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    October 26, 2009 Edition 39                      Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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Palestinian unity: ramifications for Israeli-Palestinian relations
. Palestinian unity is against Israeli interestss        by Ghassan Khatib
Palestinian unity on the basis of international legality would put the Israeli government in a corner and unmask Israel's real position.
  . Time to deal separately with Gaza        by Yossi Alpher
We all have to begin reevaluating our failed strategies for Gaza.
. Palestinian reconciliation and the peace process        by Walid Salem
Any unity government that includes both Fateh and Hamas would be boycotted by Israel.
  . Only lack of unity will produce two states        by Ron Pundak
If Abu Mazen signs a peace agreement with Israel, Hamas would have to adapt.

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Palestinian unity is against Israeli interests
by Ghassan Khatib

Domestic Palestinian politics has always been affected, sometimes positively but mostly negatively, by external factors. Israel is the most notable of the factors but inter-Arab and regional politics play a part. The internal crisis that has led to the severe division in the Palestinian polity that we witness today is not an exception to this rule.

The unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, together with the failure of the political process and the intensification of settlement activity in the West Bank, dramatically affected the balance of power against the peace camp in Palestine. The peace camp had gambled on a bilateral peace process, the absence of which played into the hands of Hamas and contributed to the Islamist movement's victory in parliamentary elections in 2006.

In parallel, the regional polarization between an American-supported axis of Arab regimes on the one hand and Iranian-supported governments and non-state actors, including Hamas, on the other, helped consolidate the internal Palestinian split.

Intensive Egyptian efforts to reconcile the rival Palestinian factions, Fateh and Hamas, have so far been outweighed by these negative factors. These now also include the attitude and behavior of the right-wing Israeli government and the recent change in the position of the American administration vis-a-vis a settlement construction freeze in occupied territory and the agenda for negotiations. All the time, Arab competition for influence over the various Palestinian groups has undermined Egypt's efforts.

Another obvious and prominent example of the relation between domestic Palestinian politics and external factors was the Goldstone report controversy. American-Israeli pressure influenced the behavior of the Palestinian leadership and led to a deferral of a vote in the UN on the report. This invited vicious attacks by domestic and regional opposition and was used publicly by Hamas as an excuse to avoid signing the final Egyptian reconciliation draft. It also reflected negatively on the balance of power within Palestinian public opinion against the Palestinian Authority and enabled Hamas to escape its obligations under its dialogue with Fateh.

As much as internal Palestinian political fragmentation is an outcome of Israeli positions and behaviors, it also serves Israeli interests. By that token, any possible success in reconciliation efforts, e.g., the resumption of a unity government, goes against Israeli interests.

Israel doesn't want Palestinian unity, because that would shift the political balance of power more in favor of the Palestinians. Maintaining a divided Palestinian arena also enables the right-wing Israeli government to escape its obligations under previous agreements such as the roadmap. Furthermore, Israel has successfully blamed Palestinian divisions for the failure of the peace process.

Palestinian unity on the basis of international legality would put the Israeli government in a corner and unmask Israel's real position, which is inconsistent with international legality and the international terms of reference for a peace process.

The Palestinian people need the constructive role of the international community and the influential powers in order to help restore unity, including by influencing Israeli behavior and positions. At the and of the day, peace and stability will require progress in the peace process that is dependant, among other factors, on the restoration of Palestinian unity.- Published 26/10/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Time to deal separately with Gaza
by Yossi Alpher

A Hamas-Fateh unity agreement is bad for the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, at least in the near term. If the current unity efforts are crowned with success, PLO negotiators with Israel, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, will have to show deference to Hamas sensitivities and toughen their stand on issues like the right of return. Assuming new Palestinian elections are the first order of business of a unity agreement, Fateh and Hamas will compete in displaying a hard line and peace negotiations will have to be postponed.

So obvious does this seem that one wonders what motivates Fateh to agree to talk unity while at the same time demanding final status talks. Why does Egypt, which is presumably dedicated to successful Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, continue all these years and months to shepherd endlessly abortive Palestinian unity talks? Why are appeals made to Syria to pressure Hamas to modify its unity demands when the only way to seriously influence Syrian positions is through a Syrian-Israeli peace process, about which the moderate Arab states are not enthusiastic? Why did the Obama administration seemingly wake up only last month to the detrimental effects of a unity agreement for the peace process and petition Cairo to desist?

I can conceive of two possible answers. One is that it's all a sham and everyone is just going through the motions in the name of political correctness, with Cairo finding in abortive unity talks a convenient and harmless way to keep tabs on Hamas and leverage its failing regional leadership aspirations. The other is that the alternative to Palestinian unity--Palestinian disunity, i.e., the ongoing Gaza/West Bank, Hamas/Fateh geopolitical split--is simply so awful to imagine that unity efforts will continue no matter what the cost.

Under present circumstances, a successful Palestinian-Israeli peace process means an agreement with the West Bank alone, even though both Israel and the PLO would declare their intention that it eventually apply to the Gaza Strip as well. Eventually--because there currently is no prospect that Gaza will be pried loose of the Hamas grip. But an agreement with the West Bank alone is better--for Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab states and the world--than none.

And yet, argue the unity-at-all-costs advocates, a state in the West Bank alone won't be "viable". As if the Palestinian West Bankers with their superb human resources and dedicated diaspora can't create a state at least as viable as any other non-oil state in the Arab world. As if the addition of the overpopulated and impoverished Gaza Strip makes a state more viable. As if the emergence of a state in the West Bank won't provide the greatest incentive possible for Hamas to moderate its ideology and join.

Rather, the real dilemma embodied in any effort to confront the possibility of a successful peace process without Gaza is the question, what to do with Gaza on its own. Certainly neither Egypt nor Israel, Gaza's two neighbors, wishes to confront that question. Moderate Palestinians obviously shy away from contemplating the consequences of moving forward on the West Bank without Gaza: this would shatter their narrative of a two-state solution based on a Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Yet, if there is to be any viability to the notion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process mediated by the United States, it's time for all parties concerned to recognize that, for the time being at least, Gaza is a separate entity. We all have to begin reevaluating our failed strategies for Gaza. We need to look for new strategies that don't interfere with the process but are not, of necessity, a part of that process.- Published 26/10/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Palestinian reconciliation and the peace process

by Walid Salem

With the current paralysis in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process--which is due to the Israeli government's refusal to abide by its obligations under previously signed agreements, notably the roadmap--it might at first glance seem strange to ask what are the ramifications of Palestinian unity for Palestinian-Israeli relations.

But this is an Israeli government that tries to cover its anti-peace position by claiming that the Palestinian leadership under President Mahmoud Abbas has little domestic legitimacy because of the Palestinian division. Thus, Israeli government officials argue, this leadership cannot guarantee, and will not be able to implement, any agreement if achieved with Israel, and will be unable to deliver security for both Israelis and Palestinians.

With this justification not to move forward, the Palestinian division might look like a bad thing for a successful peace process. But is that so?

A better answer may be found if we reverse the question: what would the Israeli position be in case of Palestinian unity. The answer is readily available: any unity government that includes both Fateh and Hamas would be boycotted by Israel, as happened with the previous unity government in 2006. The ramifications of such unity and resulting boycott would thus be almost zero. There is no peace process for Palestinian unity to affect.

Yet, one may still ask: should Palestinians attempt to reconcile along the lines of the agreement in 2006 that would bring back the international boycott of such a government?

It is clear that this is the calculation informing Abbas, who does not want to see the establishment of a Palestinian government that is boycotted by the international community. The reason Fateh signed the Egyptian reconciliation agreement is that it allowed Fateh and Hamas to continue to disagree politically while setting a date for elections. In other words, Fateh and Hamas would agree to disagree and resolve to let the Palestinian people have their say on the political issues dividing the factions.

Between a reconciliation agreement that brings back an international boycott and no reconciliation, which will not be accepted by the Palestinian, Arab, and Islamic publics, Abbas selected a third path. The Egyptian proposal appears to accept this position, since it will not put Abbas in confrontation with the international community, nor will it create more complications in the already very complex relationship with the current Israeli government.

Hamas, however, has not yet approved the Egyptian proposal. Anticipating this, Abbas has called for elections on January 24, based on full proportional representation and including Gazans living in the West Bank. What will be the ramifications of this on the peace process?

If the current Israeli government continues to refuse to live up to its responsibilities under previous agreements, then it will be apathetic toward this development and will do nothing to sustain Abbas with achievements toward ending the occupation that could lead to an increase in his popularity among Palestinians. Therefore one can foresee that Abbas' Fateh party will win such elections only because Hamas boycotts them as illegitimate. At the same time, Abbas will lose a majority of public support because he cannot show progress toward ending the occupation. There will be an elected government, but without real and crucial public support.

It might be concluded therefore that the reconciliation process is not the deciding factor for the success of the peace process. Rather, the opposite is true: a successful peace process is a deciding factor for achieving Palestinian reconciliation that strengthens those who believe in peace with Israel.

In 2006, the international community considered Palestinian division more favorable for the peace process than Palestinian reconciliation. But that was before the election of the current Israeli government, which does not want to progress on the peace process based on previous agreements. Therefore, the task today is one of pressuring for the creation of a successful peace process by, among other things, pushing Israel to cease its settlement construction in occupied territory. This, in turn, will create the basis for Palestinian reconciliation that is not against peace with Israel.- Published 26/10/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Walid Salem is director of the Center for Democracy and Community Development and a member of the PLO's Palestinian National Council.

Only lack of unity will produce two states

by Ron Pundak

The Egyptian-mediated internal Palestinian dialogue between Hamas and Fateh involves a variety of issues, including security and elections, all of which affect the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

The unity document currently being discussed is primarily a symbolic presentation of the topics for deliberation between the two. The actual reconciliation conditions are to be discussed after the document is signed, at which point the chances of reaching agreement would be very low. In the short term, the main winner would then be Hamas, which would gain legitimacy. Lately, though, it is PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) who has been pushing to sign in view of the decline in his standing following a series of gaffs, including his pointless meeting with PM Binyamin Netanyahu and his handling of the Goldstone report.

Still, the real test is in the long term. Supporters of reconciliation argue justifiably that if the desire for West Bank-Gazan unity exists then the current bipolar reality cannot continue. They add that without Palestinian unity, Abu Mazen does not enjoy the substantive, legal and moral authority to make decisions about an agreement with Israel. They also point to the absence of genuine parliamentary activity in view of the de facto split between two parliaments, neither of which actually functions. Then too, the Fateh leadership is in real danger in Gaza, as is the Hamas leadership in the West Bank.

Yet a broader assessment appears to indicate that an agreement reached in accordance with the current known parameters and implemented to the letter would serve first and foremost the interests of Hamas. It would mean the immediate isolation of the Palestinian Authority, a potential Hamas takeover of the West Bank and a mortal blow to the possibility of an historic Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. Accordingly, there must be a different way to achieve Palestinian unity.

In order to appreciate the strategic picture, we must recall that Hamas sees itself as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood that seeks to impose Islam on all of Palestine. The ideology of Hamas is Islam, hence Palestine for Hamas is primarily a religious issue. This explains its conclusion that Israel is not only a national but a religious enemy and that the success of Islam in Palestine must involve the disappearance of Israeli-Jewish sovereignty. Thus if Hamas is part of the Palestinian polity, a final-status agreement with Israel is impossible.

Fateh, on the other hand, is a secular national movement, whose active ideology is to bring about an end of occupation and the establishment of an independent state by negotiating peace with Israel. Hamas also threatens Fateh and the secular national Palestinian camp beyond the Israeli context. If Hamas states in principle that Islam is all encompassing and there can be no liberation except by means of Islam, this leaves no room for a secular national movement and the current PLO leadership.

There is no ideology that can bridge the two approaches to the long-term goal, and Hamas believes that the religious bloc will ultimately swallow the national bloc. This explains why Hamas demands that a unity agreement give it a 40 percent share of the PLO. Its representatives then become a Trojan horse that facilitates a takeover of the PLO without the need to establish a competing organization. Here it is worth recalling that it is the PLO that represents Palestinians in negotiations with Israel.

The alternative way, regardless of the possibility of a symbolic signing in Cairo, is to leave the status quo in place while taking a number of steps: opening the Gaza passages as a consequence of a dialogue between Abu Mazen and Israel; continuing to isolate Hamas at the international level; strengthening the PA in the West Bank by releasing of prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti; preparations for elections, even if held only in the West Bank; maintaining the positive momentum of the Salam Fayyad policies regarding security, economy, infrastructure and constitutional issues; removing checkpoints and additional Israeli gestures in the West Bank; and last but not least, accelerating the peace process with close international backing and supervision based on the Olmert-Abu Mazen parameters.

This course of action would of course be condemned by Hamas. Yet an examination of Hamas' ideology and behavior over the past two decades points to the likelihood that if Israel and the PLO reach agreement, Hamas would have no alternative but to accept it as a fait accompli. For Hamas, adjusting to reality reflects an ideology of flexibility and maneuverability that will eventually lead to the Islamic objective. This is what happened in the late 1980s when Hamas, unlike Islamic Jihad, did not invoke violence against Israel because the long-term goal permits postponement of confrontation. This also explains why Hamas has agreed (as a first step) to a state within the 1967 borders: in view of the popularity of the PLO's 1988 declaration of independence, Hamas once again adapted to a foreign idea and bent to the will of the majority. In principle Hamas would prefer, for lack of an alternative, to coexist with an Israeli-Palestinian deal and oppose it from within than to end up with "fitna"--civil war.

Right now Hamas senses that time is working in its favor and that an agreement with Fateh will help it carry out a hostile takeover of the West Bank, as it did in Gaza two years ago. On the other hand, if Abu Mazen signs a peace agreement with Israel and the public broadly supports it, Hamas would have no alternative but to adapt to a new reality. Hamas listens to the public; even terrorist attacks that may seem uncoordinated are linked to public opinion, and Hamas feels at times obliged to reduce the violence. Accordingly, the relatively moderate current in Hamas could accept, even if ostensibly temporarily, the reality of an agreement that creates a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and ultimately contains a realistically-sized Hamas (8-15 percent) within a Palestinian state living in peace and security next to Israel.- Published 26/10/2009 © bitterlemons.org

Dr. Ron Pundak is director general of the Peres Center for Peace and is joint chair of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum. He was one of the architects and negotiators of the Oslo Agreement.

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Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons.org and yossi@bitterlemons.org, respectively.

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.