Marc Lynch has been kind of enough to allow me to publish this guest post on his blog at Foreign Policy with five observations on the latest deterioration in the internal Palestinian political situation.
Rumors have been circulating in recent weeks of the imminent signing, in Cairo at the end of this month, of an Egyptian-brokered Palestinian reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. There is even what purports to be an agreed draft document in existence. Over the past week, that unity deal appeared less and less likely, notably against the backdrop of the fallout from the PA’s abandonment of the Goldstone report at the UN Human Rights Council and the dramatic impact that had on the already compromised standing of the Fatah leadership (and the way it strengthened Hamas’s hand).
Well as of yesterday, the reconciliation agreement has been put on indefinite hold. PLO Chair and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas gave a televised speech in Ramallah in which he explained and defended the PA Ramallah’s position and launched a frontal verbal assault on Hamas. Within hours, Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal responded from Damascus with an assertive pushback, a withering critique of Abbas’s leadership and a definitive ‘no’ to any unity under current circumstances. Deposed Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh weighed in today from Gaza in support of Meshaal’s position, and on the flip side, some of Fatah’s leaders have begun to rally around their embattled leader.
It is not clear what Egypt’s next steps will be or how this will unfold in the coming weeks. Marc Lynch has been kind of enough to allow me to post this guest blog with five observations on this latest deterioration in the internal Palestinian political situation.
1. Abbas tries to shore up his base, Hamas overplays its hand
Mahmoud Abbas’s account of the PA/PLO’s management of the Goldstone report and his insistence that it will now be acted upon will do little to sway or convince his domestic political opponents or just about anyone in the NGO/human rights community, or third party/independent political forces in the Palestinian territories or diaspora. But they were apparently not his target audience in yesterday’s speech – rather, he seemed to be appealing to his home base inside Fatah.
To recover from recent setbacks, Abbas has apparently decided he needs to first of all re-establish his standing inside Fatah, and he has started to do that by taking off the gloves and offering lots of red meat in his attacks on the enemy… not Israel, stupid, but Hamas. After a summer of impressive politicking by Abbas with the Fatah conference and filling of vacancies in the PLO’s Executive Committee, everything was beginning to fall apart as key Fatah members joined the unprecedented outpouring of anger expressed over the PLO’s Goldstone decision.
Abbas provided just enough yesterday to give those parts of the Palestinian press that are PA-controlled (and who also found themselves having to join the criticism), and the PA-Fatah nomenklatura a just-about-plausible narrative to fight back with.
Abbas received help from an unlikely source – Khalid Meshaal, who overplayed his hand by abruptly saying ‘no’ to reconciliation, thereby allowing some of the blame in the public debate to shift from Fatah to Hamas. This was picked up eagerly by the pro-Abbas elements of the PA-Fatah echo chamber, for instance in today’s editorial in the pro-PA Palestinian al-Quds.
2. The Abbas-Fatah-PA Position Remains Tenuous
Even though Abbas came out punching in his press conference and has shored up some Fatah support, it is still very unlikely to be enough to reverse the trends of the past weeks which run heavily against his leadership group. Even yesterday’s statement failed to provide a reasonable explanation on the Goldstone affair, to really accept responsibility, or to draw a line under this episode. The criticism of Abbas & Co. in the past fortnight has been dramatic. The handling of the Goldstone report was the latest and by far the most damning of a series of setbacks.
First Abbas attended the New York trilateral meeting without initially securing an Israeli settlement freeze, contradicting his own commitments (and the claim that he was just attending a meeting, not resuming negotiations–while actually quite logical and diplomatic–was not effective in political terms). Even prior to New York, a powerful anti-PA narrative existed regarding its ongoing security and economic cooperation (for the critics, read: collaboration) with Israel, suggesting the PA was acting for personal and patronage self-interests, and as a subcontractor of the occupation, rather than standing up for and defending Palestinian interests. Then came the release of 20 female Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Hamas producing video evidence of Gilad Shalit’s well-being (and Abbas hosting the released prisoners in Ramallah fooled nobody).
The Goldstone debacle was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and yesterday will do little to reverse that tide. Abbas continues to be in an unenviable position. That is likely to remain the case until there is either a shakeup in Palestinian politics or until Fatah presents and acts on an alternative to its longstanding strategy of being exclusively negotiations-dependent. The Fatah leadership is simply still bought-in to a political strategy that has been fatally undermined and flawed, namely that with US support it will negotiate with Israel a way out of occupation and to independence, and will do so without a serious effort to mobilize international pressure or domestic resistance whether of the non-violent or violent kind (I’m not advocating any of the above, just setting out the debate).
The US, put simply, has not delivered Israel. The Israelis are not dismantling the occupation of their own free will, and the PA-Fatah strategy has precious little traction with its own people.
3. Can any good come out of this latest spat?
In actual fact, the collapse of the latest Cairo effort may not be such a bad thing. The draft document under discussion raised more questions than it answered, and a unity effort based on such a document would likely have collapsed in very short order. One of Abu Mazen’s closest confidants was heard recently to say that if the previous unity agreement lasted three months, this one would have barely lasted three days. Partly this reflects the state of play and more deepened animosity between the key actors in Fatah and Hamas. But it also has something to do with the mediation effort.
The Egyptian monopoly in leading the reconciliation effort is just not helpful or conducive to success. Egypt has a role to play but it cannot be the exclusive mediator. Following the visit of Saudi King Abdullah to Damascus last week and the ongoing rapprochement between the Syrians and the Saudis, there is a strong case to be made for broadening the mediation effort to include these two key actors and perhaps others in addition, notably Turkey, Qatar, and if they were willing to play a role, Jordan too.
A reconstituted Palestinian polity and national movement is likely to be crucial to any successful peace effort, and an optimistic take on the latest set-back to unity is that it could presage a redoubled effort in the future that is more effectively and solidly structured.
4. A Pyrrhic victory for Israel
The Israeli government has largely refrained from commenting thus far on these developments. If previous positions are anything to go by (and in this case, they most certainly are), then Israel’s political leadership will be encouraging further Palestinian division and enjoying every moment of it. At first glance, it would seem to make sense for Israel to favor a divided, and thereby weakened, Palestinian interlocutor/adversary.
For any Israeli government seeking to maintain the status quo and avoid any hard choices on peace, a logic of win-win may even apply here. If the Palestinians remain divided then Israel can bemoan the lack of domestic legitimacy or capacity to implement of its Palestinian partner (“What’s the point of cutting a deal with Abbas? He can’t deliver anyway,” they would say).
If there is a unity agreement, then Israel can claim that the Palestinian interlocutor has done a deal with the devil (as in Hamas), is now tainted with terrorism, and is therefore no longer a legitimate negotiating partner. In today’s circumstance, one can even throw a further ‘win’ into the mix – the Palestinian political standoff will make it even more difficult for Abbas to begin negotiations without a settlement freeze, Israel ain’t doing a settlement freeze, and the Palestinian can be blamed for the lack of progress!
The Israeli government’s standard modus operandi would now be to very publicly declare the need to strengthen its Palestinian partner, throw them a few economic bones, maybe a new frequency for a second mobile phone operator, or even a minor and highly sectarian prisoner release. The entirely predictable effect of this is, of course, to further stigmatize and delegitimize the Palestinian recipient of this faux largesse.
Such a strategy may all seem terribly smart to its Israeli designers but I would suggest that this is an enormously costly and tragic pyrrhic victory. The net effect of this ongoing approach is to render ever less viable and likely a two-state solution. That in itself is far more threatening to Israel’s future than to the Palestinians (who, unlike any adherent to Zionism, can accept or even prefer a one state outcome).
5. What does it all mean for America’s peace efforts?
I’ll keep this brief. Abbas is now in an even worse position to sign up for the new formula of resuming negotiations sans settlement freeze. Such bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would anyway now be rendered even less likely to produce a groundbreaking or even constructive outcome.
I’ve argued elsewhere that for all the criticism that it has encountered, the Mitchell approach actually has its advantages and has created some useful potential pivots for the US peace effort. The diplomatic shuttling of Special Envoy Senator George Mitchell between the parties is likely to prove more productive at this stage than getting the parties to sit together. The most important conversations will anyway need to take place between America and each of its interlocutors – the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the Arab states. Those conversations should now be shifting to a more sustained focus on the nature and details of a post-occupation two-state reality.
The US needs to continue to work towards an appropriate moment, in the not too distant future, for presenting an internationally backed American implementation proposal for a viable and dignified two-state outcome.
In that effort, the lack of a resumption of direct talks does not represent a setback, but the deepening division inside the Palestinian polity does. The Obama Administration cannot continue for much longer to sit this one out (de facto encouraging the split). A public U-turn is unnecessary; rather, the US should be quietly encouraging its allies and non-allies in the region to step into the breech (the aforementioned Saudis, Syrians, Turks, Qataris …etc) to supplement Egyptian efforts, and to help restructure a Palestinian national movement that can carry forward a serious peace effort.