Why The “Peace Process” Between Israel And Palestine Has Crumbled


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The agreement between Fatah and Hamas marks the end of a long period of cooperation and negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians.It’s worth reviewing the recent history briefly.  In 2003, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon endorsed the two-state solution and said Palestinians should govern themselves.  At a summit meeting in Aqaba, Sharon and Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (whom Yasser Arafat was forced to appoint) exchanged words of peace and Abbas explicitly renounced violence as a tool of Palestinian politics.  In late 2003 and with more detail in early 2004, Sharon announced that he would pull Israeli settlers and troops out of Gaza and withdraw symbolically from 4 small settlements in the West Bank, and after a long political battle did so in the summer of 2005.

In November 2004 Arafat died and Abbas was chosen as his successor in a free election in January 2005.  Negotiations over a final settlement started up again after the Annapois Conference in November 2007, though they ended when Operation Cast Lead began in late 2008 and have never recommenced.  Despite the Hamas coup in Gaza in 2007, Israeli-PA cooperation on the ground improved from 2006 right through to 2011, allowing for a significant progress in economic conditions in the West Bank and for considerable security cooperation against terrorist groups including Hamas.  Under American training, PA security forces improved greatly in the last several years, just one piece of the institutional progress that has taken place since Salam Fayyad became prime minister in 2007.

In choosing to enter a coalition with Hamas, Abbas is abandoning all the advances made to date and abandoning his own former approach.  Cooperation with Israel to improve life in the West Bank and security cooperation against terrorism have now been jettisoned in favour of the appearance of unity.  All of Abbas’s past statements about Hamas as his enemy, Fatah’s enemy, and the PA’s enemy have been put aside in an embrace of Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader.  Under the agreement, elections will be held for the PA presidency and parliament, and for the PLO bodies, in one year, and security forces are to be put under one umbrella.

Why now?  Why Hamas entered this coalition is easy to explain.  Its invaluable support from Syria is as shaky as the Assad regime itself, and its usual opposition to PA elections is softened by the prospect of winning them.  Moreover, Hamas has long sought to enter and dominate the PLO but was kept out of it.  Abbas’s willingness to let Hamas in is a considerable victory for Hamas.

But why did Abbas do it?  Public opinion polls suggest that Palestinians want national unity and reconciliation, so Abbas is playing to the voters.  (Whether those voters will be able to distinguish real reconciliation from a façade put up by Hamas and Fatah leaders who hate each other is a different matter.) And Abbas is calling for a September UN vote recognising an independent Palestinian state, which would be harder to win if the PA manifestly ruled over half the territory only, with Gaza wholly independent.  Abbas may also have felt that with polls showing that Hamas is quite unpopular in Gaza and weaker than in 2006, Fatah should be able to win the PA and PLO elections.

As to the meaning of all this for the “peace process,” well…there is no more “peace process.” Abbas has given up on it, just as he has given up on President Obama.  He recently commented to Newsweek that “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze.  I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.” Abbas is turning instead to internal politics, and his message to us is “Go away and leave me alone.  I am finished with peace negotiations for now.”  Of course, as he has promised not to run again in next year’s presidential elections, he himself is presumably finished with them forever.  He wants his legacy to be some semblance (no matter how false) of national unity, rather than a difficult and controversial peace agreement with Israel that requires him to make compromises—and be accused of treason by Hamas for each one.  In this sense he is casting himself as a transitional leader between Arafat and whatever comes next, a man too weak to lead his people across to the promised land of real national independence.

It remains to be seen how the United States and the EU will react to the new situation.  When Hamas won the 2006 elections, the US and EU (with Russian support, briefly) adopted what became known as the Quartet Principles:  “It is the view of the Quartet that all members of a future Palestinian Government must be committed to non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations….”

Trying to get around the Principles in 2006 and again now, the Palestinian formula is that there will be a non-party technocratic government.  That way, they can say Hamas is not actually participating in the PA government—not yet anyway.  It is a hollow formula, and not only because it merely delays the problem of Hamas’s role until elections are held.  Will “all members” of the new government now truly endorse an absolute end to violence and terror, not simply tactically but morally and permanently?

In his 2003 Aqaba speech, Abbas said “we repeat our renunciation, a renunciation of terror against the Israelis wherever they might be. Such methods are inconsistent with our religious and moral traditions and are dangerous obstacles to the achievement of an independent, sovereign state we seek. These methods also conflict with the kinds of state we wish to build, based on human rights and the rule of law.” Excellent words.  Will every new appointee swear to them, even though Hamas obviously rejects them?  After all, it is only a month since Hamas fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus.  And this week, senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar told Al Jazeera Hamas would never recognise Israel and “the rule of Poles and Ethiopians in their land.” But don’t worry about that, said Fatah Central Committee member Nabil Shaath: “many others agree with us that the old rules of the quartet were not logical, and are not workable.”

Back in 2006 and 2007, it seemed to me the EU would abandon the Quartet Principles if Hamas gave them the slightest pretext—but the Hamas guys did not come through for the eager European diplomats.  They wouldn’t move one inch toward the Quartet.  Perhaps they will in 2011, in which case Israel will find top-level Hamas representatives being wined and dined in all the capitals of Europe.  If not, the EU will likely oppose the PA effort at the UN in September, led by the Germans.  For obvious historical reasons and because it is led by a principled person, Germany has already taken a tougher line.  When this week President Sarkozy said “If the peace process is still dead in September, France will face up to its responsibilities on the central question of recognition of a Palestinian state,” Chancellor Merkel rejected an appeal from Abbas and said “We do not think that unilateral steps are helpful.”

If the EU does not support the Palestinians in New York come September, the Palestinian effort will likely succeed in winning a majority but fail nevertheless.  Because if the new entity does not have EU and US recognition, the Palestinian effort to replace negotiations with Israel by unity between Fatah and Hamas and by unilateral diplomatic moves will have led into a cul de sac. Who cares how Zimbabwe and Venezuela and the Arab League vote, if the United States, the EU, and nations such as Canada and Australia vote against the Palestinian effort or (for those who are afraid to do so) even abstain on it?

What should Netanyahu say when he speaks to a joint session of Congress in a couple of weeks?  That Israel wants peace and remains committed to the two-state solution; that it realises the State of Israel will have to give up some settlements in the Land of Israel, if peace is obtainable; that the refugee problem must indeed be solved, but the solution must be found in Palestine, not in Israel; that the fundamental problem is security, and the continuing refusal by the Palestinians to accept Israel as a Jewish State; that there can be no return to the 1949 armistice lines; and that anyone who seeks peace must regard the entry of Hamas into the PLO and into the Palestinian Authority as a grim development.

And what of Washington?  Due to the deal with Hamas, any hope Israel’s enemies, or its “friends” in Europe, had that President Obama would push Netanyahu into serious concessions when they meet in late May is now gone. I was one of those who, over the past few months, were urging Netanyahu to consider far-reaching steps toward the Palestinians, but that was back in the old days when the PA and Fatah were enemies of Hamas.  Such steps are impossible now in both American and Israeli politics.  The President would be wise to adopt a new policy now: the goal should be to try to avoid Israeli-Palestinian violence, let the Palestinians vote next year, and then see where we stand.  If the President has a second term and the conditions are good he can return to this subject then; for the remainder of his first term it needs to be parked.  It is fair for him to ask Netanyahu to avoid provocative actions, such as starting new settlements in the West Bank or announcing large new housing projects in Jerusalem (new projects will be started there, but Israel should seek less rather than more publicity for them).

And the President should tell the Palestinian Authority leadership that we will give it aid to the extent that its officials are committed to the Quartet Principles and continue to fight terror.  Secretary Clinton said on Wednesday that “we are waiting to see the details. We obviously are aware of the announcement in Cairo yesterday. There are many steps that have yet to be undertaken in order to implement the agreement. And we are going to be carefully assessing what this actually means, because there are a number of different potential meanings to it, both on paper and in practice.  We’ve made it very clear that we cannot support any government that consists of Hamas unless and until Hamas adopts the Quartet principles. And the Quartet principles have been well known to everyone for a number of years. So we’re going to wait and make our assessment as we actually see what unfolds from this moment on.”

This is not reassuring.  The PA will not have “a government that consists of Hamas,” but a non-party technocratic government meant precisely to get around the Quartet Principles.  The United States needs to be far clearer: we cannot and will not support any government where Hamas has a real influence and the security forces stop fighting terror.  We must certainly not fund such a government, and indeed once Fayyad leaves we should be very wary of the financial practices of the PA.  For years Fayyad has resisted Fatah Party efforts—often led by President Abbas—to put corrupt officials into the Finance and other ministries, and this is one reason Fatah leaders dislike him and want him out.

But the critical test will be security work.  According to descriptions of the agreement, “Among the first tasks to be tackled is the establishment of a higher security council tasked with examining ways to integrate Hamas and Fatah’s rival security forces and create a ‘professional’ security service.  The accord also calls for…the release of a number prisoners held by the rival movements in jails in the West Bank and Gaza.”  This suggests an integration of the American-trained security forces with Hamas terrorist forces known as the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, an end to fighting terror, and the release from prisons of terrorists from Hamas and other groups.  If this transpires, it would mean the PA/Fatah leaders are choosing the armed struggle over peace with Israel, and would mean that Hamas will henceforth be the leading Palestinian faction.

Perhaps not; perhaps the West Bank security forces will continue their work, given their long years of war against Hamas.  Perhaps this agreement like its predecessor will soon break down, for the Hamas and Fatah leaders have been enemies for decades.  Yuval Diskin, who is about to step down as the head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service and who knows as much about Hamas and Fatah as anyone, said this week “I think the chance of a real reconciliation between the sides over the next two or three years is slim. The signing of the agreement creates a facade of unity, but it is unclear how they will implement the agreement on the ground.”  In that sense Secretary Clinton was right to say we need to see what unfolds.  But we need to be absolutely clear on the standards we will apply.  We do no favour to any Palestinian who really seeks peace, democracy, and independence if we pull our punches when a murderous terrorist group maneuvers to gain power in—and then take power over—all the Palestinian territories.

This post originally appeared at The Council on Foreign Relations.