Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

My Israeli-Palestinian Fantasy

Posted in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Dan on July 22, 2009
Trust and Confidence is key to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation

Trust and Confidence are key to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation

Can the Israelis and Palestinians, after decades of indiscriminate warfare, finally salvage peace in the Middle East?  Can Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who defies the United States by expanding Jewish settlement projects in the occupied West Bank, stomach political reconciliation with both Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas?  Will President Barack Obama continue to pressure the Israeli Government on the settlement issue?  On the Palestinian side of the conflict, will Mahmoud Abbas and his security forces be able to hold onto power as Hamas militants slowly infiltrate the Fatah-ruled West Bank?  All of these questions are lingering in the minds of Israeli, Arab, and American policymakers.  Whether one is sympathetic with the Israeli or Palestinian position, no one can dispute how important it is for both sides to find common ground on each of these issues.  All of these questions must be answered before any hope for peace is possible in the immediate future.

Among the many proposals that have been circulated by think-tanks, academics, and politicians over the last six months, none is more vital to a long-lasting dialogue than the formulation of a unified Palestinian government.  While a halt to Israeli construction in the West Bank is certainly part of the problem, historical events have proven that no compromise can be fulfilled (let alone agreed-upon) if both camps in Palestine are unable to solve major disputes.  Before each side is able to shake-hands with one another and smile for the cameras, a unified front with unified demands must be accomplished.

Unfortunately, the Palestinian political divide is not the only gap that must be cemented before President Abbas sits down at the bargaining table.  The Israelis under Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government is undergoing this same fragmented state, where Jerusalem’s priorities are often challenged by political rivalries within the coalition.  Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have routinely engaged in bellicose rhetoric between their respective ministries, putting forth contradictory policies that often confuse the Palestinian leadership in profound ways.  The Israeli settlement issue is a ripe example of this contradiction.  Defense Minister Barak seems willing to stop some settlement projects in order to get the ball rolling on negotiations, while Lieberman is vowing to use all of his political might to preserve the dreams of a “Greater Israel.”

Although the Israeli Government is currently basking in its own intrastate fighting, the ideological dispute between Palestinian factions is much worse in the long-term.  President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Security Forces control all of the West Bank, where his Fatah Party implements policies that are much more moderate than Islamic fundamentalists would like.  Abbas has publicly stated, time and again, that he is more than willing to negotiate with Netanyahu’s government in the hopes that a two-state solution can be reached.  Fortunately for Abbas, a majority of Palestinians in the West Bank support his endeavors…praying that he has the capability and the stamina to stand up to the Israelis on important issues such as security and the right of the Palestinians to govern their own affairs.

On the other side of the Palestinian equation is the Hamas movement: a designated terrorist group whose origins strive for a complete eradication of the state of Israel in the heart of the Middle East.  Its current leader, Khaled Mashaal, is an extremely ideological man who firmly believes that no peace can be achieved without an Israeli withdrawal to June 1967 borders (the year when Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip).  Hamas militants have run the Gaza Strip since 2007, when its fighters took control of the coastal enclave from Abbas’ Fatah Party.  At the core of the Hamas creed is armed Islamic jihad against the Israeli invader, sponsoring and participating in suicide bombings against innocent Israeli citizens for the sole purpose of intimidation.  The violence directed against Israeli cities reached to such an extent that the Israeli Defense Forces retaliated against Hamas by bombing and invading the Gaza Strip in December and January 2009…killing approximately 1,400 Palestinians while destroying the already poor infrastructure that Gaza residents use on a daily-basis.

As if all of these differences weren’t enough to stop a unified Palestinian government, Abbas’ security forces recently engaged in a military operation that killed a number of Hamas militants in the West Bank.  Whether or not Hamas retaliates against the Fatah Party remains to be seen.  What does seem certain is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deepening by the day…only worsening the economic plight of Palestinian men, women, and children.

There is no evidence that the leaders of Hamas will begin to drift towards their Fatah rivals in the near future.  The fact that members of Hamas are continuing to execute terrorist attacks inside Israel is a testament to how uncompromising their positions are to progression, moderation, and diplomacy.  This is precisely why President Abbas must bypass Hamas and go straight to the Israelis.  While controversial, this may be the only possible way the peace process can go forward.  Sometimes it is easier to ignore fanatical demands than attempt to include them in the process.

Some argue that ignoring the demands of Hamas is the same thing as ignoring the wishes of the 3 million Palestinians residing in the Gaza Strip.  This argument, while tempting, is riddled with falsities.  Just because Palestinian civilians are governed by Islamic extremists does not necessarily mean that these same people are committed to supporting their fundamentalist objectives.  Just take a look at Iran…where a vast majority of Iranian citizens embrace pro-western ideals despite the autocratic Islamic government in Tehran.

We must remember that Gaza residents continue to live in social despair and widespread poverty, thanks to a combination of the Israeli naval blockade and the inadequate policies of Khaled Mashaal.  Are we truly to believe that Palestinian citizens are willing to strap themselves up with homemade bombs and blow themselves up in a crowed Israeli marketplace, for the sole purpose of advancing the Hamas movement?  Such a conclusion is not only inconsiderate…it also prematurely dismisses the true will of the Palestinian people.

Perhaps with Israel and the Fatah Party appeasing one another’s demands, Hamas’ support will eventually decline into a remnant of its former self.  The movement that once captivated a large proportion of the Arab world may transform into an alienated group that continues to demonstrate its ineffective administration in Gaza.  More dramatically, an Israel-Fatah partnership could have a much more dramatic effect on Middle Eastern peace: Hamas, isolated in its coastal enclave, would have to fight two adversaries on two fronts.

Of course, any Israeli-Fatah compromise would have to result from concessions being made on both sides.  Israelis may very well have to terminate their construction in the Fatah-governed West Bank.  Abbas may have to demonstrate to the Israelis a combination of good will and sacrifice.  However, with both sides starting to gain the trust of one another, a major breakthrough could emerge.

The recent escalation of this ongoing conflict is clear:  both sides are at fault.  It is time to move away from the politics of finger-pointing and towards a genuine reconciliation effort…aided by both the United States and its pro-western Arab allies.  Who knows…a process of constructive dialogue may “kill two birds with one stone.”  At the same time an historic peace agreement is signed, the ideological bond that has held the Hamas movement together since its founding could fracture and eventually fall apart.  One can only dream that such a fantasy will come true.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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