Open Zion

11.20.12

Unite, Don’t Divide, The Palestinians

It appears, as of this writing, that a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is imminent. What remains is how to move forward after the violence stops. It should be obvious that the status quo ante isn’t an effective option, since it all but guarantees a repeat of the fighting in the near future. What’s needed are creative plans to reconcile the different demands of all sides.

Michael Koplow suggests an interesting idea: detach Gaza from the West Bank completely, and treat Hamas as the legitimate ruler of the separate and independent state of Gaza. The reason, he argues, is that Hamas won’t moderate, so there is no point in trying to force it to. Let the moderates govern the West Bank and deal with it, and in this way prove to Palestinians that negotiating with Israel, rather than threatening it, works.

Although the idea has support among former officials in the Israeli security establishment (Giora Eiland, former National Security Advisor, has been the most prominent advocate of a separate Gazan state), and it may even be the case that Hamas itself prefers this outcome, it’s not clear this is an effective long-term solution.

Letting Hamas establish an independent entity in Gaza, without having to give up its stated goal of replacing Israel with an Islamic state, will only encourage its perception that using violence is a successful tactic. But even more dangerous in the long-term is that separating Hamas-ruled Gaza from Fatah-governed West Bank will put the two in competition with each other. The effect of institutionalizing and legitimizing this rivalry will be the opposite of what Koplow suggests: It will privilege Hamas’s hardline stance and underline the weakness of Fatah’s claims that negotiations are the best way to achieve a Palestinian state.

The two states would immediately enter into a contest with each other over scarce resources. This includes trade and aid from Arab states and others, as well as diplomatic support in international forums.

It seems more likely that governments emphasizing an Islamic orientation like the AKP in Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to say nothing of Iran and Hezbollah, would seek to support Hamas at the expense of Fatah, depriving the latter of legitimacy in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Israel alone, even with the U.S., would not be enough to prop up Fatah—indeed, its support would be seen as a transaction with more costs than benefits.

Separation would have secondary effects in the internal politics of those states that have overthrown their authoritarian regimes. Instead of being the unifying symbol the Palestinian cause used to be, it would become a divisive issue in domestic Arab politics.

Finally, it’s also more likely that Israel would choose to privilege Hamas over Fatah—at least until the right is no longer dominant in Israeli politics. Because the right doesn’t want to give up the West Bank, either for security reasons or because it’s considered an integral part of Israeli identity, the incentive to deal with hardliners in Hamas and dress it up as a peace process with the Palestinians will be stronger than engaging in genuine compromise with Fatah over the difficult question of the settlements.

I’ve suggested, instead, that Israel work with others to tie Fatah and Hamas together. There is, as Koplow notes, a danger that Hamas will swallow up Fatah. But giving both a stake in the same system will make it less likely either would feel it beneficial to jump ship and go it alone. It will give outside actors more incentive to deal with the whole rather than the individual parts, which in turn would strengthen the entire PA. And it will strengthen the idea that violence and threat don’t work, but negotiation and compromise do.

None of this will be easy—any plan would require major concessions by all sides and heavy pressure from outsiders. But long-term stability and mutual recognition would be best served by making Israel, Hamas, and Fatah more dependent on each other’s successes than by completely separating them.