June 10, 2009

Reconciliation Before Statehood

Faction strife and conflicting ideologies between Palestinians will prevent any resolution between Israel and Palestine. President Obama is racing to create two states, but he should first consider patching the tears between Hamas and Fatah.

A two-state solution is unlikely without Palestinian unity.

Obama indirectly admitted as much by appealing for all Palestinians to renounce violence. Not mere comfort for Israel, Obama knows that those who support armed resistance cannot be isolated and excluded from a Palestinian state. Palestinians must be engaged in total.

That means engaging the organizations they support. Three options have a chance at restoring Palestinian unity; defeating Hamas militarily, marginalizing it politically in an election, or sincere negotiations. Elimination or assimilation.

The military option has lost all credibility in eliminating Hamas and its followers. Since President Obama told Palestinians that violence is a dead end, America along with Israel must live by that same principle. Multiple wars in Gaza have proven their futility and the blockade has failed to stop the flow of arms.

Another war would be disastrous and pointless, while the blockade only slows the bleeding. These aren’t solutions.

If Israel and America realize this but still refuse to engage Hamas diplomatically, resolving the deadlock will take a national election. If Hamas is so unpopular, let the people throw it out and unify themselves with Fatah. The problem is that Hamas could have 25% of the vote. Many Fatah followers are also disenchanted.

An election isn’t likely to produce stability by itself.

America doesn’t want to validate Hamas with diplomatic relations, but in reality the two sides are already talking through movements and statements. Obama may even be forced to officially broker with Hamas now. It has been so receptive, comparatively speaking, to Obama’s speech in Cairo that refusing to negotiate could reflect the blame back on Obama.

That could be Hamas’s plan, but Obama can’t extend his hand then pull it back. Hamas and America need to reconcile as much as Hamas and Fatah in order to advance the peace process.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal recently made his own trip to Egypt for the first time in months, meeting with intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Meshaal stated that Fatah raids on Hamas members in the West Bank have strained the dialogue, but he left the door open.

“What is happening in the West Bank cannot be accepted," Meshaal after meeting Suleiman. “We will pursue our policy in cooperating with the Egyptian efforts to reach a real reconciliation, but the most difficult obstacle hampering reaching a Palestinian reconciliation is what is happening in the West Bank.”

Of course Hamas has arrested its share of Fatah members. Egypt should immediately push for a ceasefire on both sides.

But Meshaal further intimated that Israel pressured Fatah to crack down. “Everyone knows that the obstacle is Israel,” he said. “Hamas is keen on achieving reconciliation with Fatah. But these obstacles must be removed so as to create a better atmosphere between the two parties.”

Hamas always plays hard. Meshaal extended his own hand to Obama while driving a wedge between him and Israel: “There is a new language from President Obama, but we expect real pressure on Israelis. There are demands Israel stop the settlements but this is not the price we are after... although it's an essential step.”

President Obama should attack here first since he deliberately created the issue of settlements to barter with. A grand bargain is unrealistic; one issue should build on the next. Hamas won’t drop its arms for a settlement cap. Instead, America should attempt to trade a settlement freeze for Hamas’ recognition of Israel. Note this doesn't mean a "Jewish state."

The exchange could be immediate and is realistically, not abstractly, connected. Freezing settlements is an initial step towards recognizing the state of Palestine. Meshaal said his ultimate goal is a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders; if he’s is ready to accept that state, he necessarily accepts an Israeli state. He would then have to say so publicly.

From Israel’s perspective, existential and diplomatic recognition is a similar first step, and a good price for halting settlements. It won't get a "Jewish state" from Hamas, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia.

By directly negotiating and achieving a pragmatic goal, relations on all sides could begin to improve. Success breeds success. America and Israel would have less reason to isolate Fatah from Hamas. The blockade could potentially fall if Gilad Schalit is released, allowing Gaza and the West Bank to integrate and attempt to build a consensus. The point is to deal directly with Hamas to understand exactly how to end the conflict.

All hypothetical, but if the Palestinian territories stay divided, its people will too.

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