The status of Fateh-Hamas relations is currently closely intertwined with the course of the two Palestinian movements' interaction with Israel. In the months ahead, that triangular relationship could play itself out in a number of ways.
The first and most obvious scenario is the present course of events. Israel and Fateh/Ramallah have embarked on a two-track process that involves confidence- and institution-building along with an attempt to draw up a new declaration of principles for final status. They, along with the US and most of the Quartet, are boycotting Hamas/Gaza. The underlying concept of this approach holds that success in creating peace and prosperity in the West Bank, coupled with misery in Gaza, will somehow topple Hamas through grassroots pressure. Alternatively, it holds out the prospect that the Hamas leadership will passively accept Fateh's two-state deal with Israel and breathe a sigh of relief because this would allow Hamas to have its ideological cake--refusal to recognize Israel--and eat it too, with Fateh taking care of coexistence issues with Israel.
According to this approach, Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza last June, which by any standard signaled the abject failure of American, Israeli and Fateh policy, is now defined as a "window of opportunity" for those three actors to regroup and outflank Hamas at the peace table. The political dilemma shared by the three weak leaders--PM Ehud Olmert, President Mahmoud Abbas and President George W. Bush--is now being "spun" to create a virtual moment of strength.
This concept willfully ignores Hamas' capacity to torpedo the new process through violence. It downplays the real, extreme nature of the Hamas leadership. It makes light of Abbas' weakness as a leader. And it falls into the old fallacy first promoted by Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres that economic prosperity will win the hearts and minds of Palestinians who are otherwise committed to a more extreme agenda.
Alternative future scenarios for the Israel-Fateh-Hamas triangular relationship are not much more encouraging. But here and there they may be more realistic. One is for Israel to talk directly to Hamas. At the diplomatic level this is a non-starter because Hamas does not appear interested in discussing substantive issues with Israel, and in any case contact with it would further weaken the more moderate Fateh leadership. At the security level, however, these contacts make sense if the objective is a stable ceasefire and the inevitable prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit.
But we are also witnessing a worrisome armed buildup in Gaza under the tutelage of Iran and Hizballah. In Damascus, the Hamas leadership is fomenting new suicide bombings against Israel as well as attacks on Fateh, all aimed at derailing current peace efforts. Sooner or later these activities will lead to a major new outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hamas. Here it is tempting to contemplate an Israeli military success in eliminating the Hamas leadership and infrastructure. Yet we know from experience that both long-term occupation of the Strip and any attempt to install a more friendly (Fateh?) Palestinian regime in Gaza are potentially counter-productive enterprises that Israel should avoid like the plague.
An indirect approach to the Fateh-Hamas clash of forces in the Palestinian arena would be for Israel to more energetically seek a negotiating track with Syria. This would both maintain overall peace process momentum and present the possibility of weakening Hamas by persuading Syria to reduce its support for that organization. This would also mean inviting Syria to President Bush's peace meeting scheduled for November, thereby increasing the meeting's prospects for success. While the chances for a successful peace process with Syria are probably less than 50 percent, under current circumstances they are still higher than the likelihood of a successful Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Finally, we must bear in mind that our Arab neighbors, and particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are so disappointed with Fateh and anxious to mitigate extremist influences on Hamas that they are trying to promote renewed Fateh-Hamas dialogue and possibly shared government. If Abbas continues to fail in his leadership role and/or if, as is likely, the Washington meeting fails, this is where he will look. And this, in turn, could well constitute a prelude to a Hamas takeover of the West Bank.
Most Palestinians perceive the recent split between the West Bank and Gaza as a major setback to the strategic objective of establishing an independent Palestinian state in those areas as well as East Jerusalem.
Some Palestinians, however, particularly within the Hamas leadership, do not look at the split in quite the same way. The objective of an independent Palestinian state is not necessarily Hamas' main strategic aim. Islamists in Palestine are part of the regional political Islamic movement that aims not only at defeating foreign control but also achieving Islamic domination by defeating Arab secularists and nationalists.
Over the past three to five years, three factors have contributed to the shift in the balance of power that led first to Hamas' election victory and then to the military takeover in Gaza. First is the unilateral Israel strategy that, together with Israeli measures to consolidate the occupation, to a very large degree has marginalized the secular camp in Palestine. Second is the poor overall performance of the Palestinian Authority, particularly with regard to governance and internal security. Third is the influence of Islamic radicalization in the region generally, which itself results from, among other factors, the failure of the nationalist Arab regimes and the shortsighted and often selfish regional policies of the major powers, especially the United States.
Israel can by no means be divorced from the internal Palestinian frictions that ultimately led to internecine fighting and the split between the West Bank and Gaza. In fact, Israel actively encouraged this split more than a year before fighting erupted between Fateh and Hamas. By putting Gaza under a strict siege after evacuating its settlements there, Israel in effect separated the West Bank from Gaza in all respects, and not just geographically. Goods and people were unable to move between the two areas and even civil servants, including ministers, were barred from going from one part of occupied Palestinian territory to the other.
Most Palestinians believe that this is part of a well-studied Israeli strategy that is being systematically executed. This strategy aims at dismantling the Palestinian territories in order to prevent a two-state solution from ever emerging. By isolating Gaza, the overpopulated strip of land is de facto being linked to Egypt. By separating the populated Palestinian areas of the West Bank from each other as well as Israel with a wall, leaving less populated areas open for further settlement expansion, Israel is also rendering the possibility of a coherent Palestinian polity emerging there ever less likely. What remains of the West Bank once settlements and walls have eaten away at the territory will be encouraged to somehow merge with Jordan or in some other way accept to be administered by outside powers.
The recent fighting between Fateh and Hamas and the consequent political split between Gaza and the West Bank only aid and abet this Israeli strategy.
Publicly, Israel denies it is seeking such a split. Israeli officials also deny that they are pursuing a unilateral strategy. These public statements notwithstanding, it is clear from what is happening on the ground--the ever harsher isolation of Gaza; the complete separation of Gaza from the West Bank; the accelerating settlement project that includes an ever longer wall snaking its way in and around the West Bank; and the dramatically deteriorating conditions for Palestinians in the occupied territories and especially in Gaza--that the only thing that differentiates current Israeli government strategy vis-a-vis the Palestinians from Sharon's unilateral approach is that the Olmert government denies it is acting unilaterally while acting unilaterally.
Recent suggestions of a resumption of a political process are raising many questions among Palestinians. What attracts the attention is that the Palestinian and the Israeli sides are not preparing their respective publics for any possible political breakthrough. The results of the most recent Palestinian public opinion poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center should therefore act as an early warning sign to the Palestinian leadership if it is involved in some kind of political discussion with Israel. The gist of the poll in this regard is that while Palestinians are still committed to a two-state solution, they continue to insist that this solution be consistent with international legality. In other words, the Palestinian public is not willing to compromise on the 1967 borders, the right of return of Palestinian refugees or the right of Palestinians to occupied East Jerusalem.
On the other side, neither the Israeli public nor the Israeli political echelon is prepared for any political progress. This is partly because of political divisions among the coalition government partners and the resulting electoral atmosphere and partly, and more importantly, because it seems that one of the motives for Israeli willingness to engage Palestinians politically is an intention to exploit Palestinian divisions in order to extract significant concessions.
Unfortunately, the absence of serious and earnest international mediation only contributes to this sorry state of affairs.- Published 27/8/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Cutting the Gordian knot
by Anat Kurz
New-old winds are blowing in the Middle East. In early November a conference is supposed to take place under American auspices where an Israeli-Palestinian settlement will be discussed and, many hope, agreed. If indeed the conference produces such a breakthrough, those involved in advancing the Arab peace initiative see improved chances for realizing the regional vision it lays out in general terms.
In anticipation of the conference and in an effort to prevent it becoming yet another symbol of prolonged political paralysis, the various involved parties are busy laying the groundwork for a businesslike exchange of views. Naturally most of the activity is at the Israeli-Palestinian level, with renewed contacts focusing on ways in which Israel can strengthen the Palestinian Authority and joint thinking about the principles of an agreed settlement.
Conference preparations dovetail with the developments that have taken place in the Israeli-Palestinian arena since the schism between the two leading Palestinian movements, Fateh and Hamas, which was generated by Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip. The rift, with its geographic imprint, is seen by many as rendering Israeli-Palestinian dialogue over an agreement that much easier. The guidelines of the government formed in Ramallah after the coup in Gaza include an undertaking to end the conflict and omit any commitment to "resistance". Hence they ostensibly constitute a promising platform for pragmatic dialogue.
Yet, when Israel discusses with the PA security coordination, concessions on movement of the civilian population, release of prisoners or transfer of tax funds--with whom is it talking? These contacts take place between Israel and one Palestinian government, alongside which there functions a second, boycotted government. The legal significance of this complex political situation can be bypassed since in any case PA President Mahmoud Abbas holds the mandate for peace negotiations. But the complexity is not merely legal; it also reflects an ideological and institutional split that has emerged as--over the past seven years of confrontation with Israel and particularly the direct Palestinian-to-Palestinian confrontation--central rule in the territories has collapsed. One expression of this collapse is the PA's inability to make long-term decisions, not to mention implementation of policies for improving security that might deny Israel any excuse for continuing to suspend the peace process.
Despite the massive international backing it enjoys, the Fateh government does not have sufficient local legitimization to commit to a settlement based on the principle of two states for two peoples; it certainly can't guarantee implementation of such an agreement. In contrast, Hamas has a proven capacity to drag Israel into responding militarily to its terrorist attacks, thereby thwarting any attempt to advance toward security and implementation of agreements. Hamas will undoubtedly take this route if it is left out of the peace process that is currently taking shape. This will happen because Hamas continues to reject the demands made by Israel and the Quartet as conditions for dialogue.
Further, Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip and the failed attempt to maintain a Palestinian unity government brought the rivalry between Hamas and Fateh to new levels that defy resolution. Progress toward peace will only escalate the struggle, while failure of the planned process will further weaken the camp led by Fateh and further empower Hamas: the law of connected vessels works in the Palestinian arena like anywhere else.
From Israel's standpoint, the Fateh-Hamas rivalry complicates the already complex challenge of dealing with final status issues. Evidently, Hamas cannot be changed; its ideological platform is inflexible. Its popular support, which does not exceed that of Fateh, nevertheless enables it to challenge the traditional national leadership. Thus if this Israeli government really seeks a viable final status agreement it must alter the political-territorial arena in which the conflict takes place. This it can do by displaying a willingness to negotiate borders, refugees and Jerusalem on the basis of the Arab peace initiative.
In other words, Israel has to make the Palestinian public an offer it can't refuse in order to bypass Hamas on the road to making and implementing a deal. The thaw in Israel's relations with the Arab states as a consequence of such a deal will help reduce both the security risks it takes upon itself and the price it pays in terms of concessions without which a deal is impossible.
Is the government of Israel ready to follow this path? Can it make far-reaching concessions in view of the public criticism it can anticipate? The alternative is to wait for a Fateh-Hamas agreement that comprises acceptance of a compromise deal with Israel. That would mean remaining tied to the Israel-Fateh-Hamas Gordian knot.- Published 27/8/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Anat Kurz is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Fateh-Hamas conflict serves Israel's strategy
by Khader Khader
Ever since Hamas emerged as a resistance force against the Israeli occupation in the occupied Palestinian territories during the first intifada, Israel has worked relentlessly to deepen the rift between Hamas as an emerging power and Fateh, traditionally considered the backbone of the national struggle.
Palestinians well remember how, at the beginning of the first intifada, Israeli security forces closed their eyes to Hamas members distributing propaganda on behalf of their group. Israel clearly thought that allowing Hamas space to work would undermine the status of the PLO as the political umbrella of all Palestinians and would threaten the political program of the PLO adopted in 1988 in Algiers regarding a Palestinian state.
Some now say that the Israeli efforts against the PLO then failed. Others argue that it was the solid position of the unified national command of that intifada--consisting of all the factions and independent national figures--as well as the emergence of Hamas as a force on the Palestinian scene that caused the Fateh-led PLO leadership to feel threatened, thus leading to the Oslo accords that refocused attention on the role of the PLO and its leadership.
Regardless, Israel used the Oslo accords and the "peace process" to divide Palestinians between those skeptical, those optimistic and those directly benefiting without having any intention of achieving actual progress. On the contrary, Israel worked very hard to undermine the credibility of the PA by making promises and not keeping them.
The moment of truth came at Camp David in 2000 when Israel proved that it would never recognize Palestinian national rights. Israel realized then that Yasser Arafat would not deliver what it and the United States wanted and could be very harmful to the Israeli scheme of keeping the Palestinians divided without any clear strategy or goal. On the Palestinian side, the failure of Camp David led to deeper frustration and despair and caused the outbreak of the second intifada.
With the removal of Arafat from the political scene and the election of Mahmoud Abbas, Israel became hopeful again that Palestinians would remain split. President Abbas rejects the armed nature of the intifada and is known for his adamant support for popular and peaceful resistance and political negotiations to achieve Palestinian national rights.
Since Hamas subsequently won parliamentary elections, Israel and the international community ensured that the Islamist group would never stand a chance of actually running the affairs of the Palestinian people. At the same time, Israel has reverted to its old technique of making promises to Fateh that it does not keep.
Thus, Israel is killing three birds with one stone. It is weakening Fateh and Abu Mazen by undermining their credibility in making promises it has no intention of keeping. The continued incursions and assassinations of militants in the West Bank after the agreement on wanted men was signed and the refusal to remove a single checkpoint in spite of promising to ease travel restrictions in the West Bank are prominent examples. It is weakening Hamas by attacking the group in the Gaza Strip through near-daily military raids and is doing so without any protest from the international community. And finally, having divided the West Bank and Gaza, it is arguing that there is no leader strong enough to take control should Israel leave occupied Palestinian territory.
Meanwhile, Israel is working hard to preempt any chance of Fateh-Hamas reconciliation. After a recent visit of the Japanese foreign minister, Abbas made a statement that many interpreted as a softening of his stance against talks with Hamas, calling on the group to return to "national unity". Hamas immediately responded by welcoming the statement and inviting Abbas to Gaza for talks. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, however, issued a warning that any Fateh-Hamas reconciliation would end the "diplomatic process" he and Abbas are currently engaged in and noting that Abbas was "well aware" of this.
Israel claims it wants to strengthen Abbas against what it calls the anti-peace forces of Hamas. But, as several observers have pointed out, if Israel really wants to strengthen Abbas the way is clear. It can announce that it intends to end the occupation; it can freeze settlement expansions and stop building the wall in the West Bank. If Israel should take such steps, Abbas would, in the words of former Minister of Information Mustapha Barghouti, be the "hero of all Palestinians".
But Israel appears to have other designs. It wants a Palestinian Authority with authority only to control its people rather than any land and that will act as Israel's policeman. Indeed, this is what Israel wanted from the Oslo accords in the first place.
The international meeting called for by US President George W. Bush on the Middle East in the autumn and the Israeli decision to attend are only the latest installment of this soap opera. In the best-case scenario, Abbas will get yet another "concrete" promise of a Palestinian state, but with no borders and no control. Hamas will criticize him for attending and Palestinian divisions will continue. For its part, Israel can sit back and relax, secure in the knowledge that, just as before, it can continue making empty promises, but this time with no blowback since Palestinians are divided against themselves.- Published 27/8/2007 © bitterlemons.org
Khader Khader is a media analyst with the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.
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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.