Politics in the Middle East can never be less than convoluted, but sometimes a simple story illuminates complex reality. Consider Hasan Al Madhoun, terrorist.
In February, 2005, the then-prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, while meeting with the head of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, argued that Abbas's government should charge Madhoun with murder. Abbas, after all, had declared himself an enemy of terrorism and Israel could prove that Madhoun had organized suicide bombings that killed 20 Israelis and wounded 25 others. Sharon even provided Madhoun's address.
Abbas promised action within 48 hours. Seven weeks later, nothing had been done. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, nudged by Israel, nudged Abbas. Instantly, he sprang into action. Madhoun was taken to a Palestinian police station. He spent most of a night chatting on his cell phone and was released the next day. The PA forces did not bother him again. Before the end of 2005, an Israeli air strike near Gaza City killed him.
The story carries an implicit question: If Abbas had wanted passionately to pursue justice in this case, could he have done it? Is he truly the head the Palestinian Authority or just the shaky leader of one faction among many? From all we know of it, Fatah is a snakepit of conflicting loyalties and ambitions.
This month Hamas (thanks to Iran's help) defeated Fatah (despite U.S. help) in Gaza. It was a war between the bad guys and the worse guys. The victory of the worse guys split the Palestinian territories into two political as well as geographical pieces. Hamas leaders predict they will soon win the other piece, the West Bank.
Abbas, having dismissed the "unity government" with Hamas, faces even more taxing problems than he inherited when he replaced Yasser Arafat as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 2004. Humiliated by their retreat from Gaza, Fatah's warriors may be angrier and more dangerous than usual.
Nevertheless, Abbas remains the keystone of Western policy, such as it is. Because he doesn't preach terrorism, he looks good to the U.S. and the European Union -- and looks somewhat less than terrible to Israel. "Moderate," a word with the magical power of attracting money, has attached itself to him. Funds frozen when he shared power with Hamas are being released. On Wednesday, Germany announced it was transferring 20-million Euros to the PA, a declaration of confidence in Abbas.
Even so, almost all donors to the Abbas regime have misgivings. Among foreigners who have anointed him, no one expresses anything approaching enthusiasm. He has no charisma, no loyal personal following, no program for the future and not much political skill. Martin Indyk, an American ambassador to Israel under Bill Clinton, favours helping Abbas but acknowledges that he "doesn't have the capabilities to enforce his will. He is, as we all agree, I think, weak." He sulks when things don't go his way.
Barry Rubin, the biographer of Arafat, says "Abbas is still weak" and Fatah still out of control and still corrupt. In the New York Times last week Fouad Ajami, summoning his most generous instincts, called Abbas "a fairly decent man." Has anyone in world politics ever been damned with such faint praise?
Michael Oren, who wrote the definitive history of the Six Day War, recently made the point that in the 14 years since the Palestinian Authority was created by the Oslo Accords, the PA has received more foreign aid than any other state or would-be state in history.
Per capita, Oren calculates, it has been given more than all the European countries received under the Marshall Plan. Much of the PA money went straight into the private bank accounts of Fatah leaders. A chunk of it paid for establishing 16 Fatah militias, each of them potentially dangerous. Some has paid 60,000 police officers. They may or may not be controllable but in any case now give the West Bank the world's highest police-to-civilians ratio. Meanwhile, the people sink deeper into poverty.
Many current Fatah leaders stole money or watched it being stolen. In Oren's opinion they'll likely squander the vast sums now being donated. And they will want more help if they are to fight Hamas. Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, favours handing over combat equipment, as the U.S. advises. But do the Fatah warriors want to defeat Hamas? Are they up to the job? The Defence Minister of Israel, Ehud Barak, says no: "Fatah's problem in its fight against Hamas is not a lack of arms but of motivation."
If backing Fatah is futile or dangerous, what should the Israelis do? Fortunately, they have plenty of advice. As of now they have a world statesman, Tony Blair, playing adviser-in-chief. But before he was appointed they already had more foreign advice than any other country; it's their largest import. The European Union at any moment knows precisely what Israel should do next. Canada knows, so does Norway. The State Department has platoons of Ph.Ds who come to the office every morning and say to each other, "What should we tell Israel to do today?"
But when Sharon decided to withdraw from Gaza, not even the worst pessimist predicted that this would entrench an enemy publicly committed to Israel's extinction right on the border, sending rockets into Israeli towns at will. Perhaps Israelis can take comfort from the fact that Hamas is achieving a new status. The word "moderate" has, for the first time to my knowledge, been applied to it by (no surprise) the BBC. On Monday, a BBC news item said that al-Qaeda wants to ally itself with Hamas but: "Hamas leaders, who espouse a more moderate brand of Islamist politics, have always shunned al-Qaeda advances."
In the BBC view of the Middle East, al-Qaeda is now the standard for radical. Anything less monstrous qualifies as "moderate." Hamas can now apply for European Union support with a new slogan: Not Quite As Awful As the Very Worst.