Palestinian unity: The bottom line

Palestinian unity was, is and always will be a necessary condition for resolving the conflict.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks in Ramallah [EPA]

In many ways it was a surprising move. With US Secretary of State John Kerry emphasising Israeli intransigence, it seemed the Palestinians might, for a change, actually win the blame game that is ritually enacted upon the unravelling of the peace process. Why, then, would President Mahmoud Abbas choose to throw in his lot with internationally reviled resistance group Hamas and hand an easy victory to Israel? By welcoming the US-listed terrorist group back into the Palestinian political tent, he has guaranteed that the blame will be largely diverted from Israel and thus squandered any strategic advantage on offer.

That he chose to do so is surely a sign he believed there would in fact be little strategic fruit for the Palestinian cause to be harvested from continuing the US-sponsored talks. Most disturbing from a Palestinian point of view, these negotiations had failed to suggest that there would ever be a Palestinian capital in a shared Jerusalem, a deal no Palestinian leader intent on political survival could dare to take before their people.

It also suggests that Abbas has learned from previous acts of disobedience towards the Americans – such as signing on to a host of international conventions, as he did recently – that going against US wishes no longer has the painful consequences it once did. With Kerry’s last role of the dice, US custodianship of the peace process finally seems to be slipping away. An international law and human rights-based approach is now becoming much more attractive for the Palestinians.

But there is also a deeper root to Abbas’ action, one that speaks to a fundamental flaw in the fabric of the peace process itself, at least as formulated and pursued by successive US administrations.

Inside Story – Palestinian unity deal: What is at stake?

Flaw in the process

That flaw is the deliberate exclusion of the Palestinian faction Hamas from a legitimate place in Palestinian politics and by extension from involvement in the peace process. The US-brokered talks have consistently ignored a core tenet of conflict resolution: That any successful process must include a viable strategy for dealing with “veto players” – those willing and able to derail a peace process by violence. Hamas is, of course, the veto player par excellence of the Palestinian scene. Along with Jewish right-wingers they did much to ensure the Oslo process would meet a violent demise. But as Paul Pillar recently noted, to exclude Hamas by citing its history of terrorism is to substitute a disingenuous slogan for a meaningful policy. 

After a decade of backsliding and bloodshed, an historic opportunity to redress this omission was offered up in 2006, when Palestinian elections brought Hamas to power in a surprise landslide win. Had the peace process custodians grasped the veto player nettle then, henceforth Hamas’ attempts to change the status quo could have been diverted from bombs and bullets into legislative proposals and municipal responsibilities. The moderate and extremist Palestinian factions could have mutually checked and balanced one another under the same political roof, much as they do in Israel today, or any functioning democracy. A single political address to receive Israeli demands would have been established, removing one of the key excuses for inaction on all sides.

Instead, at the behest of a US Congress seemingly more intent on articulating uncompromising Israeli positions than on resolving the conflict, Hamas was essentially cast into outer darkness, under a flawed theory of change that has since proven a failure. If the Hamas veto players were deprived of political legitimacy and periodically repressed militarily, the thinking went, they would eventually wither and disappear. Meanwhile their more pliable Fatah brethren in the West Bank would scoop up the dividends of peace and win over their populace to embrace acceptable US-Israeli positions.

Especially shocking, then, that word of the Palestinian reconciliation deal should come just as Kerry was set to address a dinner in Washington convened precisely to discuss the distribution of those dividends. To say it spoiled the participants’ appetites would be an understatement.

West Bank-first approach

And most inexplicably of all to the architects of this “West Bank-first” peace process, it came at a time when Hamas’ regional fortunes were at an all-time low. With their parent organisation the Muslim Brotherhood reeling from a violent counter-revolutionary backlash led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, their economy throttled by a joint Israeli-Egyptian siege and a restive population in Gaza looking for political alternatives, the stage could not have been better set for the triumph of the West Bank-first model. How then, could it have failed?

West Bank-first fails because it seeks an external Palestinian peace with Israel that is predicated on internal Palestinian fragmentation and political decay. Its advocates underestimate how fiercely opposed Palestinian society is to political disunity, and how stubborn their leaders will be in seeking to overcome it. The Israeli far-right, which embraces principles every bit as odious to the international community’s standards of justice and human rights as those of their Palestinian equivalents, today sits comfortably in the Knesset, controls ministries and pushes a legislative agenda. And, whatever one thinks of their politics, this is the right and proper state of affairs in a democratic polity where the votes of the citizenry are respected. By contrast, tumbleweed has been blowing for years through the corridors of the dilapidated Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah, where the last shreds of democratic legitimacy were quietly but very consciously allowed to expire years ago.

There is good reason to be cautious about whether the current effort at Palestinian reconciliation will fare better than the numerous attempts of recent years. And nobody should be under any illusion that the road to a peace agreement that includes all Palestinian factions will be anything but long and arduous. But neither should we indulge any longer in the policy illusion that has dominated thinking in Washington for most of the last decade – that a durable peace can be built on an approach that seeks to manipulate Palestinian politics from outside and cherry-pick those who may be considered legitimate actors.

If the current Palestinian reconciliation agreement marks a turning point away from that thinking, then it just might be the first real breakthrough in the peace process we have seen in a long time.

Scott Field is a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for International Studies, University of California, Berkeley.