Israel’s election and the Gaza conflict have revealed the scale of the
challenge facing U.S. President Barack Obama in jump-starting
Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Israeli voters tacked to the right, and
the government that results from Tuesday’s poll will be, if anything, even
less inclined to conclude a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinian
leadership than the current government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has
been. Meanwhile, the Gaza war cemented the stature of Hamas as the dominant political force among Palestinians.
Needless to say, there is not much optimism in the region over prospects for peace. But the urgency of resolving the conflict may be greater than ever, as the security situation is likely to see a perilous decline in the coming
months. Many members of Abbas’ Fatah movement, seeing themselves steadily eclipsed by Hamas, are urging a break from their President’s strategy of negotiating with the Israelis and a return to confronting the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.
Fatah leaders see the Israeli election as confirming what
they already knew: there’s nothing to be gained by continuing the
charade of U.S.-sponsored talks-about-talks with the Israelis. They could
not get what they needed from Olmert, and they know that his successors will take
even more of a hard line. From the Palestinian perspective, the past eight years
of waiting for negotiations with Israel have left Abbas empty-handed, while
the latest Gaza conflict has put Hamas in a stronger position than ever in the court of
Palestinian public opinion. Despite the violence by Hamas gunmen against Fatah activists in Gaza since the Israeli offensive, many in Fatah view their movement’s only hope of
re-establishing a leading role in Palestinian politics as joining a
unity government with Hamas and beginning to directly challenge the Israeli
occupation in the West Bank. The fact that such a sentiment coincides with Israel’s electing a more hawkish government suggests that the Middle East could be in for a long, hot summer.
The Gaza bloodbath prompted President Obama to dispatch former Senator
George Mitchell on a listening tour, to signal the new Administration’s
intent to prioritize peacemaking efforts. But the events of the past six
weeks have confirmed that the Israeli-Palestinian peace policy bequeathed by
the Bush Administration is dead in the water. If the new Administration is
to make good on its promise of progress toward a two-state peace agreement, it will
need the sort of thorough policy review currently being undertaken on its
Iran policy and a fresh set of ideas.
President Bush confined himself to promoting symbolic gestures of
support for a two-state peace agreement largely in order to win
the support of Arab moderates for the U.S.’s role in Iraq, and later for its
stance against Iran. A series of photo opportunities,
summits and declarations culminated in talks between Olmert and Abbas over
what Washington termed a “shelf” agreement that is, something that would be
concluded and then shelved for a better day when the Palestinian security
situation had been resolved to Israel’s satisfaction. But none of this
substantially altered the realities of the West Bank occupation, leaving Abbas with little to show for his counseling of negotiation
over confrontation. Abbas was further weakened and marginalized when reality
forced Israel to negotiate truces and prisoner swaps with Hamas, precisely
because it was Hamas that was creating the security challenges that Israel
needed to contain.
An independent Palestinian polling organization found last week that, for
the first time, Hamas has greater political support than Fatah across the West Bank and Gaza, and that it would win any election that were held right now. Aides to Abbas are reportedly anxious that an
Israel-Hamas deal to secure the release of the captive Israeli soldier Gilad
Shalit in Gaza could involve releasing the Hamas parliamentarians currently
in Israeli detention. The Palestinian legislature is currently unable to
meet because Israel is holding those lawmakers; if it were able to
convene, Hamas would be the majority party.
Hamas could, in fact, use its majority to bring down the government of
President Abbas, but it’s unlikely to do that because its own best interests
lie in reconstituting a unity government with Abbas. Reports from Cairo,
where Egypt is brokering truce arrangements, suggest that Hamas has accepted
the idea that forces loyal to Abbas be placed in control of the border crossings into
Gaza to allow the crossings to be reopened. And much of Fatah’s rank and file is
pressing for a unity government an option forcefully opposed by the
Bush Administration. Fatah is due to elect new leadership next month; while Abbas may survive in a titular leadership
position, control of the organization is likely to pass to a younger, more
militant generation that is more inclined to make common cause with Hamas.
Of course, the Israelis, whether led by the Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu or
Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, will flatly refuse to talk to a Palestinian government
that includes Hamas. But that may not deter Fatah, since the movement has
gained little by talking to Israeli governments that are plainly unwilling
to meet the Palestinians’ bottom lines. Abbas, even in the eyes of many in
his movement, gambled everything on the willingness of the U.S. to press
the Israelis to deliver a credible two-state peace solution and lost.
Now, many of those in Fatah are inclined to bet on a third intifadeh.
After all, in the short term at least, the status quo works for the Israelis as long as there are no missiles raining down on Israel from Gaza. But for the Palestinians, the
continued occupation in the West Bank is untenable. And it will not have been lost on Fatah activists that Hamas’ more confrontational stance has forced the Israelis, however reluctantly, to the negotiating table, as in the case of the Egypt-brokered Gaza truce negotiations.
The benign neglect shown on the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort by
the Bush Administration won’t be an option for the Obama Administration. But the policy pursued by the Bush Administration in its final year of isolating
Hamas while promoting talks-about-talks between Olmert and Abbas is also no
longer viable. Israel has tacked to the right, away from moves toward a
solution based on the Arab peace plan for which Obama recently
expressed support. The terms of that plan call for a two-state solution
on the basis of the 1967 borders and sharing Jerusalem. That Palestinian
bottom line, however, is explicitly rejected by the bloc of parties now
with a majority in Israel’s parliament. And the consensus on the Palestinian
side is moving toward a Fatah-Hamas unity government.
Jump-starting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, then, or simply
preventing a further deterioration of the situation will demand a massive
effort and new thinking on the part of the Obama Administration. As far
as the Palestinians are concerned, progress would require a
readiness by Obama to do something no U.S. Administration since that of
President George H.W. Bush has done: throw Washington’s weight behind
positions at odds with those of the Israeli government. And few Palestinians
are betting on Obama to turn up the heat on Israel. Instead, they’re more
likely to try and do it themselves.
With reporting by Jamil
Hamad / Bethlehem