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APN: Time for a Rational Approach in the Israeli-Palestinian Arena (March 2009)

The time has come for the U.S. to establish a serious political process to deal with the core issues, including a smarter policy regarding Hamas.
The time has come for the U.S. to establish a serious political process that can deal with the core issues at stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  In the absence of a credible effort to reach a long-term solution that meets the needs and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians, extremists will inevitably draw popular support and will invariably resort, once again, to violence.  As part of this new political process, the U.S. must recognize that the time has come for a smarter policy regarding Hamas.   

Let us be clear:  Hamas is a terrorist organization that has engaged in heinous attacks on civilians - including turning densely populated towns and refugee camps into launching grounds for rocket attacks against Israel - and continues to deny Israel's right to exist.   At the same time, it must be recognized that many Palestinians view Hamas as a legitimate political player - one that represents, through free and fair elections, a significant portion of the Palestinian body politic.

As a result, recent policies aimed at diminishing Hamas' influence - regardless of these policies' justification - have failed or, worse yet, backfired.  Efforts to isolate Hamas and fight it have resulted in making the group more popular and eroding the power-base of Palestinian pragmatists. Israel's tactics in the recent Gaza War, tactics that caused mass casualties among civilians and widespread destruction of civilian property, strengthened anger at Israel and the international community, rather than at Hamas.  Now, in the wake of the Gaza War, with Hamas still representing the only governing force in Gaza, continuing to politically isolate Hamas and push it further away from the political process only guarantees Hamas' role as a spoiler and increases the chances that the political process will fail, rather than bolstering the political process and those who take part in it.

And let us be clear here as well: well-meaning Palestinian moderates from the West Bank cannot be imported by Israel and the international community to take over Gaza.  Any effort to do so will only further discredit these moderates and strengthen Hamas.

The Best Option - Unity Government
APN has long argued that the U.S. should encourage and support Fatah-Hamas power-sharing.  This could come in the form of a national unity government or a non-partisan technocrat government that includes Fatah, Hamas, and independent Palestinian political figures with credibility among Palestinians. Led by President Abbas - who is president of all of the Palestinian people, not just those living in the West Bank, and the head of the PLO - such a government must be composed of pragmatists willing to work together for the sake of their own people and willing to negotiate with Israel.
Today, APN calls on the Obama Administration to make the formation of such a government an explicit U.S. goal, and to make clear that relations with such a government - including U.S. assistance and U.S. political engagement - will be determined based on the positions and actions of that government and the national security interests of the U.S., not on the basis of whether Hamas is included in it.

Such a government - one that is seen as representing all Palestinians - would have both the legitimacy and capacity to enforce its will in terms of security and governance.  Such a government is vital to sustain the current fragile Gaza ceasefire and to provide a Palestinian counterpart capable of holding up its side of security arrangements.  Such a government is also crucial to the stabilization of the current situation in the Gaza Strip, the rebuilding of Gaza, and to the achievement and implementation of any future peace agreement. The opportunity to be included in such a government might provide a powerful incentive for Hamas to moderate its rhetoric and behavior, and potentially adopt more pragmatic positions toward Israel.  Conversely, a Hamas decision to reject or torpedo such an opportunity - depriving the Palestinian people of the benefits of U.S. engagement and assistance - would likely have serious consequences on the group's legitimacy in the eyes of all Palestinians.

For those who argue that neither side is interested in such an arrangement, it should be recalled that such an arrangement was reached in 2006 in Mecca.  It cannot be known how that national unity government would have fared, and how the situation today might be different, if the U.S., Israel, and the international community had welcomed and engaged it.  What is known is that this is not what happened, and that national unity experiment was over almost before it started, in large part due to the decision of all relevant parties to undermine it.

A U.S. policy of engaging a government that includes objectionable political parties would find precedents in Lebanon, where the U.S. has for years maintained good relations with that country's government despite the presence of Hezbollah in its ranks, and in Jordan, where the Muslim Brotherhood has for years been steadily making gains in the parliament, with no impact on U.S. relations.

This approach raises concerns, legitimately, about the impact on longtime partners of Israel who have expended tremendous personal efforts and political capital in support of Israeli-Palestinian peace - people like President Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who have recognized Israel and proven willing to seriously negotiate in good faith a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Unfortunately, the reality today is that despite such legitimacy in the eyes of many Palestinians, Israelis, and the international community, President Abbas and the Fatah party cannot govern Gaza, cannot deliver on the Palestinian side of a peace agreement, and cannot rebuild their leadership and credibility in Gaza without some sort of reconciliation and power-sharing arrangement with Hamas.  This sad state of affairs is in significant part a result of the failure of Israel, the U.S., and the international community to help President Abbas deliver any real progress to the Palestinian people since he was elected President in 2005.

The decision to disengage unilaterally from Gaza, rather than to make Israel's departure from Gaza an accomplishment of President Abbas, only empowered Hamas.  The continued expansion of settlements and the near severing of Jerusalem from the West Bank have only further undermined Abbas.  And while some checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank and between the West Bank and Israel are clearly necessary for security reasons, the proliferation of such barriers to movement and access throughout the West Bank has only undermined Abbas' credibility and strengthened his opponents.  Ironically, participating in a successful unity government - one that can deliver on some of the things that the Abbas-led PA has failed to deliver - may be the only path left to Abbas and Fatah to regain credibility among Palestinians.

Finally, some may argue that efforts to establish a national unity government should be postponed until such time as Fatah is in a stronger position compared to Hamas.  This argument has been heard almost continuously since Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006, and the reality is that throughout this period, Hamas' position compared to Fatah has only grown stronger.  Sadly, today such an argument appears to be driven more by wishful thinking than clear-eyed pragmatism.

Other Options

It bears mention that in a case where Fatah and Hamas are unable or unwilling to agree to a national unity government, even with the support of and pressure from the U.S. and international community, other options are available.  Any of these options, like the option of engaging a national unity government, unfortunately risks weakening Palestinian moderates.

These options include engaging Hamas through intermediaries like Egypt or Turkey.  A precedent exists for such an approach, as this is what Israel has been doing since Hamas took power in Gaza.  However, this option falls short.  While it can succeed in managing minor issues and indirectly negotiating certain understandings (like a fragile ceasefire), it fails to establish a responsible and capable Palestinian government with the legitimacy and capacity to enforce its will in terms of security and governance.  It would not make the fragile ceasefire sustainable or provide a Palestinian counterpart capable of holding up its side of security arrangements.  It would not facilitate the stabilization of the current situation in the Gaza Strip, the rebuilding of Gaza, or the achievement and implementation of any future peace agreement.  It would also mean continuing to leave Hamas, in effect, on the sidelines, where it will likely continue to play the spoiler.

Finally, another option is to engage Hamas officials directly, alongside the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.  There is some precedent here, too, in terms of the U.S. engaging directly with terrorist and militant groups when it determined that this was necessary for national security reasons: peace in Northern Ireland came only after Sinn Fein, despite its close links to the IRA, was brought to the negotiating table; and the U.S. has engaged local militant groups, some of which have been involved previously in attacks on U.S. forces, in the quest to achieve stability in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, this option also falls short of the goal of establishing a responsible and capable Palestinian government, as described above.  It also risks putting the U.S. in the middle of an ugly intra-Palestinian political fight.