After Obama’s Middle East speech: save Palestinian reconciliation

To get beyond the current impasse in the Israel-Palestine conflict, the "Quartet principles" need to be abandoned in favor of an active promotion of Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.
René Wildangel
1 June 2011

Obama’s May 19th speech on the Middle East and North Africa was not primarily about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather intended to lay out Washington’s approach to the ongoing transitions in the region. However, it was his remarks regarding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which attracted most attention. The President emphasized his belief that with change in the region the “drive for lasting peace” is “more urgent than ever”. The “basis of negotiations is clear”, Obama said, “a viable Palestine and a secure Israel”. And he was also clear about the meaning of 'a viable Palestine', when he added that the „borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” - a statement that infuriated the Israeli Prime Minister.

In a speech given at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington three days later Obama pointed out that “there was nothing particularly original in my proposal” and it was in line with positions adopted by earlier US administrations. And although Obama indicated that future negotiations would lead to land swaps due to the incorporation of some of the large Israeli settlement blocks along the border into Israeli territory, Netanyahu openly confronted Obama’s statement, claiming it would leave Israel with “indefensible” borders.

This argument is nothing but an indication of how far the current Israeli government has moved to the right. Unilateral definitions of core issues such as the border of the future Palestinian state are unlikely to get the negotiations back on track. The same is true for the other preconditions Netanyahu spelled out before Congress, such as a united Jerusalem under Israeli control, a permanent military presence in the Jordan valley and Palestinian President Abbas’ recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state”. In fact, the opposite of Netanyahu’s claim seems true today: Not a solution based on the 1967 lines with land swaps, but the continuing occupation of the West Bank will make Israel vulnerable. In this context, President Obama rightly pointed out that demographics are not on Israel’s side and make peace an urgent matter for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

After Netanyahu’s speech before the US Congress the Palestinians have declared they will go forward pursuing recognition of statehood at the United Nations in September. Obama reiterated that the US will oppose any such Palestinian attempts and dismissed them as “symbolic actions” which “won’t create an independent state“. But he admitted that capitals around the world are viewing this process with more sympathy than the US because of international “impatience” with the deadlock in the peace process; a mere euphemism for Israel’s increasing isolation under Netanyahu’s leadership.

Obama’s speech neither included a concrete proposal, nor did it suggest how the conflict parties could return to the negotiating table to discuss border and security issues. Or the even more difficult, as Obama put it, “wrenching and emotional issues“: Jerusalem and the refugee question. In fact, the speech did include some important principles, but lacked a clear vision for the road ahead.

If for anything, this is true for the issue of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. Obama mentioned "profound and legitimate questions for Israel" for which "Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer“. However, EU and US policy makers will also urgently have to find a position on how to deal with Fatah-Hamas reconciliation if they want to prevent another round of internal Palestinian violence.

There sure are many reasons to detest Hamas, regarding their grave human rights violations in Gaza or their bloody attacks on Israeli citizens in the past. But if Obama is serious about continuing “every effort to get beyond the current impasse“, the importance of reconciliation can hardly be overestimated. The policy of boycott and pressure has proved to be a dead end. The last unity government in 2007 lasted only two months, when violent fights brought out between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza and Hamas ultimately assumed control over the Gaza Strip. This was at least indirectly a result of the EU, US and Israel’s decision to boycott Hamas after the election victory of January 2006. Hamas was never put in a position where they had to deliver to the Palestinian electorate. Hamas’ decision to reject the three "Quartet principles” - recognition of Israel’s right to exist, renunciation of violence, recognition of all former treaties - if anything, bolstered the credibility of the "Islamic resistance movement’s” propaganda.

For the Quartet, foremost the US and the EU, the “three conditions” have become a mantra in each and every declaration since, but have proven to be a useless and even obstructive diplomatic instrument, incapable of influencing any of Hamas’ policies on the ground. Accordingly, Hamas’ overtures of moderation, spelled out for example in the Prisoner’s document in 2006 with recognition of the 1967 borders or the Mecca-Agreement and the program of the unity government in 2007, were ignored.  

In his speech at the AIPAC conference President Obama called the reconciliation agreement an “enormous obstacle to peace” and reiterated the three Quartet conditions. But Netanyahu’s labeling of Hamas as a "Palestinian version of Al-Qaida“ goes much further. The Israeli Prime minister believes the only way to deal with Hamas is military might. But fighting against Hamas, isolating and besieging Gaza and its people, as well as a destructive war resulting in 700 Palestinian civilians casualties, have not ended Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip nor undermined its legitimacy among Palestinians. Meanwhile, Fatah has lost its own credibility in the absence of electoral legitimacy, with continuing Israeli settlement activity and close security cooperation with Israel.

The Arab Spring has nullified the simplistic model of distinguishing between “radical" and "moderate” Arab leaders and parties. For transition processes in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries to have a chance of success, they will have to be inclusive. This time, the West will have to accept election results, even if they may bring some uncomfortable partners to the forefront. And those, including Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and their offspring will have to be judged according to their political actions and electoral platforms, not their (potentially extremist) history or outdated charters or party programs. At a point in time, where Arab protesters have risked their life to win back their dignity and the right to choose their own leaders, it will not be upon Western nations to advocate the exclusion of these groups or set conditions for their participation. Instead, they should be actively engaged and encouraged to take part in the democratic process and play along democratic rules.   

The same approach should be applied to the new government in Palestine, formed by Hamas and Fatah, but consisting of technocrats. It should be judged by its performance in crucial policy areas: The organization of upcoming fair and free elections; its capability to guarantee security and prevent attacks on Israel; its attitude towards protesters and civil society organizations in Palestine, who have also articulated their demands over the last weeks. Obviously, Hamas will not dissolve, nor change overnight. But eventually, they have to become either part of a solution the Palestinian public will accept - or there won't be a peaceful solution at all in all likelihood. Building an insular state and partial economy in the West Bank has always been a chimera and will not lead to a permanent deal.

As long as Hamas will cease violent attacks and not obstruct future negotiations led by the PLO, a unity government should be given a chance. Reconciliation and Palestinian unity is essential for the legitimacy and practicability of any future initiative to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the two-state-solution. This time, the EU and the US should actively encourage it. Eventually, as the much-cited truism goes, peace will be made with enemies, not with friends.

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