There are several reasons to believe that the chance of success for the Palestinian unity dialogue now is very small, if not non-existent.
The Egyptian-led mediation effort has now seen three rounds of meetings, sometimes involving all 13 Palestinian factions, sometimes between only the two main rivals, Fateh and Hamas. None has been successful. It can be argued that the division in the Palestinian polity that resulted from the violent competition between Fateh and Hamas for power has reached an irreversible point, at least in the short and medium terms.
One of the main indications of this is the nature of the latest Egyptian proposal, presented to Fateh and Hamas in the last meeting in Cairo between Ahmed Qurei and Musa Abu Marzouq. The Egyptians proposed to keep the two de facto governments in Gaza and the West Bank and create a new body to coordinate activities between them.
The proposal seems to admit the impossibility of forming a national unity government. The nature of the responses it elicited was also telling.
Hamas responded with two questions: what would be the status of Ismail Haniyeh's government and who would compose the West Bank government. Fateh responded with two other questions: to whom would such a supervisory committee report to and what would be the terms of reference of its work.
Together, the proposal and the questions betray willingness by Cairo, Hamas and Fateh to live with the current division, even institutionalize it, leaving analysts to conclude that the main players are giving up on the possibility of national reconciliation.
In trying to understand the situation and any future potential for reconciliation it is important to understand the difference in the realities of the West Bank and Gaza. Both areas are under Israeli occupation, but in the West Bank the Israeli army is operating throughout Palestinian areas, including in densely populated cities and towns. Israel fully controls the land, the expansion of settlements and settlement infrastructure and other infrastructure such as water, electricity and road networks, as well as the separation wall. While Israel keeps the Gaza Strip under a comprehensive siege of its air, land and water boundaries, within the Strip Hamas exercises full control.
This asymmetry between the two parts of the future Palestinian state makes it very difficult in practice to return to one system and authority. This will lead to Gaza gradually shifting its dependency from Israel to other Arab and regional countries, especially its only other neighbor, Egypt. Taking into consideration the fact that Gaza is not economically viable on its own, we shall witness a continuation of the present economic deterioration there for a long time to come.
The West Bank, meanwhile, will develop in a different direction. There will be a declining level of interaction with Gaza while the current functional division between Israel--which is maintaining its security role in addition to controlling the land and its resources--and the Palestinian Authority, which is left as a de facto services provider in areas such as health and education, will continue within the overall framework of occupation.
That might serve the immediate Israeli goals of avoiding giving up control of the West Bank, and may divert international pressure from Israel. However, it will not serve the long-terms objectives of peace and security, because a two-state solution is a pre-condition for those objectives to become a reality.
The international community, which long ago agreed that the only way to make peace is through the emergence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, is required to contribute to reversing two trends. First, international players need to help bridge the division between the two parts of occupied Palestinian territory by encouraging reconciliation between Fateh and Hamas.
Second, the international community must work to reverse the Israeli colonization of the West Bank by forcing Israel to adhere to international legality. If this does not happen soon, it will be impossible for a Palestinian state to emerge.- Published 20/4/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
A strategy for dealing separately with the two Palestines
by Yossi Alpher
The Palestinian unity government talks chaperoned in recent months by the Egyptians appear to have failed. Cairo is now talking about forming a joint committee or "executive framework" that will be virtually powerless vis-a-vis the two existing Palestinian governments in Ramallah and Gaza. This appears to constitute primarily a way for all involved to save face without admitting total defeat. The important unity issues--a jointly-formed government with an agreed platform, ground rules for new elections, merging Hamas into the PLO--remain unresolved. In the absence of a unity government, little or none of the international aid pledged for rebuilding dwellings destroyed in the recent war is finding its way into the Strip.
Accordingly, the de facto reality all parties face for the foreseeable future is that of the past two years: three states or political entities--Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Under these circumstances, while a two-state solution remains the only viable outcome to the entire conflict, talk of achieving it in the near future rings hollow. On the other hand, those Israelis who believe the present situation of a divided Palestine works to Israel's advantage risk cultivating, through neglect, not one but two time bombs in our midst: a militant Islamist Gaza and a weak and unstable West Bank.
Thus it behooves us to ask: Given that the current "three state" situation is not likely to change in the foreseeable future, how can we make the best of it? Before we contemplate reuniting the West Bank and Gaza, we need two separate strategies for these separate and disparate entities.
In the West Bank, we have to look for ways to ensure that moderates remain in power by implementing genuine confidence- and security-building measures that support them. This means an absolute freeze on all settlement expansion, dismantling of outposts and even--if and when the security situation permits--coordinated unilateral Israeli withdrawal from additional parts of the West Bank. While some form of final status talks may be helpful in creating an incentive for Palestinians--and US President Barack Obama's resolve in this regard is encouraging--the real work that Obama's emissary George Mitchell should prioritize is ensuring Israeli and Palestinian compliance with these conflict-management measures in the West Bank. This should be easier to accomplish with the Netanyahu government than insisting immediately on a full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian peace process similar to those that have failed since 1993.
Regarding the Gaza Strip, the situation is more clear-cut: all relevant parties must begin by recognizing that their strategies have failed. Israel's military strategy failed back in January, as did the economic boycott strategy it pursued for nearly two years with the complicity of Egypt, the PLO and the Quartet. Egypt's strategy of ensuring that Gaza is an Israeli problem just blew up in Cairo's face with the revelations about Hizballah's espionage and sabotage operations on Egyptian soil: Gaza is an Egyptian problem, too. Perhaps this explains why Israel's reliance on Egypt to mediate ceasefire and prisoner-exchange deals with Hamas has also failed. Meanwhile, Cairo's attempt to broker renewed Fateh-Hamas unification is failing because Hamas, with Iran's backing, refuses to compromise its extreme views concerning Israel-related issues while the PLO is too weak to bend Hamas to its will.
Unless and until Hamas radically changes its attitude toward Israel, Jerusalem has every reason to quarantine it from the West Bank, lest a unity government or Palestinian elections strengthen its presence there. But quarantining physically should not mean ignoring politically. It's time for Israel to signal that it is prepared to talk to Hamas unconditionally. On the initial agenda: prisoner-exchange and a long-term ceasefire. If these can be accomplished, then and only then should they be followed by a joint exploration of ways in which peaceful coexistence with Gaza can be merged with peace with the West Bank. Such an order of business, which is not necessarily incompatible with the Likud's approach to the conflict, appears more promising than the failed policies of the past two years.
If Hamas refuses to talk directly with Israel--as most but not all Hamas leaders insist--then at least Israel will have taken the initiative and cast off its intransigent image. If Hamas insists on more Arab mediation, Israel should--with all due respect for the good intentions of our Arab friends--refuse. The experience of recent months appears to indicate that the fragmented and weak Arab state system is not up to the task of dealing with militant but dynamic Arab non-state actors in ways that benefit Israel.- Published 20/4/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Is it really time to throw in the towel?
by Ali Jarbawi
Reconciliation between Hamas and Fateh is in the best interests of the Palestinian people and their national cause. An agreement to end the current political divide and to form a unifying transitional government to rebuild Gaza and prepare for elections is our best hope. The most likely outcome, however, is a protracted dialogue resembling the so-called "peace process" and improvised arrangements to manage the conflict between the factions and relieve the appalling situation in Gaza.
We can now expect to be captive spectators of a game in which players are obsessed with keeping the unity negotiations process alive rather than achieving its goals, a game designed to distract our attention from the factions' continued pursuit of power and self-interest. This would leave the West Bank and Jerusalem to the tender mercies of Israel and condemn Gaza to a future as an underdeveloped state-like entity surrounded by powerful neighbors determined to keep it that way.
The lack of significant progress on core issues at the Cairo talks indicates that the time is not ripe for a deal between Hamas and Fateh. Indeed, the Egyptian proposal to form a coordination committee is clear evidence that Cairo has already given up on the notion of reconciliation in the near future. Cairo is almost certainly correct in this assessment; reaching a deal requires compromise and concession, which neither side is ready for.
The way forward was clear in Cairo: Hamas needed to allow the formation of a cabinet that would receive the necessary regional and international backing to serve the Palestinian citizens in Gaza and the West Bank. Fateh needed to agree on measures to incorporate Hamas into the PLO. However, Hamas remains determined to hold on to the authority it has gained in Gaza and Fateh is clinging onto the power, resources and international legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority.
The Egyptian proposal represents the first step toward the creation of arrangements to manage, rather than end, the factional divide. The core objectives of these "management arrangements" will be to facilitate a resumption of the peace negotiations with a reluctant, rightist Israeli government and to allow the reconstruction of Gaza. Designing arrangements that satisfy all key domestic, Israeli, regional and international stakeholders will be an extremely complicated exercise. The issues of opening border crossings, prisoner exchanges, a tahdiyeh and the free flow of international aid will all come into play and the management arrangements will need to address them all as a package.
In the event that suitable arrangements that deal with these four core issues can be cobbled together, Israel will almost certainly be required to turn a blind eye to the commencement of dialogue between the international community and Hamas. Despite its previous implacable opposition to such dialogue, coupled with Israel's recent lurch to the right, the Israeli government may be willing to concede on this matter in pursuit of two strategic goals.
First, showing apparent flexibility at this stage will likely help keep relations with Washington and Brussels cordial and quell international community demands for explicit commitment to the roadmap and Annapolis. Second, arrangements that merely manage the Hamas-Fateh split and postpone its resolution will allow Israel to deal with Gaza and the West Bank as separate entities and invoke the "no partner" excuse to postpone a peace agreement. It also creates further diplomatic space and time for Israel to continue consolidating its control and settlement growth in the West Bank and Jerusalem. This will require the international community to be convinced of Israel's good intentions and swallow disingenuous schemes akin to "Gaza first" or "economic peace". But this has worked before and it will almost certainly work again.
Palestinian participation in the creation of such "management arrangements" may help alleviate the appalling humanitarian crisis in Gaza more quickly, though past experience of sieges and embargos imposed by Israel and the international community gives us just cause for skepticism. However, the long-term costs of going down this path will be enormous if it leads to the creation of a quasi-state of Gaza, ruled by Hamas that accepts sovereignty over the Rafah crossing in return for a prolonged hudna and cessation of arms smuggling.
In such circumstances, Israel will be able to declare that its willingness to give the Palestinians sovereignty in Gaza is a clear illustration of its commitment to the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Under the banner of "Gaza first" the Israelis would simply request that the international community give them more time to pursue "economic peace" until "conditions are right" to withdraw from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Then, with the passage of time and the continued consolidation of facts on the ground, Israel will persuade its international supporters that reunification of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza is impossible and that a West Bank-Jordanian confederation is the only practical way forward. Meanwhile, Gaza will be destined to a future as a pariah state, perhaps with de jure sovereignty: a people whose day-to-day lives remain under the de facto control of its powerful neighbors.
This vision of the future is not at all far-fetched. In fact, it is very familiar. It is a variation on the classic theme of divide and conquer. Egypt has already thrown in the towel on Palestinian unity. Are Palestinians ready to throw in the towel too? And, if so, are we prepared to face the consequences?- Published 20/4/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
An Israeli achievement
by Amira Hass
The total separation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank is one of the greatest achievements of Israeli politics, whose overarching objective is to prevent a solution based on international decisions and understandings and instead dictate an arrangement based on Israel's military superiority. In view of the violent rivalry between the two main movements competing for the upper hand in the Palestinian mock-government, it's easy to forget the effort Israel invested in separating families, economies, cultures and societies between the two parts of the Palestinian state "in the making". All that remained was for the Palestinians, aided by geography, to crown the split with their dual regime.
The restrictions on Palestinian movement that Israel introduced in January 1991 reversed a process that had been initiated in June 1967. Back then, and for the first time since 1948, a large portion of the Palestinian people again lived in the open territory of a single country--to be sure, one that was occupied, but was nevertheless whole. True, there quickly emerged three categories of Palestinian residents: third class Israeli citizens, residents of Israel (in Jerusalem) and residents of the "administered territories". Yet the experience of renewing old family and social ties and creating new modes of social, cultural and economic companionships proved stronger than the administrative distinctions. The dynamism, creativity and optimism of the first intifada (1987-1992) owe much to the reality generated by this freedom of movement inside a single country.
Israel put a halt to this freedom of movement on the eve of the first Gulf war. Since January 1991, Israel has bureaucratically and logistically merely perfected the split and the separation: not only between Palestinians in the occupied territories and their brothers in Israel, but also between the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and those in the rest of the territories and between Gazans and West Bankers/Jerusalemites. Jews live in this same piece of land within a superior and separate system of privileges, laws, services, physical infrastructure and freedom of movement.
One day, when the archives are opened, we'll know just how calculated and planned this process was. Meanwhile, we cannot ignore the fact that it commenced at a time when the Cold War and South African apartheid were ending and the international community assessed that conditions were ripe for an Israeli-Palestinian two-state agreement based on the June 4, 1967 lines.
In parallel with the Oslo process, Israel took bureaucratic steps that rendered hollow the clause in the Oslo agreements according to which the Gaza Strip and West Bank are a single territorial unit. Gazans were forbidden to live, study and work in the West Bank without permission from Israel (which was rarely given, and only to favored applicants). Gazans were also forbidden to enter the West Bank via its border with Jordan. Friends and family live just 70 km. apart but Israel does not allow them to meet. Today, a Palestinian born in Gaza who lives in the West Bank without Israeli permission is considered an "illegal presence".
The devious unilateral Israeli disengagement of 2005 perpetuated a process that commenced in 1991: Gaza and the West Bank fall under different types of administration, with Israel cleverly presenting Gaza as an independent entity no longer under occupation. In the last Palestinian elections, Hamas proved more persuasive than Fateh when it attributed the Palestinian "victory" and the Israeli withdrawal to itself and its armed struggle and promised that "Jerusalem is next". There followed Hamas' takeover of the Gaza security forces in June 2007 and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' directive to tens of thousands of Palestinian Authority employees to boycott their places of work in the Strip.
In the recent Palestinian unity talks, the substantive questions have not been asked: Has the public in the West Bank and Gaza given up on the link between the two parts occupied in 1967 until the distant realization of the dream of one state? Will the Palestinian leaderships be taken to account by the people for the assistance they gave Israel in severing the two territories? Is the link to the Arab and Muslim worlds more vital for Hamas than the link with the West Bank? Are ceremonial international standing and the perks of senior officialdom more important to the PA and the PLO than the population of Gaza?
The answers must also come from the Israelis, and particularly those who claim to support peace. Prior to Hamas' election victory in 2006, the PA's center of rule was in Gaza. That didn't hinder Israel from perfecting the conditions of separation and severance that turned the Strip into the detention camp it is today while Israeli peaceniks in their multitudes sat on their hands. Even if a miracle happens in Cairo and the Palestinians unite, the government of Israel will not willingly forego its greatest achievement: severing Gaza from the West Bank. This achievement, which will only stoke the fires of a bloody conflict, is the disaster of both peoples.- Published 20/4/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Amira Hass is a correspondent for Haaretz. Since January 22 of this year she has been reporting from Gaza.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.