What Next on Palestine: Time to Get Real

Hamas is now in control of Gaza after a cruel, if somewhat surprisingly easy, military victory over Fatah. The images coming out of the Palestinian territories have been harsh to say the least and neither side looks good to put it mildly. The spillover to the West Bank, thus far, has been limited to sporadic Fatah-revenge attacks against identifiable Hamas targets. President Abbas has declared a state of emergency and the disbanding of the unity government. These actions appear to be within the remit of his power, but only for a limited time period, after which Parliamentary approval would be required (and tricky given that the PLC is majority Hamas and that so many members are now in Israeli prisons). Abbas could call elections, that would be even more high-risk. Those who always viewed the political Islam of Hamas and responsible government as incompatible think they have been vindicated. They are wrong.

The situation is bleak, if predictable. The unity government arrangement was always a fragile one. The core group within both Fatah and Hamas who supported a national political accommodation between the factions were fighting a rearguard action against rejectionists from within their respective ranks from day one. The hopes for a functioning unity government were dealt a mortal blow when outside actors led by America and Israel, with the support also of certain Arab states and the complicity of Europe, all worked to undermine the government and strengthened those elements within Fatah striving to violently collapse the government.

Naturally, everyone is now looking for a way out and for a ray of hope in this desperate situation. That is a healthy human instinct, but the emerging plan articulated over the last days from many quarters and in danger of becoming entrenched, is a fantastical one – divorced from reality and far too similar to the previous failed policies that helped create this disaster. The emerging plan is known variously as promoting Fatahland, while punishing Hamastan, or West Bank first, or feed the West Bank/starve Gaza. There is no detailed elaboration of the plan yet, but its outline would look something like this:

Use the new reality as an opportunity to drive home the division between the West Bank-Fatahland and the Gaza-Hamastan.Visibly demonstrate to the Palestinians that Fatahland is a happy place with an advancing peace process, while Hamastan is a dark and hopeless place excluded from this march of peace. Ultimately, so the story goes, the Palestinians embrace the Fatah alternative. Hamas peacefully accepts the consequences or is militarily defeated and we all live happily ever after.

This vision may feature in next week’s Washington talks between President Bush and Prime Minister Olmert. The most sophisticated version of this approach, far more sophisticated than what today’s politicians are likely to come up with, appears in a Washington Post oped by Martin Indyk.

And in truth, it does sound attractive and it is understandable that many people including people of good will and members of the peace camp would begin to mobilize around this plan. It kills two birds with one stone – we are not only provided with a supposedly workable policy for supporting the goodies against the badies, but also given a pathway back to the peace process, as part of the plan would be for Olmert to negotiate with Abbas and perhaps, agree to further withdrawals and/or confidence building measures in the West Bank. A complex and difficult to understand situation suddenly is presented with great clarity and deemed amenable to attractive solutions.

As is clear from the above, I think this approach is wrong-headed and more of the same failed policies, rather than a departure from them. I want to explain why that is and what the alternatives might be.

Learning from how we got here

To understand the shortcomings of both the existing and proposed “new” policies, a little background is needed. I will try to keep this brief. There is sometimes a tendency to be dismissive of developments on the Palestinian side and choices that they make and to assume that one can reconfigure Palestinian reality by external edict with relative ease. I have attributed, I think justifiably, significant blame for the current predicament to external actors, but there are internal Palestinian dynamics at work whose significance should not be underestimated. Palestinian society has undergone a process of Islamasization or a deepening of religious trends in the last years that is part of a more general phenomenon in the Muslim world. Part of the Hamas ascendancy should be seen against that background.

The death of Arafat set in motion a period of Palestinian transition that was aching to happen (for an excellent explanation, see Rob Malley and Hussein Agha in the recent New York Review of Books). The era of single party Palestinian rule is in the past. It cannot be reimposed, nor should that be tried, some variation of Hamas is now a fixed feature of the Palestinian political landscape.

Another important lesson of the last years is that absence of an active peace process and an engaged US administration, does not apparently make Israeli and Palestinian hearts grow fonder. Rather, with no peace process to pin one’s hopes on, other, more destructive options, fill the vacuum and capture the public imagination. Any exercise in learning the lessons of what went wrong should include the need for a consistent drive towards peace as a linchpin for any constructive realistic policy alternative. And finally, the jury is in on unilateralism. It is, predictably, a woefully short-sighted approach.

It is 2007, not 2005

The emerging plan that I am critiquing here might have made sense in 2005 after the death of Arafat and Abbas becoming President in the run-up to Parliamentary elections. I, too (rightly or wrongly), advocated a variation of this approach in 2005. If the proponents of the Fatahland versus Hamastan plan have developed a time machine that can take us back to 2005, then they should come clean and reveal it. If not, they should not pretend that the last 24 months can be wished away. The toothpaste is out of the tube. Hamas democratically won an election deemed to be free and fair by outside observers. From that moment on, the policy pursued by Israel, America, most of Europe, and the Arab world has not been helpful. It has failed to deliver on its express purpose, namely strengthening Fatah against Hamas, and at the same time has weakened the realist camp within Hamas that was beginning to grapple with the practicalities and implications of entering the democratic process, it also set back, rather than advanced prospects for peace and security. Any policy predicated on this same premise will meet the same fate. A paradigm shift is called for.

Rather than encouraging whatever Hamas capacity for flexibility might have existed, the policy disempowered those very tendencies within the movement. The decision to boycott and not engage the Hamas government meant that the theory, whereby assuming a governing role can moderate militants-in-transition, was not put to the test in the Palestinian context. When the unity government was formed at Mecca between Fatah and Hamas, another opportunity was missed. That arrangement was fragile from day one, opposed, as it was by significant forces from within Fatah and Hamas. One option would have been to work to empower the core groups in both Fatah and Hamas and other factions who did want to give the Mecca deal a chance. This was not the option pursued by external actors. Israel and America sided with a faction within Fatah, whose goal was the collapse of the unity deal. With certain Arab support, financial, material, and even military assistance was provided to that faction within Fatah. It is true also that the Hamas military wing continued to receive similar external assistance from its supporters.

Europe strongly hinted to the Palestinians that if a unity government were to emerge, then the EU would end its diplomatic and financial embargo. The opposite happened and Europe, too, shoulders some responsibility for what has gone on. Inevitably, the assistance and weapons intended for Fatah are now in Hamas hands.

Less than three weeks ago, at a Congressional hearing, the American security envoy, General Dayton suggested that the security assistance package to the security forces of President Abbas should be supported and even contended that the national security forces were looking good against Hamas. They were routed this week. I think General Dayton is trying to make the best of an impossible mandate. Talking to only one side and getting the picture of the realities on the ground only through one lense, normally leads to bad policy.

Round one of defeating Hamas militarily has failed. Round two should not be tried. Its results will likely be terror emanating from the West Bank or the emergence of an al-Qaedist alternative to Hamas. This is an important part of looking at things as a simplistic Fatah-Hamas dichotomy. There is a third way. It is about al-Qaeda wannabes and copy-cats and they are likely to be the big winners if wise-heads fail to prevail.

Fuzzy headed thinking

Embracing the Fatahland versus Hamastan project would represent a willful denial of these past mistakes. The approach is a combination of fuzzy headed thinking and wishful thinking that is likely to undermine the prospects for both security and peace. In truth the plan is unlikely to get off the ground, but it may become the guiding policy orientation and block out other options. If it does begin to fly, here are some additional reasons why the plan is unlikely to work.

First, if Hamas sees such an effort being carried out, then it will be incentivized to create a security crisis emanating from the West Bank. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or renegade Fatah guns-for-hire will try to precipitate a violent clash from the West Bank. If, as is likely, they succeed, then Israel will quickly lose its appetite for any positive gestures it is making to Fatahland in the West Bank (easing of closures, redployment of IDF, etc).

Second, no Palestinian leadership that takes its domestic credibility seriously can pursue a position of cutting off the West Bank from Gaza, let alone starving Gaza over a period of time. It may sound attractive and, instinctively, in the heat of the moment, some Palestinians might even welcome it, but it is unsustainable. No Palestinian President or government can accept the situation whereby they cannot enter Gaza. Imagine a Palestinian government that accepts the PA tax monies that Israel is withholding, but spends them exclusively in the West Bank, while Gaza is suffering. Is that really the way to make Fatah popular again?!

Third, the Arab world and the Palestinian diaspora will not put up with such a situation over time. Supporting such a policy will only further weaken the already embattled Arab regimes in the eyes of their own publics and is likely to lead to unrest in the already volatile Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Such sentiments could even spill over with destabilizing consequences to the Palestinian community in Jordan. This really is head buried deep in the sand stuff. Finally, this is no basis on which to build a stable or sustainable peace process. Violence is likely to torpedo the process. An Abbas at war with Hamas is less of a partner than an Abbas who can deliver Hamas. That is the basic equation that needs to be recognized.

And one more fuzzy headed idea – deploying an international force in Gaza right now. A force deployment under the current circumstances and by powers, who neither recognize, nor engage with Hamas is ludicrous. Show me a military willing to deploy under such conditions and I suggest it is an army desperately in need of either cash or political guidance.

Getting Real: Sketching out an Alternative

Creating a working political accommodation between Fatah and Hamas has obviously just become much more difficult. Yet if allowed to fester, it could lead to an ongoing crisis and breakdown that will become ever more difficult to reverse. Harsh division within a given polity, wherever it is allowed to fester and especially when both sides are heavily armed rarely produces good results (see Lebanon, Iraq, Somalia).

In one respect, at least, the current escalation and breakdown perhaps presents one advantage – that the artificial unity of post Mecca has been exposed and that any future deal will clearly require deeper power-sharing and greater buy-in. There are still significant elements within Fatah and Hamas that understand the need for reconciliation sooner, rather than later. There are likely to be Arab-led or other efforts to bring Hamas and Fatah back to the table. Again, success will neither be easy, nor quick, but building an arrangement for deeper power sharing is the best option, certainly from a security and peace perspective. This will require a different delineation of security responsibilities and incorporation of militias and an agreed upon stabilization plan that would win international support. The international policy of divide and rule will have to find its resting place, along with the more aggressive version of selective engagement. Europeans, Arabs, and others should begin to explore the parameters for a deeper power-sharing arrangement with the two parties. Efforts should be made to cease the arming up of either side, importantly this should include the flow of weapons from Egypt into Gaza. If the Bush administration cannot sign on to this change in policy direction, it should at least do no harm, sit this round out, and let others take the lead.

In the meantime, Israel and Hamas will have to sober up and find ways to conduct their interaction over urgent humanitarian issues, such as food, power, water, and medical supplies. The two main criteria for calibrating progress with Hamas should be security and respect for the rule of law and democratic process (this should apply to Fatah also). Interestingly, a Hamas-led Gaza may be better able to impose security discipline – no Qassams have been fired in the last days. Israel should be seriously exploring, via intermediaries, the possibility of a comprehensive ceasefire. Hamas should see to the immediate freeing of the BBC’s Alan Johnston and negotiate a deal for the release of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit. Rather than hurtling towards new elections, the Fatah-Hamas Humpty Dumpty needs to be put together again.

A renewed negotiating process will require Israeli and Palestinian partners.  The Israeli side of that equation is problematic, but not our immediate subject. The Palestinian side must have credibility — in Palestine, not Washington — and recreate a Palestinian national agenda.  There are people in Fatah and Hamas still trying to do that, the Prisoner’s Document is an example.  Their success should matter to Israelis and Americans seeking to advance their own respective national interests and security, and working to re-stabilize the Middle East.  The alternatives are appealing, but illusory and their pursuit is plain dangerous.