, for instance, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas claimed the right to dissolve the Hamas-dominated PLC, in direct violation of the Basic Law.  The Bush administration (along with European states) explicitly supported this move, despite having itself pressured Arafat to pass the Basic Law in 2003.[4]  The Obama administration continued Bush’s ‘West Bank first’ policy, enabling PA authoritarianism and human rights violations in the name of isolating and combating Hamas.

In short, US policy across successive administrations treated Palestinian elections instrumentally, supporting them to the extent that they were expected to produce a Palestinian leadership prepared to vigorously enforce the occupation pending a formal surrender.

Former Reagan administration official Thomas Carothers identified in US ‘democracy promotion’ efforts under the Bush I, Clinton and Bush II administrations a ‘strong line of continuity’: all three adopted democracy promotion as the ‘rhetorical framework’ of their foreign policy, but in practice supported it only insofar as it ‘was consistent with US economic and security interests’.[5] 

The occupied Palestinian territories have proven no exception to this rule: in general, ‘the attitude of the United States government has been… to postpone elections until the right conditions emerged and the correct results seemed likely’.[6]

__

References

[1] Anne Le More, International Assistance to the Palestinians After Oslo: Political Guilt, Wasted Money (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 150-52.

[2] Nathan J. Brown, ‘Evaluating Palestinian reform‘, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (June 2005), p. 12.

[3] Nathan J. Brown, ‘Pointers for the Obama administration in the Middle East: Avoiding myths and vain hopes‘, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (23 January, 2009).

[4] Nathan J. Brown, ‘Requiem for Palestinian reform: Clear lessons from a troubled record‘, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (February 2007), p. 13; cf. Paul McGeough, Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas (New York: The New York Press, 2009), p. 356.

[5] Thomas Carothers, Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004), p. 7.

[6] Brown, ‘Pointers for the Obama administration’.

One comment

  1. […] imposed in modern times‘. International efforts to reverse the vote by sanctions and terror resulted in the Hamas government’s confinement to Gaza, whose fate was then sealed with its […]

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