How Does Gaza Takeover Affect U.S., Israel, Fatah?

Could the Hamas takeover of Gaza actually help Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas maintain control of the West Bank? Will it strengthen the relationship between the United States, Israel and the Fatah movement? Martin Indyk, former Israeli ambassador and the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, talks with Michele Norris.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For perspective on the American role in that turbulent and uncertain future, we're joined now by Martin Indyk. He was the U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration. He is now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Indyk, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MARTIN INDYK (Director, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution): Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, where does all of this leave the U.S. and President Bush's push for a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?

Mr. INDYK: Well, we now have a two-state solution, a kind of Hamastan in Gaza and a Fatahstan in the West Bank, but it's not the two-state solution that President Bush had in mind at all. I think it's a huge embarrassment for the Bush administration and particularly awkward for the secretary of state who finally, after six years of essentially watching from the sidelines, has decided to lead a major push to try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian problem in her last 18 months in office.

NORRIS: So what is the administration's or Condoleezza Rice's next step?

Mr. INDYK: Well, I think they're probably scratching their heads at the moment trying to figure that out. She'll undoubtedly want to consult with her quartet colleagues from the E.U., the U.N. and Russia, and Prime Minister Olmert's viceroy(ph) will be coming here to meet with her and the president next week. So I think the next step is consultations.

But there's a certain lay of the land that they're all going to have take into account. Hamas, for all intents and purposes, now controls Gaza. The government of the Palestinian authority has been dismissed. And I think the only legitimate authority remaining is the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

But the international community will be able to deal with him, and in the boycott of the Hamas-led government, you could actually see a kind of West Bank first option emerging in which the secretary of state works with the Israelis and Abu Mazen to try to promote a kind of state with provisional borders in the West Bank.

NORRIS: Now, you write in an op-ed piece in today's Washington Post that this West Bank first policy is the way to go. You say that that's the best option for the U.S. to focus on the West Bank where Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah are firmly in control. Why is that the best course of action? And is there not a bit of danger in leaving Gaza alone? Might that further embolden Hamas?

Mr. INDYK: Well, I think the critical thing with Hamas, it's not going to go away. But the challenge is to put Hamas in the dilemma of having to decide whether it wants to be an Islamic jihadist organization dedicated to the destruction of its neighboring - to the state of Israel, or whether it wants to focus on building an Islamic statelet in Gaza. If they're prepared to act responsibly, which - given their behavior over the last five days, there's a big question mark about that. But if they are, then I think the international community should respond.

NORRIS: The hope, on the part of the U.S., was that in backing Mahmoud Abbas, they are backing a moderate leader who could eventually negotiate a holding peace with Israel. Is that still possible?

Mr. INDYK: Well, that too can now be put to the test in a more clear-cut way in the West Bank where he has effective control with the help of the Israeli army at this point. But I think that if his forces there can be built up and that they can demonstrate an ability to exercise control over the territory then Israel will stop to withdraw from there.

The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was elected on the mandate of leaving the West Bank. He's looking for a responsible partner. Abu Mazen is responsible in the sense of wanting to make peace and saying all the right words. But he comes across as a weak leader who is not capable of fulfilling his commitments. If that capability is built up and he becomes a responsible partner, then the United States, Israel and the Arab states can all work with him to try to make the West Bank a model for what can be produced for the Palestinians out of peaceful negotiations.

NORRIS: You'd mentioned that President Bush will be meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert next week. Is it possible that Israel could help in a sense by returning the revenues that's been holding back to somehow bolster Mahmoud Abbas? What should the U.S. be asking of Israel?

Mr. INDYK: Yes. I think that absolutely the message to the Israelis should be very clear-cut now, that we - in this case, the Bush administration and the government of Israel missed the opportunity to build up the moderate forces after Arafat's death, and we cannot now miss the opportunity again because the consequences will be what happened in Gaza, transferring itself to the West Bank and Israel will end up with two failed terror states, potentially, on the side of it.

So I think that is an important message and it means that Israel should handover the revenues to Abu Mazen and they should look seriously at dismantling illegal outposts and lifting checkpoints and eventually, as the capability of Abu Mazen's forces are built up, to withdraw from the main cities and towns of the West Bank.

NORRIS: Martin Indyk is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Thank you very much.

Mr. INDYK: Thank you, Michele.

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