Palestinian Peace Crucial to Two State Solution

Ceasefire, Unity, or Civil War?
By CALME Luminary Amjad Atallah

This piece was adapted from Brit Tzedek’s November 5th Town Hall conference call with Mr. Atallah.

The welcome recent news of a cease-fire may herald a potential shift in US policy or it may simply reflect the weakness of the Israeli and Palestinian administrations, having found that neither could gain advantage over the other militarily.  The deployment of the Jordanian Badr brigades to the Gaza Strip is a major development that may herald greater Jordanian influence over Palestinian politics.  Regardless of whether the current developments are shifts in tactics or strategy, it behooves peace activists to work hard to take advantage of them, and transform the current cease-fire into a negotiated end of conflict peace.

Palestinian domestic politics are responding right now to three overwhelming external parameters, each of which dictates Hamas’ and Fatah’s responses to each other. The first factor is the occupation — the complete and total domination over every aspect of Palestinian life by Israel. This is as true in Gaza as it is in the West Bank, the 2005 pullback notwithstanding. Israel still controls Gaza’s borders, coast and airspace — and thus, is still the occupying power.

Israel controls Palestinian finances, the water supply in the territories, the supply of electricity, freedom of movement within towns, to and from villages, in and out of the territories. No matter what, as a Palestinian, when you look up you see Israel.

The second external parameter to Fatah-Hamas relations is Israel’s paradigm shift away from negotiations. When Sharon was elected, his government launched a concerted effort to change the playing field, to make a negotiated permanent status agreement impossible. Olmert has continued that policy, and this has thrown Palestinian politics into disarray, because Palestinian politics have been based primarily on a presumption of negotiations.

The third factor — overlooked by Palestinians at their peril — was a similar shift in the United States, away from the notion of a negotiated solution, to an approach that relies on domination — victory, over peace. Those of us involved in the peace process have always worked under the assumption that peace had to be a negotiated compromise. Current US government policy, on the other hand, is one of absolute victory, the idea that the political players with which the United States does not agree must be defeated, unambiguously.

The response of Fatah to these three external factors has been very different to that of Hamas. When the PLO was first contracted to administer the occupation during the Oslo years, Fatah’s response was to ignore both the occupation, and good governance. The assumption was that Fatah had won, the PLO had succeeded in coming back to Palestine, and that in itself was a victory. Questions of good governance weren’t treated seriously. It was also very hard to get the Fatah leaders to focus on the occupation itself. Their position boiled down to: We’ll remove any excuse Israel may have for non-negotiation. We’ll support, unilaterally, non-violence; we’ll support, unilaterally, recognition of Israel (because Israel has never recognized Palestine’s right to exist); we’ll recognize US regional interests; we’ll recognize our part in the American security apparatus. And then the West will work with us to nudge Israel back to negotiations.

Hamas, of course, took it in a different direction. Hamas said we’re going to concentrate on the occupation and good governance, because that’s the best way to have advantage over Fatah. When Sharon came to power, Hamas basically had an ally, because the Hamas leadership accepted the paradigm that Sharon (and later Olmert) put forward: no negotiations. Hamas, too, didn’t want the hard choices and the hard compromises a final status agreement would demand, and accepted that an Israeli unilateral withdrawal would be the best way forward. Hamas assumed it would be able to cut a quick quid pro quo, especially after Sharon was out of the picture, for a long term ceasefire, or hudna, in which Israel and Hamas could continue to hate each other, but would coordinate with each other, and stay out of each other’s hair for a long time. The assumption was that the West would follow Israel’s lead — that whatever Israel asks America to do, it does.

In these responses I think both Fatah and Hamas ignored, or missed, the paradigm shift in US policy. US policy is the same now in Palestine as it was in Nicaragua in the 1980’s: We support paramilitary attacks on forces that we oppose and if necessary, we’ll plunge the population into poverty, to force them to go along with those we want in power.

To my mind, neither Fatah nor Hamas has articulated a reasonable response to the US paradigm shift. It’s become obvious that the United States is the dominant player, more so even than Israel. The myth in the Arab world is that Israel controls America, but now, we see the pressure the Administration put on Israel to go to war in Lebanon, the pressure they put on Israel to continue the war, the pressure they applied not to negotiate with Syria, or with Hamas, we can see that Israel is the second fiddle.

So both Fatah and Hamas are in desperate need of a Plan B capable of responding to US policy realities — but so is anyone involved in peace activism in the US. Even though the Democrats took back Congress, that doesn’t mean there’s going to be a change in policy. We need to develop a plan for responding to the policies the United States is implementing in the region right now. Unless we create a new American narrative regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Democrats will over-emphasize their zeal for defending Israel, as a means for preparing for the Presidential election.

It’s very important that a center-Israeli perspective regain dominance in the US, so that when Democratic candidates are preparing for the 2008 elections, they hear far more from American supporters of Israel telling them that perpetual war is not in Israel’s best interests. On the contrary, Israel’s best interests will be met by normalizing relations with all their Arab neighbors. Israel’s supporters have to make clear that this will only happen if the US is heavily engaged in creating such an outcome. We still have a chance to make this change, because we still have a majority in Israel and Palestine who support a negotiated, two-state solution. Three years from now, though, we may not have that majority anymore. So we have to start acting now, to change the terms of the debate.

The negotiations that Palestinian President (and PLO/Fatah Chairman) Mahmoud Abbas has conducted with Hamas have been predicated on a notion of a division of labor in any unity government they form: Hamas would compromise enough to sit in the government, but not so much that it would have to give up its position, while Fatah would govern that area to which it has been so committed, negotiations. I think Abbas’ ideas was that in this process, Hamas would be sidelined and Fatah would regain its dominance without having to go through an electoral cycle, and the peace process would be brought back on track.

The biggest problem with the unity government concept is that it relies on the idea that the US and Israel are interested in a return to permanent status negotiations. Under the paradigm shift I discussed earlier, however, it seems clear that neither is interested in any such thing. If there are no negotiations, then the only function of a unity government is to funnel money through Fatah back onto the street — and that may be a good enough reason to maintain such a government. But Hamas remains the dominant party.
It’s important to note that when Hamas says “hudna,” it means exactly what Olmert means when he says “unilateral separation.” Israel doesn’t want a permanent status agreement, Israel would rather force the Palestinians into an arrangement that is neither independence nor occupation. Hamas was willing to buy into that, thinking it was better to take over as much of the territories as they could, claiming it as a victory for their own might. But their leadership realized that this could lead to a permanent status agreement. So their official position has been, both publicly and privately, that they don’t believe Israel will ever agree to a permanent status agreement — but, if Israel proves them wrong, they’ll demand the agreement go to a public referendum. If the public accepts an agreement, they’ll implement it. In short, Hamas is trying to keep its ideological purity while also accepting the reality of a two-state solution.

I think that many Hamas members are actually in shock right now, because they thought they had found a strategy that suited both the US and Israel. This is what Sharon and Olmert talked about for three years. Hamas thought they had an solution that would allow them to be the dominant force in the Palestinian polity, but would also allow them to work with the Israelis in a coordinated way. And this may be hard for an Israeli audience to understand, but I think Hamas was actually shocked when, after the election, the US pushed Israel into outright rejection of their government.

Palestinians are now closer to an outright civil war over these issues than ever before, but what has happened under such circumstances in the past is that one of the parties turns the fight against Israel, ending the internal conflict. I suspect this will happen again.

Right now, it appears there’s some cooperation between Israel and Fatah. The current Israeli military operation in Gaza is designed to weaken Hamas to the point that the Presidential guard, supported by the US, will be able to assume control through undemocratic means — a coup, effectively. Hamas would resist that; the question is how? Will they fight Fatah street to street? I don’t think so. I think they’ll resist by fighting Israel, and if Fatah comes after them, to take the fight to Israel.

As I understand it, there has been a debate within Hamas regarding the tactics of their struggle in the past, and whether their future struggle needs to make use of the same tactics. They appear to be looking to Hezbollah as an example of guerilla efficacy — but the question is, can Hamas replicate it? Hezbollah shares a friendly border with Syria, whereas Hamas has no friendly border with anyone; Hezbollah has received some of the best paramilitary training in the Mideast, from Iran, whereas Hamas is literally on its own. So whether they can replicate what Hezbollah did is a big question even within Hamas. If they can’t compete on that level, will they resort to terrorism? We would all hope and pray they don’t resort to suicide bombings — in addition to such attacks being immoral and illegal, suicide bombings are a real threat to Palestinian national security interests. I do think that it would be wise for those in Israel, or right-wing American Jewish politics, who are excited at the prospect of a Palestinian civil war, to recall that almost inevitably, the result of a Palestinian civil war will be a third intifada.

Palestinian-American Amjad Atallah is founder and President of Strategic Assessments Initiative (SAI), a non-profit organization committed to providing legal and policy assistance to parties involved in negotiations in conflict and post-conflict situations. Prior to founding SAI, he advised the Palestinian negotiating team, and later Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas’ office, in peace negotiations with Israel on the issues of international borders, security, and constitutional issues. Mr. Atallah travels regularly between Washington and the Middle East.

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