January 29, 2009

Israel-Palestinians: The "no solution" solution

Security barrier between Israel and West Bank at Israel's narrowest point

On my recent trip to Israel to assess the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, I had the opportunity to talk to numerous Israelis and Palestinians about the situation in Gaza and the West Bank. I was hoping to hear insights on restarting the moribund peace process, particularly the Israel-Palestinian track.

Most of what I heard was that for now at least, the two state solution is not an option. The new American envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, will face two sides agreeable only to a short-term ceasefire, but not agreeable to any long term solution. The major problem is that the Palestinians are divided - no one speaks for all the Palestinians. As the Israelis say, "We will send our proposals to the Palestinian side, but we need an address." An "address" that includes Hamas is unacceptable to the Israelis.

The Israelis make a good point. The Palestinians have divided into many camps, the major ones of course being Hamas and Fatah under Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazin (Mahmud 'Abbas). Hamas claims that Abu Mazin's term expired earlier this month - he claims he remains as president until new elections are held. In the ceasefire talks in Cairo earlier this month, Hamas made it clear that Abu Mazin does not speak for them.

One should not make the mistake of assuming that Hamas's influence is limited to the Gaza Strip - they are also very popular in the cities and towns of the West Bank. Many West Bank Palestinians, mostly secular in their political outlook, find themselves supporting Hamas not because they believe in the fundamentalist Islam of the group, but because they are disgusted with Fatah, the party of the late Yasir 'Arafat and current president Abu Mazin. The group is considered to be terribly corrupt. Fatah was supported by billions of dollars from the west, so 'Arafat built a casino in Ramallah.

At the same time, Hamas, supported by millions of dollars from Iran, established charities, hospitals, orphanages and schools. In the 2006 elections in which Hamas won a majority, many Christian Palestinians voted for the Islamic Hamas to voice their opposition to Fatah.

Given Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist, their insistence that the ceasefire is not the prelude to a long-term peaceful resolution, their boast that they have already resumed importing weapons into the Gaza Strip and their claim that they have the "right to resist," it would appear that there is no reason for Israel to talk to them either directly or indirectly. A Hamas that will never agree to the existence of the state of Israel is hardly capable of being part of a permanent solution.

On the other side of the Palestinian divide is Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian people do not trust them, and there is no viable alternative. So it's Hamas or Fatah. Hamas and Israel cannot make peace, and the Palestinians have rejected Fatah.

So for now, the Israeli position is that there is no solution, no "peace process." There may not even be a solution in the long term. The best they can do is manage the conflict. Truces (or "lulls" in Arabic) between the Palestinians as long as possible, military action when required.

I do not envy Mr. Mitchell his task.