December 2, 2008
How can Obama promote Middle East peace talks in the midst of a Palestinian civil war?
Dear Friend of FLAME:
It's no wonder that political pundits---and even we here at FLAME---are wont to speculate (and worry) about how President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will handle the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
As we've noted in recent issues of the Hotline, the Obama/Clinton administration will surely mark a new chapter in U.S.-Israeli relations: They will bring new hope for and renewed commitment to a peace process; they will be guided by moderate pragmatism rather than neo-conservative ideology; and they will be less patient with Israel's continued expansion of settlements on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem.
While most Israelis support the right kind of peace, they don't especially welcome the types of changes Obama's likely to bring. On the other hand, the Bush administration did virtually nothing to further any kind of peace and arguably, through benign neglect, gave the Middle East peace process a bad name internationally.
But Obama's and Clinton's peace inclinations will have to be tempered by hard reality. First, the U.S. has other big fish on the grill, Iraq and Afghanistan foremost among them. In addition, according to a recent poll*, almost two-thirds of Americans reported they were very concerned about the nuclear aspirations of Iran, while only 19 percent of Americans believe that "making peace between Israel and the Palestinians" should be among Obama's top foreign policy priorities. (Only six percent of respondents believe that the U.S. should favor the Palestinians in Middle East peace talks, while 66% think the U.S. should support Israel.)
But, as has often been the case over the decades, the greatest enemy of a Middle East peace today is the Palestinians themselves. One could perhaps remotely imagine some Palestinian factions deciding to act in their best interests with regard to Israel, even despite their intractable anti-Semitism and their bitterness at having lost what they still believe is their homeland. But it's even harder to conceive of Mahmoud Abbas's corrupt, "moderate" Fatah party in the West Bank reconciling with the hard-line Islamic Hamas militants who control Gaza.
While Fatah makes noises about wanting peace, they seem to want it like their forefather Yasser Arafat wanted it: Not so much. Abbas and company have made no indication, for example, that they're willing to forego "repatriation" of hundreds of thousands of relatives of Palestinian refugees who fled or were driven from present-day Israel during the Arab attacks in 1948. Abbas himself will be turned out of his democratically elected office in early 2009, and it's unlikely the Palestinians will be able to mount new elections. So even if the Fatah faction were willing to make the necessary concessions for a peace with Israel, there will be no elected head of the Palestinians available to legitimately represent them. For Hamas, on the other hand, there's no question: Israel cannot be allowed to exist, and the Jews must be driven to the sea. Hamas supports a single-Islamic-state solution.
Thus one can only wish Obama and Clinton good luck with regard to the Palestinians. The article below, by Jonathan Schanzer, will give you excellent background on the struggle between the two Palestinian factions. Schanzer, a former terrorism analyst for the U.S. Treasury Department and now director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center, lays out the reasons we can't expect fruitful peace deliberations any time soon.
Be aware, however, that it's possible the Americans, unable to gain any traction with the Palestinians, will try to pressure Israel to make showpiece concessions, if for no other reason than to show (for PR purposes) that they're at least trying to create conditions for peace. We must obviously resist any such futile and cynical overtures. With no legitimate Palestinian peace partners, such gestures would only compromise Israel's bargaining position with nothing to be gained.
review Schanzer's short piece. It will help you forcefully explain the
situation to your family, friends, colleagues . . . and Congressional
civil war casts shadow over peace talks
WASHINGTON -- President-elect Barack Obama's refrain of "change" has become a source of inspiration to many American Jews who wish to see Palestinian-Israeli peace talks assume greater importance as compared to the last eight years under President Bush. They have been further buoyed by the fact that Dennis Ross, the former Clinton administration Middle East negotiator and now Obama adviser, recently launched a media offensive to lay the groundwork for regional diplomacy.
While peace is in everyone's interest, American Jewry should be warned that it will be more difficult to achieve than ever. As if things weren't complicated enough, new challenges stem from the lack of a Palestinian interlocutor. Indeed, Hamas and Fatah—the two largest Palestinian factions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—are now engaged in a bitter civil war. As long as Hamas and Fatah remain two non-governments ruling two non-states, Middle East diplomacy simply cannot succeed.
As I note in my new book, "Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle For Palestine," the Hamas-Fatah conflict dates back to the outbreak of the first intifada of 1987. Amid the violence Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, challenged Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction with competing leaflets and guidance on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza.
By 1993, the political rivalry gave way to sharp disagreements and occasional violence over Fatah's engagement in peace talks with Israel. During the subsequent Oslo years, prompted and armed by Washington and Jerusalem, Fatah cracked down on the suicide-bombing Hamas organization. Quietly, a Palestinian civil war was brewing.
After the peace process collapsed in 2000, Arafat launched the ill-fated second intifada in which both Hamas and Fatah temporarily joined forces against Israel. While Israel responded with force against both factions, its strikes against Arafat's power structure—the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority—led to the effective dissolution of the quasi-government created by the Oslo process. The territories became lawless. Clans, families and tribes assumed the role of government.
When Arafat died in November 2004, Mahmoud Abbas succeeded him. While Abbas had long been Arafat's deputy, he lacked Arafat's charisma. He, too, failed to gain control of the territories.
Chaos and confusion worsened after the Palestinians held elections in January 2006. The Palestinians overwhelmingly supported Hamas, respected for its steadfast resistance to Israel and appreciated by the majority of Palestinians for the suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. The outcome surprised decision-makers in Washington and Jerusalem, who in turn backed Fatah's efforts to block Hamas from assuming control of the territories.
After more than a year of sporadic firefights and spiteful public exchanges, Hamas launched a military offensive in June 2007 that crushed Fatah's political and military positions throughout the Gaza Strip. Human rights groups reported that Palestinians were pushing rival faction members off tall buildings to their death, while others were shot point blank in the limbs to ensure permanent damage. Members of both factions were kidnapped off the streets and held without cause. Since then, two illegitimate governments have separately ruled the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The civil war has continued unabated, despite the best efforts of Arab states seeking to reconcile the conflict, including Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and even Mauritania.
When President-elect Obama moves into the White House in January and sets out to rekindle Palestinian-Israeli peace, he will be faced with a vexing problem: Which Palestinian faction/non-state represents the Palestinians? With whom should Washington negotiate?
If it is Abbas' Fatah West Bank faction, Obama will be working with an unelected government while effectively ignoring the Hamas regime in Gaza, where an estimated 1.5 million Palestinians reside. If the president negotiates with Hamas, he would be negotiating with terrorists—something that would fly in the face of U.S. policy dating back to the Nixon administration.
It is also worthy to note that amid their clashing, Hamas and Fatah have failed to articulate a vision for the state they insist they deserve. As one Al-Jazeera analyst noted, "The rivalry between Fatah and Hamas had eclipsed demands for putting forward a Palestinian negotiating strategy."
Until now it is unclear whether Obama and his advisers will address the internecine Palestinian conflict as a key component in their Middle East foreign policy. If they fail to confront this critical issue, we risk engaging in yet another failed round of diplomacy. And as we have seen in the past, failure at the negotiating table can often lead to renewed conflict.