Palestine's deal, and an emerging paradigm

The leading Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, signed a declaration in Doha on 5 February 2012 that committed them to work together. It promises to be a significant moment for Israel and the west too, says Yossi Alpher.
Yossi Alpher
16 February 2012

The Doha declaration on 5 February 2012, which takes the form of new agreements between the Palestinian movements Hamas and Fatah, represents yet another step forward for political Islam. The document pledges the two sides to set up a technocratic government charged with organising elections and beginning reconstruction in Gaza, and to move toward integrating Hamas into the Palestine Liberation Organisation. This diplomatic breakthrough is also another achievement of Qatari diplomacy, which has been quick to fill the void left by the weakening of the respective patrons of the two Palestinian movements: Syria (supporter of Hamas) and Egypt (supporter of Fatah).

The Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas sees the agreement as Hamas's acquiescence (at least temporary) in his leadership. It also seemingly enables him, even in the absence of significant concessions, simultaneously to keep in the air the balls of negotiation with Israel under Jordanian auspices and national reconciliation/reunification with Hamas/Gaza. The qualification is important, because the sharp reaction of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu (with its "either Hamas or us" message) and the guarded response of part of the international Quartet, in turn appear (again at least temporarily) to preclude further talks. In reality, the chances of either reconciliation or peace "pre-negotiations" reaching fruition remain low - but as long as the juggling act continues, Abbas is virtually in control.

The Hamas side recognises that the Doha declaration exacerbates long-brewing internal tensions between its signatory Khaled Meshal and the Gaza-based leadership under Ismail Haniyeh that immediately disowned it. Hamas will presumably patch over the differences, but this glaring dispute provides yet another indication of the fragility of the entire reconciliation process.

Binyamin Netanyahu and his hardline government views Doha as delivering a further welcome rationale for avoiding serious negotiations with Abbas - as if Netanyahu had not ably invented enough excuses already. At the same time, Abbas's own positions and attitudes have already rendered negotiations under the Oslo framework pointless for the past three years. Perhaps more distressing is what the Doha event says about Israel's lack of sound strategic thinking on the Palestinian issue in general. Even the wispy prospect of Palestinian reconciliation should force an acknowledgment of this dual failure.

A test for Israel

The breach between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza strip in mid-2007, a year and a half after Hamas's victory in the election there, caused Israel to lay siege to the strip. Its calculation was that economic warfare would cause Hamas rule to collapse or be overthrown, and that the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit would be released. These goals proved wholly unrealistic; in the event, Shalit's eventual release owed much to Egypt's military rulers, and the Mavi Marmara fiasco was instrumental in a partial lifting of the siege. Meanwhile, collective hardship was for several years imposed on 1.5 million civilians in Gaza.

Yet this absence of results notwithstanding, nowhere is there evidence of Israeli rethinking regarding Gaza. The vacuum is all the more striking as the questions multiply. Is Israel at all interested in Gaza-West Bank reunification, whatever the terms, or is it better off with two "Palestines"? Should Hamas's offer of a long-term ceasefire be so readily dismissed in a regional reality increasingly dominated by political Islam that in any case rejects peace with Israel? If Hamas succeeds in exploiting reconciliation to take over the Palestinian national movement in the West Bank as well as Gaza, Israel may well regret its lack of creativity on this issue.

There is, moreover, a failure of strategic thinking regarding the West Bank and Israel's negotiating partner there, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the demise of nearly twenty years of negotiations, including two attempts at the highest level to resolve all final-status issues - Camp David (2000) and the Ehud Olmert-Mahmoud Abbas talks (2008) - is that the Oslo framework has run its course and needs to be replaced with a new format.

Abbas at least appears to have understood this, when he turned to the United Nations and asked for recognition of a Palestinian state - the foundation of a new, state-to-state basis for negotiations. This, in fact, represents the third initiative he is juggling, and without doubt the most intriguing and potentially constructive.

Israel's strategic shortcomings regarding both Palestinian camps are shared to an extent by Barack Obama's administration and the rest of the Quartet (namely, the United Nations, European Union and Russia). If, despite the odds, Fatah-Hamas reconciliation moves ahead, elections are held and Hamas is integrated politically into overall Palestinian governance, a new strategic paradigm will emerge to replace those that have proved so confounding thus far. It will be part of a broader regional challenge by political Islam to Israel and the west.

At present, Israel and its friends (and critics) in the west seem distressingly ill-equipped to deal constructively with that emerging paradigm.

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