Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Why Palestinian Unity Is Good For Everyone

By Stephen M. Walt 
This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 11/05/2011

I've been buried with end-of-term obligations and some other administrivia, so I haven't posted anything since last week. Fortunately, you've all got the whole web to feast upon, so I doubt that anyone's been suffering from withdrawal.

Given all the other things that have been happening lately -- hey, did you hear we got bin Laden? -- I also haven't written anything about the unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas that was announced more than a week ago. Several correspondents weighed in by email and asked me what I thought of it, so here goes.

The first and most obvious point to remember is that the agreement is very fragile. There's a lot of bad blood between the two main Palestinian factions, stemming both from doctrinal and strategic differences but also from a lot of prior violence between the two. Fatah conducted a harsh crackdown on Hamas during the 1990s-in an attempt to prove to the U.S. and Israel that it was serious about controlling terror -- and the two groups fought a short civil war in Gaza in 2007. Incompetent U.S. "leadership" helped cause that war: not only did the US refuse to accept the results of the 2006 Palestinian elections because we were miffed that Hamas had won, but then we tried to arm Fatah and encouraged it to attack Hamas, which led the latter to preempt and drive the less effective Fatah cadres out. In other words, the United States helpedfoment a little civil war, and then the side we were backing lost. Well done!

Of course, those who oppose the creation of Palestinian state promptly denounced the recent unity agreement, declaring that of course one could never negotiate with a "terrorist organization." I've never understood this position, given that many current governments had their origins in groups that used terrorist methods as part of struggle to gain national independence, and several terrorist leaders (including some former IRA members, Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Shamir, and Menachem Begin) have all been welcomed at the White House. The U.S. government has backed its own "terrorist" groups on occasions, and some U.S. leaders are now openly hoping that bin Laden's death will encourage the Taliban -- which also relies on terrorism -- to come to the table and get serious about talks to end the war in Afghanistan. The obvious point is that sometimes states negotiate with groups using terrorist methods, if they are seriously interested in ending a conflict and they have sufficient reason to believe that the "terrorist" group is too. It didn't make sense to negotiate with bin Laden or al Qaeda, obviously, but it might with Hamas.

Israel and the United States now say that they won't negotiate with Hamas because it refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist and because its charter contains some hateful and frankly bizarre clauses, including an endorsement of that old Tsarist fraud, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Here I find it hard to understand Hamas's reluctance to jettison rhetorical positions that serve no positive purpose and merely make it easy for their opponents to portray them as unreasonable. I can see why they might hold back on formal recognition-it's one of the last cards they have to play, and Fatah's decision to recognize Israel back in the late 1980s hasn't stopped the continued expansion of Israeli settlements or led to a Palestinian state. But Hamas could advance its own cause mightily if they made it clearer that they would be willing to recognize Israel provided that it withdrew to the 1967 borders and allowed for the creation of a Palestinian state. Some Hamas leaders have hinted about movement along these lines, but being less coy about it would place the Netanyahu government in a very difficult political position, especially now.

Despite these reservations, however, I think the unity agreement is in fact in everyone's interest. It is certainly in the Palestinians' interest, as they are already weak and vulnerable and internal divisions just make that situation worse. And given the current balance of power and the broader international situation, violence is not the Palestinians' best tactic: civil resistance, international publicity, and diplomatic engagement is. And I've always believed that the best way to either marginalize Hamas or force it to moderate its own positions was to make genuine progress toward ending the occupation and creating an independent state, which will make calls for continued resistance fall on deaf ears.

Palestinian reconciliation and unity is ultimately good for Israel too, assuming that Israel wants peace more than land. Divisions among the Palestinians were very useful for Israel during Zionism's expansionist phase, because it made establishment and consolidation of the state possible. But if Israel wants peace, then it needs a Palestinian neighbor that is not wracked by internal divisions: who wants to live next door to a failed state? At this point in Israel's history, in fact, its security would be enhanced by a stable, secure, and legitimate Palestinian government that could keep order in its territory, foster economic development, and when necessary, deal with any die-hard rejectionists that might still exist. (The same goes for Israel too: If a peace deal is ever reached, it will need to be able to control its own right-wing extremists, and that won't be a picnic either.) Ironically, Israel needs an effective Palestinian government as much as the Palestinians do, and that was always going to be hard to achieve so long as the Fatah-Hamas split endures.

Finally, the unity agreement is a potential opportunity for the United States as well, if it helps break the current deadlock and gets movement towards a final status agreement rolling again.  As everyone knows (but some don't want to admit), the persistence of the I-P conflict is a major distraction for the United States and a major contributor to anti-Americanism, at a moment when the United States needs to be shifting its sights toward Asia and improving its relations with the Arab and Islamic world. So the idealist in me would love to believe that this agreement will hold, and that it can be used to jump-start a new diplomatic process (which will probably also involve moving beyond the current U.S. monopoly on this issue).

Alas, the realist in me suspects it won't. So far, nobody ever lost money assuming that things could go badly in that part of the world, or that new opportunities will be squandered.

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