WASHINGTON — Officials in the Bush administration awoke on the morning of January 26, 2006 to catastrophic news.
Hamas, a violent Islamist movement whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, had won Palestinian parliamentary elections — elections that were deemed free and fair and a cornerstone to President Bush's initiative to bring more democracy to the Muslim world.
For the next 17 months, White House and State Department officials would undertake an all-out campaign to reverse those results and oust Hamas from power.
Instead of undermining Hamas, though, the strategy helped to exacerbate dangerous political fissures in Palestinian politics that have delivered another setback to the president's vision of a stable, pro-Western Middle East.
The administration's drive to change the political facts on the ground foundered on opposition in Congress, the differing goals of Middle East allies such as Saudi Arabia, and an inability to provide Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with the full backing he needed to confront Hamas.
Three weeks ago, Hamas leaders outmaneuvered everyone else and seized the Gaza strip in a swift military campaign that vanquished secular Fatah forces loyal to Abbas. Abbas, with U.S. encouragement, responded by dissolving the Hamas-led government and declaring emergency rule. Now, with Palestinians divided into two mini-states in Gaza and the West Bank, mediating a peace deal with Israel will be harder than ever.
The strategy toward Hamas was overseen by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and carried out largely by Elliott Abrams, a leading neoconservative in the White House, and Assistant Secretary of State David Welch.
At its heart was a plan to organize military support for Abbas for what opponents of the strategy feared could have become a Palestinian civil war, according to officials in Washington and the Middle East, and documents.
As recently as March 2007, Jordanian officials developed a $1.2 billion proposal to train, arm and pay Abbas' security forces so they could control the streets after he dissolved the government and called new elections. McClatchy Newspapers obtained a copy of the plan. While two sources close to Abbas said U.S. officials were involved in developing and presenting the plan, a State Department official described it as a Jordanian initiative.
Ultimately, congressional concerns in Washington and Israeli objections kept any significant military aid from being delivered, even as Israeli intelligence and the CIA warned that Hamas was becoming stronger.
Long term, the U.S. effort to oust Hamas has further deepened doubts in the Middle East about the administration's understanding of the complex region.
"America is so far away, they are completely misinformed about what is happening," said Munib Masri, a Palestinian businessman allied with Abbas. "The more they do against Hamas, the more power they (Hamas) get from the people."
Well before the January 2006 elections, the White House and Rice had ample warning about the risks of allowing Hamas to participate, according to two senior U.S. officials. Among those raising alarms were Arab leaders and Tzipi Livni, now Israel's foreign minister.
But Abbas argued that elections wouldn't be credible without Hamas, and Washington went along, said one of the senior U.S. officials, who agreed to be interviewed only on condition of anonymity due to White House-imposed ground rules.
Was that a mistake?
"Maybe," he said. "The question was debated at the time."
Once Hamas was elected, the White House gave almost no thought to accepting the results and trying to co-opt the hard-line Islamist group, which the U.S. government deems a terrorist organization, current and former U.S. officials said.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, "I don't think it was ever possible emotionally, ideologically ... for this administration to consider reaching out, probing" Hamas, said Aaron David Miller, who advised six secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations.
Instead, Rice orchestrated an international financial boycott of the new Palestinian government, an action that failed to weaken Hamas or force it to moderate its views.
Simultaneously, throughout the spring and summer of 2006, the United States pressed Abbas to confront Hamas to end the political paralysis in the Palestinian Authority.
In a July 2006 meeting with Abbas, Abrams and Welch urged him to dismiss the government, said Edward Abington, a former U.S. diplomat who advises the Palestinian president.
Abbas "just refused," Abington said. "He was afraid there would be armed rebellion."
"The U.S. clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas," wrote Alvaro de Soto, the U.N.'s Middle East envoy, before retiring this spring in a final report.
The senior administration official used different phraseology.
Abrams and Welch, the official said, discussed two options with Abbas: new elections, or an emergency government, followed by elections.
As the financial pressure on the Hamas-led government failed to undermine it, the Bush administration increased emphasis on training, equipping and arming Abbas' security forces.
But resistance from Congress and Israel prevented this third element in the U.S. plan from getting off the ground.
Despite repeated requests from Abbas and his security advisers for more weapons, little was provided. In December, Egypt transferred about 2,000 rifles, 20,000 ammunition clips and about 2 million bullets to Abbas' forces in Gaza.
Congressional leaders from both parties voiced skepticism about a separate $100 million U.S. plan to train and provide non-lethal equipment to Abbas loyalists. Lawmakers shelved the plan for months, and forced it to be cut nearly in half.
Top Abbas military strategists criticized Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the U.S. officer charged by the Bush administration to help overhaul Palestinian security forces, for offering no substantive support.
"My problem is that I have sat several times with General Ward (the previous U.S. security coordinator) and General Dayton. ... We repeat the same things and there is no action," said Brig. Gen. Yunis El As, head of training for the Palestinian Authority National Security Force.
Meanwhile, Hamas was using underground tunnels to smuggle large caches of weapons into Gaza.
Frustrated Abbas security aides urged the Palestinian president to follow suit and start smuggling in weapons for his forces.
"We urged him to buy weapons on the black market, but he refused," said Abu Ali Shaheen, a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council.
Fatah's weaknesses were ever more evident on the streets of Gaza, where the Abbas loyalists were consistently beaten by Hamas fighters in a series of deadly clashes between the two factions.
This did not upset American officials, according to De Soto's final report, which was leaked to Britain's Guardian newspaper. "I like this violence, " de Soto quoted an unnamed U.S. official as stating, because "it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas."
With Palestinians at the brink of civil war, close U.S. ally Saudi Arabia undertook its own peace initiative to halt the bloodshed.
And in February 2007, Abbas-rejecting the advice of aides who argued for confrontation-joined forces with Hamas to form a national unity government.
Israel and the United States felt betrayed by the deal, signed in the Saudi city of Mecca, seeing it as a step backwards for Abbas, who had now formally allied himself with the hard-liners both countries had worked to isolate.
As concerns grew that Hamas was getting the upper hand, Jordanian officials, after consulting U.S. diplomats, developed and presented to Abbas the $1.2 billion plan to arm the Palestinian president's security forces so that they could control the streets once he dissolved the coalition government and called new elections.
The plan, first reported last month by the Jordanian newspaper Al Majd, called for efforts to "undermine the political strength of Hamas." It envisioned financial and political aid for Abbas so he could "build the political capital to move on with plan 'B' (early Parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories.)"
Israeli intelligence briefings had been warning all year that Hamas was getting stronger and Fatah forces weren't up to the task of fighting back.
The CIA's assessments of the power balance "were accurate-which is to say they were gloomy," the senior administration official said.
Some observers say that fear of the U.S.-led effort to arm Abbas, as anemic as it was, prompted Hamas to continue preparing for a major showdown. The senior Bush administration official vigorously disputed such a link.
Last month, according to Shaheen, Hamas leaders made a secret trip to meet Jordanian officials and present a dramatic proposal: Hamas wanted to seize control of Gaza and allow Jordan to retake control of the West Bank.
The idea, he said, was summarily rejected. But it was another sign Hamas was preparing for a major clash.
"Everybody knew a force was being trained in the Gaza Strip to confront Hamas," said a former senior Israeli government official, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject. "To assume that Hamas would sit idly by and wait for this to culminate in success was very short-sighted."
Hamas attacked in mid-June, sweeping away Fatah's forces in Gaza in a matter of days.
Bush administration officials argue that the attack revealed fractures in Hamas, saying it was apparently ordered by military commanders at odds with Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh. Hamas is now politically isolated, they say.
But as Rice and Israel again move to bolster Abbas with hundreds of millions of dollars in previously blocked funds, some current and former U.S. officials say the Bush administration has repeatedly underestimated Hamas and failed to recognize how dysfunctional its Fatah ally had become.
Said Miller: "I don't know if we grasp it even now."
Nissenbaum reported from Jerusalem and Gaza.
McClatchy Newspapers 2007