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Interview: The U.S. campaign to topple the Palestinian government

Al Jazeera interview with Alastair Crooke, January 24, 2007

“…to say that this person is moderate and therefore they are legitimate and other people therefore are extremists and can be isolated, and that we do not have to listen them and they can be excluded from the political process. This is the recipe for instability and I believe we may face a year ahead of enormous instability in the region because of these policies that we have seen.” Alastair Crooke

aljazeera.jpgAhmed Mansour, Al Jazeera: Hello, welcome to you, live on air from London.

The aggravated conflict between the two movements of Fatah and Hamas during the past few weeks opens many files. The most important of which is what Mr Alastair Crooke, the ex-EU Security Advisor for the Middle East and the currently Director of Conflicts Forum in London, and his American colleague Mark Perry, have uncovered a plan prepared by Elliot Abrams, Assistant Advisor to the US National Security Council revealing the aim of igniting or starting a civil war between Hamas and Fatah, which will lead in turn to a coup against Hamas after it reached office through parliamentary elections held in January last year in 2006.

Mr Crooke will uncover some of the details of that plan for the first time today.

Mr Crooke worked as a mediator in several conflicts between different parties in the Arab-Israeli conflict including negotiations to lift the siege of the Church of Nativity in 2002, helped in putting the policy of slow-pacing and keeping track of the processes and operations of the EU, was on the fact-finding committee to the causes of the uprising 2000-2001 led by American Senator Mitchell.

Mr Crooke spent many years contributing to mediation efforts to resolve Ireland, South Africa, Namibia, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Columbia and has a long-range of experience in coordinating negotiation to release hostages for the EU.

The British Government has offered him the honor of the CMG in 2003.

Alastair, hello.

You and your colleague Mark Perry have uncovered a secret document that was put forward by Elliot Abrams, which includes a plan to force a coup on Hamas after it won elections. To start off with, who is Elliot Abrams?

alastair.gifAlastair Crooke: Elliot Abrams is the official responsible for policy in the Palestinian-Israeli context and in the Middle East. He is the desk officer on the National Security Council in the United States. He is a very influential man. He was formerly involved in other policy areas, in the Iran-Contra affair and then came back as the National Security Advisor responsible for the Middle East.

In brief, what are the details of this plan?

Well, you talk about uncovering a secret document. And I’m not sure it is that secret and I think the main gist of it has been fairly evident since the elections. The aim of it is effectively to remove Hamas who won the elections in January, from power, as soon as possible in order to replace them with another government that will comply with the preconditions set out by the International Quartet and by Israel.

Who are the parties that have participated in this plan?

I think it was originally designed by US officials but also it is a plan that has been discussed clearly with partners in the region, I imagine they would be Egypt, Jordan and others, as well as with Fatah directly.

Have some Palestinians participated in this plan, or provided some information to implement it?

I think, from the outset, it has been clear that the objective is not so much in this case to try and persuade Hamas to meet certain criteria or preconditions. As one American official put it to us directly, these were not objectives that they wanted Hamas to reach; in fact these objectives were set so that they would not be reached. I think the purpose of this is very clear — not to help Hamas recognise Israel or renounce violence, but to provide objectives that they knew Hamas would be unable to reach.

Does that mean Hamas acknowledging Israel would put them in a crisis or problem?

I do not think that when the policy was conceived that they believed that Hamas could or would recognise Israel. Certainly, the idea that Hamas would recognise Israel, renounce violence and would recognise all previous agreements, was a bridge too far — was beyond Hamas’ ability to do this while retaining the support of their constituency. And I think this was well understood from the time of the elections. It was not that they are hoping for Hamas to come forward and be able to recognise Israel. Indeed the same official who said to us earlier said equally, “If America or the Europeans were really serious about Hamas recognising Israel there would be talks now,” people trying to find the language of recognition that would allow that to happen. And that clearly hasn’t happened at all. They have been told very clearly, “You have to recognise Israel in absolute terms — the right and justness of Israel to exist”. Clearly Hamas is not capable to do that. And I think it would also probably be a mistake for Hamas to do that in the circumstances where Palestinian rights and needs for a state remain undefined by the international community and Quartet at this time.

Such a plan can be summarised as a plan to create a civil war between Hamas and Fatah. This needs some money, which parties have been financed for carrying this out?

Originally, the plan was formulated in terms of a “Finding”, i.e. a presidential instruction to the CIA. Sometime ago the CIA made it clear that they were unhappy with a plan that might involve providing weapons and training to one faction in Palestine. It was not too long ago that the CIA decided it did not want to go ahead with this plan. I think they had concerns about Congress, concerns about past events that were similar and had caused political difficulties for the Agency. So they insisted that the plan be made more public and it be moved from them. It was then moved to the State Department under the MEPI programme [Middle East Partnership Initiative] which was designed principally to build democracy in the Middle East and so it is now lying within the State Dept. Although it is not solely within the purview of the State Dept., it’s of course under the heading of Condoleezza Rice, but members from Dick Cheney’s office, from the NSC, from the CIA, all participate in the meetings of this committee that decides on the expenditure of money.

You have mentioned in the report that American Defence during the war last summer was supposed to carry out part of this plan. Why did Rumsfeld reject that?

I think the Defence Department had their own concerns of the safety and welfare of their people, in that the American soldiers in Iraq, and were not anxious to get involved in any project that might cause any further unrest in Iraq. Many officials have told us informally that the Defence Dept. was opposed to this policy.

If this is related to the Defence Dept., would Rice’s statement showing concern about ruptures in Palestine, does that indicate that the plan is under her administration?

The MEPI plan, the plan for democracy which includes this element is within the State Dept and therefore under her administration. Yes we believe, she certainly is part of the structure that oversees the building of democracy. And of course the plan is not just simply a plan of weapons. It also involves providing support and political credit for the government and the president in Palestine in order to improve his standing within the Palestinian arena and amongst his constituents.

The Israeli and other sources have published figures, Reuters released a document on 5 January saying America has actually put $6 million. Is that part of Abrams’ plan?

I have actually seen higher public figures, something in the order of $12 million that has been in the public domain in the US which of course includes training, not just the provision of weapons.

$86 million is the total programme of assistance that comes under the broad heading. Much of that programme will be about trying to build up the institutions of the presidency and his party and also build up the economic support in order that there should be perceived direct economic benefits from this programme to ordinary Palestinians in the street.

Do you think this money and the weapons are enough to carry out this plan?

No, I think almost certainly that this will not succeed. Where we have reached at this time, in the sense that if US actually gives support and tries to help any candidate in the Middle East, because they perceive it as in their [US] interest, it does not only not help the candidate but would damage him. The US has now got to a point where it has a reverse Midas touch: instead of turning everything it touches into gold, it is turning it into dis-esteem and criticism. So I think we will see very clearly that this will not succeed. We saw in the last elections before January when the State Dept. announced it was giving help to Fatah, and the result of that was actually an increase in the popularity of Hamas and a decline in the popularity of Fatah. And I fear this is what will happen again in the Palestinian context and the danger of this is instability on the Palestinian street. I don’t think it is in anyone’s interest, certainly not in Fatah’s interest either, to have any form of conflict between the two major movements within the Palestinian sphere.

What is the nature of the role of Israel in this plan?

Well I think — contrary to what some of your viewers might expect — I don’t think Israel is enthusiastic about this plan. One very obvious reason for this is that some of the weapons that have recently passed from Egypt into Gaza were immediately passed into the hands of Al-Aqsa and Al-Aqsa Brigades on the ground. I think Israelis believe that even if this doesn’t happen now, there may come a time when such factions turn on Israel again. So many of them are cautious. But there is a wider interest, in that, I do not think Israeli government officials believe that this is a way to provide for a new policy towards the Palestinians. Certainly the prime minister is in need of a Palestinian policy, he doesn’t have one at all at the moment. Violence and disturbance in the Palestinian territories historically in Israel have actually only pushed the pendulum in the right, it hasn’t helped centre parties like Kadima or parties that are in coalition with the left.

Which Palestinian parties are the Americans relying on to carry out this plan?

I don’t know exactly who they are relying on. I think there are a few Palestinians who believe it is in the interest of their nation that Hamas should be removed from power. I think it’s only a few people in Fatah who have not accepted the elections that took place in January, and I do not believe that this extends to the division between the two movements at all. I believe many people in Fatah support entirely the right of Hamas who won the election — absolutely clearly and fairly — to form the government. But some Palestinians are concerned, and I believe we have to understand their concern, that there will be no political progress, in their view, unless accommodation is made of the demands made by Israel and the international community, the so-called 3 conditions.

You have mentioned Mohammed Rashid and Mohamed Dahlah as participating in supporting the plan or providing information. Do you think Mohammed Dahlan who has been a candidate to the leadership, and who according to Israeli papers recently described Hamas as a gang on 7 January, do you think it was part of this plan or was it a message to someone?

Well I do not want to comment on what he may or may not have said in the rally between two movements, because this is a matter for Palestinians, this is domestic Palestinian business and not the business of outsiders to say whether that is a wise or unwise comment to make in the circumstances.

But certainly, I believe that a role for Dahlan and a position for him in terms of security in the future, were Hamas to leave the government or not be able to continue as a government has clearly been indicated. And I think Dahlan himself said so effectively in an interview with Ha’aretz that immediately followed that rally.

But will Dahlan be the person who can reliable for Americans and Israelis, will he be the person for the next stage, specially as some of the papers are using this as an attack against Hamas, claiming he will be the first leader of Fatah?

I’m not going to speculate on who is going to be leader or who is going to succeed anyone. As far as I know there isn’t even a vacancy at this stage so it would be a little premature for me to guess. I am an outsider and not a Palestinian. But I think first of all I should say that clearly that I do not believe this policy will succeed. It will not succeed in the policy of trying to building up, if you like, an alternative over a period of two years — a miltia that might be able to take on another faction, a milita centred around the presidency that would be able to confront or defeat Hamas or any other movement in these circumstances. And I do not believe it will succeed in providing the political benefits that would allow anyone the ability to void or erase the election outcome that took place last January. Because I think all Palestinians understand that those elections were free and fair and accept the valid outcome. So I think that there is a hope and an expectation but it will not succeed.

There are some reports that the US Envoy for the Middle East [David Welch], is promoting the plan as part of the foreign policy of Americans, as a part of the new Middle East — can it go into that framework?

If it was a serious attempt it might go under such a framework but I do not believe it is serious. What we are seeing now is a policy designed more to try and bring together moderate Sunni states in alliance in order to contain and circumscribe the power of Iran. In order to do that and if the US is to be successful in bringing together what are described as moderate states in order to confront this “extremism of Iran” there is a price and the price that is being sought is progress on the Palestinian issue – this is the necessary for any of those who can participate in this coalition. They need to see progress there in order to satisfy the street. It is impossible for them to be in a coalition, however loosely associated with Israel and at the same time have their own people watching Palestinians dying in Gaza and the West Bank. So it has as much to do with the situation in Iran as it has to do with Palestinian internal affairs. And there are good reasons for assuming that there is little scope for actual political progress on the Palestinian-Israeli front at this time.

Do you believe what has happened between Hamas and Fatah during the past few weeks, the conflict — it was to start a civil war — which was a part of this plan?

I think there was certainly an element of desire to try and build up the forces that could stand up and could confront the security forces of Hamas. Was the plan a plan of civil war? I think it was a plan over two years rather than a plan for here and now. I think it was a plan to try and build up the security forces and the Presidential Guard over a period of two years in order to put them in a position then to have, if you like, the strength for any confrontation that would be necessary. The US would say this was only to balance up the equation — that Abu Mazen’s forces needed greater strength. But I think it was also to allow time for the politics to change, so that if there were elections to be called or held prematurely they would be in place. Because even in two years time, Hamas as a government, would not have reached the end of its mandate — in four years time it would still have time to run.

Would that mean that the plan to be carried out is still be carried out?

Well we will have to follow events, but my feeling is that it is unlikely because I do not believe that Israel is in a position to give the political progress on the Palestinian — Israeli conflict that would allow US to go ahead with coalition building against Iran. Without such progress it is very hard to see any of these plans being successful. The crucial element in all of these plans is the idea that there will be progress on the Palestinian front which will allow for either a coalition to take place against Iran or moderates to work closely with Israel in this confrontation as they perceive against Shia extremism. I think there are good reasons for doubting that we will see that sort of political progress taking place on the Palestinian front at this time.

There is important, dangerous information that the party was supposed to carry out the plan is the one who is actually spreading democracy in the Middle East, does this mean that the party who is supposed to spread democracy is the one who will have to run a coup against Hamas.

I think you will see very clearly this is what is happening not only in terms of the Palestinian context but also in terms of Lebanon, where the US and the EU are taking a very dangerous step of intervening directly within the internal political arena, between two parties and in favour of the one they prefer. It’s what one Palestinian described to me as “Cindrella-shoe democracy” — where we go on having elections until we find the candidate who fits the glass shoe and then becomes the next leader.

That means that the US talk of spreading democracy is a lie and people will have to realise that and democracy will not be something the US can give.

That’s quite clear, the US has looked at the consequences of democracy. If we look at the region everywhere and what we would argue is that you would see Islamists either win or do extremely well in elections throughout the Muslim world if free elections were held. And I think the US and the West has stepped back from that and they say, “No, we support moderates”. But they do not mean “moderates” because if you look at the public opinion, most of the Muslim opinion would say Hamas is moderate, Hezbollah is moderate and the Muslim Brotherhood is moderate.

So what they mean by saying “we support moderates” is that they support people who are close to the interests of the US and the West. They may not be moderate at all but we call them “moderates” in our interest. We are in the process of trying to support people that we believe will most closely follow the Western interest. I think this is a huge strategic mistake — and a great mistake for the Europeans particularly, because we live next to the Middle East; this is our neighbourhood — to be involved in any process which is trying to support one faction against the other and decide who is legitimate in the Muslim world. This is in a sense to say that this person is moderate and therefore they are legitimate and other people therefore are extremists and can be isolated, and that we do not have to listen them and they can be excluded from the political process. This is the recipe for instability and I believe we may face a year ahead of enormous instability in the region because of these policies that we have seen.

In his speech on 16 December, Abu Mazen has accused you of being an impostor and cheating Palestinians and Hamas by saying the siege will be lifted. What do you say in response to this accusation?

Well, I am certainly not an impostor at all, because I do not think that there is anyone that doesn’t know that I was involved in 2003 in trying to create the hudna in order to see if there was a possibility for political progress with Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Marwan Barghouti’s faction of Fatah. And I did that on behalf of the EU. When it failed in August 2003, I lost my job. I think everyone in Hamas is aware of that and many Palestinians also know that I was removed from my job in the EU because I was told this is not the way to fight the war on terror — by talking to groups like Hamas. So because of that I lost my job and also eventually lost the job that I had with the British Government and it was for that reason that we started this organisation. So It is quite clear that I represent no one in the British Government or no one in government at all and only our organisation. I do not think there is any mistake about that because it was quite widely publicised that I lost the job.

Am I misleading them? I think I need to be very clear about what we do and what Conflicts Forum is doing. We are not trying to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. As you will gather from my earlier comments, I do not think a solution is possible at this time in any event. But that’s not our business. What we believe is that there needs to be end to the isolation and demonization of the movement that won the open and fair parliamentary elections of last year. We are not involved in trying to make policy initiatives to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute at all. We have no connection with that in any way.

That means did you pay a high price for your relation with Hamas. Do you think such an attack from Abu Mazen is part of the price which you should pay?

Certainly I remember at the moment when I lost my job it felt like I was paying something of a price. But I think now when I look back with hindsight, it’s actually given me more independence and given me a chance to say things that I wouldn’t have be able to say in other circumstances. So maybe it was not such a bad thing. Although at the time it felt a bit disconcerting. It was like leaving school and suddenly I had nothing — all the future had vanished. It’s like a young boy leaving school and thinking, “Well, what do I do tomorrow or the day after?”

But it is not a high price. Quite clearly this is an important thing that people have to do and I think we have to break the idea of isolation of those groups that have real credibility and legitimacy amongst there own people. This is what history tells you time and time again. It was after all not too long ago here in London that the prime minister described Nelson Mandela as one of the greatest threats facing the Western world and as a terrorist. Now look where we are! I think we have to try and end this isolation if we are to avoid a terrible road crash in the region and leave ourselves supporting only as I described “so-called moderates” — people who just support the Western view of society, the Western template of modernity.

They are suspecting whether you have left your job, as the information you have obtained seems only likely obtainable from sitting in places where such meetings amongst intelligence officials are taking place.

There are always such suspicions in the region but they are entirely wrong. In terms of any intelligence services — they have no desire to talk to me whatsoever. But we manage to keep good contacts. And I think one of the reasons that we are able to know a little about what’s going is because in the West and America people are concerned that the US is on the wrong track. So officials and others are willing to talk to us. These are not intelligence officials but people who are really concerned about the direction that their own country is taking — and who feel their governments are making tragic mistakes in the region. So people are ready to talk, but not on the basis that it is being assumed. And incidentally they have it the wrong way around because if I was saying anything to anyone about the prospects for change, I would be very pessimistic about the prospects of a change. But I do think something has been achieved, something has occurred. We have completely failed to change the policy. The policy still remains in the hands of a few officials who remain adamant on excluding Islamists from any form of government in the region. And that’s still the case. But has opinion changed in Washington and Europe? I think over the last two years you see the number of people who think that this policy is mistaken just grow enormously. And we will see change take place, but is it going to happen in the next year or so? I doubt it.

What is the nature of your relations with Ahmed Yusef?

That is very simple. I have never met him and never spoken to him.

At all?

Never. To my knowledge I have never met him and never spoken to him.

You did not meet him at all?

No.

You don’t know him?

No.

There are many reports.

I know clearly who he is because I read the newspapers. Have I met him: “No”. Have I been in touch with him: “No”.

In this programme 3 weeks ago, there was a document mentioned which says that you attended some meetings that were held by Ahmed Yusef with David Hirschfeld, and that you arranging some contact between Israel and Hamas.

Absolutely not true.

All these reports and stories are untrue?

Yes the stories are quite untrue. The arrangements for Ahmed Yusef to come to UK were not arranged by me, my colleague Mark Perry or by Conflicts Forum at all and certainly there was not any arrangement to meet anyone from Israel in London or anywhere else. I fear that these are mistaken stories that have been set about. I have not met him and have not spoken to him at all.

So now you are actually negating completely the information that you have arranged some meetings between Ahmed Yusef and Israelis?

I am saying absolutely categorically — I was not involved in any way in any such arrangement between Ahmed Yusef and Israelis or anyone else in the UK. I will add that the author of these stories — no one has been in touch with us to ask whether they are true or not. You are the first person to ask me on the record whether it is true or not. So I say again absolutely clearly: “No”.

But havn’t you participated in creating the document, “Suitable Conditions to Ending the Struggle”?

No.

Did you not arrange some meeting between the PM Tony Blair and Hamas on his visit to Palestine?

We have no connection with Ahmed Yusef visit to London whatsoever, it was organised by completely different people and had nothing to do with us. No papers, no thinking, no ideas; we were not involved with it at all.

This is a very important comment. One last question, how would you see the future?

I believe that the Palestinians need to decide on what their objectives are, what they are going to try and achieve, and to build a strong internal national movement that can face these external pressures. And that they can then offer their policy whatever that policy may be, in a strong, single clear voice.