While the international community shuttles from one meeting to the next, jets from one city to the next, Gazans idle their time or keep their minds distracted from the past and future. Pushing 50% unemployment, they haven’t felt the winds of change in President Obama’s push for a two-state solution, not the slightest breeze.
Though he insists Hamas is fully to blame, he’s in no position to deny that blackballing Hamas is partly Israel’s doing. Imagine if Obama reconsidered a dialogue with "terrorists" or spoke a single word about the UN’s Gaza report - every last trace of his support from Jerusalem would vanish. But evidence is mounting that Obama is on the wrong side of the inevitable.
Hamas can’t be beaten. Obviously President Obama shouldn’t join it, but he may no choice to work with it.
Heading into their eighth negotiating round with Egypt, Hamas and Fatah are expected to sign a reconciliation agreement later this month specifying elections, political prisoner exchanges, and Palestinian security forces. Skepticism surrounds the talks given how intractable each side appears, but the language from both sides has been universally positive, a rarity in the Middle East.
"We handed the Egyptians a very positive response before Id al-Fitr," Abdullah Abdullah, a Fatah legislator, said. "We are prepared to reach understandings with all the Palestinian groups over the points mentioned in the plan, and not only with Hamas."
Mohammad Dahlan, leader of Fatah in Gaza, tempered expectations but added, “Meshaal's language was flexible and positive.” In fact no one was more upbeat that Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, who met with Egypt’s Intelligence Director Omar Suleiman on Monday.
“Our meeting was extremely positive,” Meshaal said. “We tackled many issues pertaining to this proposal and we think this proposal is a good basis to achieve Palestinian reconciliation. We have responded to the spirit of this document and examined all of its components and our Egyptian friends listened to our opinions.”
Elections are being penciled in for June 2010 and will eventually be held even if they stall once or twice. Ready or not, President Obama must start preparing to engage Hamas either individually or collectively. Attempting to tear it down before the election hasn’t and isn’t going to work.
Hamas may never again reach the popularity it experienced in 2006 when it captured 45% of the electoral lists to Fatah’s 41%. But despite Israel and America’s best efforts to marginalize Hamas, the latest IPI poll found that Fatah has about 45% of the parliamentary vote, with 24% going to Hamas and the rest undecided. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh holds a 32% approval, not very attractive until considering Abbas at 55%. The IPI predicts, when factoring indecision and independents, that Abbas would defeat Haniyeh head to head “with a fairly narrow majority of 52%.”
Other polls have reached similar conclusions over the last two years. The general picture of Palestinians is about 50% support Fatah, 25% support Hamas, and the remaining 25% are waiting to see which way the wind blows. Factor in those who would likely favor Hamas if it responds positively to reconciliation and it could have a third of Palestinians, enough to ensure Hamas is a permanent fixture in the Middle East.
President Obama and Israel have no chance of marginalizing Hamas through wars, blockades, diplomatic exclusion, or military and economic support for the Fatah. Their only hope is advancing the peace process and robbing Hamas of its cause to resist. Otherwise stalled negotiations play right into Hamas's hands, who is using the time to reposition itself as a necessary component of Palestinian statehood and champion the resistance in the face of Israeli obstinacy.
Attempting to capture the spirit of hope for himself, Haniyeh said reconciliation, “is what we expect and is what we hope for. It is very possible to sign, to end the division, to restore national unity and to attend to national causes.”
Then Israel, who has feasted on Palestinian division, would really be in trouble. It seems so logical for Israel to propose a settlement freeze and get the ball rolling, to progress the two-state solution before Hamas triumphantly returns, to take its foot off of Palestine’s neck and counterattack Hamas' rally cry against Israeli oppression. It seems logical that President Obama would pressure Israel into compromise, fight the Gaza blockade, and improve relations with Hamas, a party he’ll be forced to work with in the near future.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit recently said, “Eventually, we're sure that we will manage to bring the Palestinians together.”
Unfortunately logic often breaks down in the Middle East and in the strangest of worlds, opposing the Gaza blockade equates to opposing the Israeli people. In the strangest of worlds Israel blackballs Hamas from the international community, attempts to divide and conquer Palestinians, then drives them together through provocation.
Yom Kippur is the holiest Jewish holiday, but that didn’t stop Israeli security forces from storming the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem to protect Israeli worshipers. Accounts vary and each side has its legitimate claims, but the timing couldn’t be worse. Muslim states pounced on Israel, from Egypt to Lebanon to Jordan to the UAE to Iran, impaling its support of the peace process, and the language of Hamas and Fatah seemed to merge afterward.
“Providing a police escort for settlers who are against peace at all costs, and whose presence is deliberately designed to provoke a reaction, are not the actions of someone who is committed to peace,” said lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ereket.”
Mohammad Dahlan warned, “A Third Intifada may erupt in reaction to the Israeli disrespect of the feelings of Muslims and the storming by extreme Jewish groups of the al-Aqsa mosque.”
As if following the script of a play, Meshaal called on the PA, “to stop the security cooperation and give more consideration to armed resistance against the occupation.” He warned America and Europe not to, “misread the current silence in Palestine. There is fire under the ashes.”
Here lie President Obama’s choices. He can continue to let Israel act unilaterally and with impunity in the West Bank and Gaza - and risk a Third Intifada. He can continue to let Israel dominate the peace process and control who America negotiates with - and risk a Third Intifada. The path least headed towards a Third Intifada is objective handling of Israel and integrate Hamas into negotiations, ironic as that may seem to America. Hamas' positions aren't far from Fatah, it just is more willing to resort to arms when these positions are denied.
2010 could catapult Hamas back into the West Bank and the peace process, at which point exclusion will no longer be possible. President Obama can’t beat Hamas, but if he doesn't act proactively it can beat him.