The United States is about to get new secretaries of state and defense and a new director of Central Intelligence. It is devoutly to be hoped that they will not travel in the well-worn grooves of the Israel-Palestinian “peace process.” The “two-state solution,” beloved of the United States and the Quartet and accepted with qualifications by Israel, is dead. Far from dying over Israeli intransigence and even less the result of houses for Jewish people on the “wrong” side of an imaginary line, it foundered over concessions required of the Palestinians that were simply impossible for them. Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah were asked:
- To concede sovereignty over their part of the larger Arab/Muslim patrimony to the Jews and — perhaps more important — to agree that Palestinian national aspirations would be forever satisfied with a split rump state squeezed in between a hostile Israel and a hostile Jordan; and
- To concede that Palestinians who left the areas that became Israel in 1948 (and their descendants) would accept citizenship in the abovementioned rump state instead of having what they believe is their original property restored as promised.
Those were the issues that drove Yasser Arafat away from Camp David II in 2000, according to then-U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross. “For him to end the conflict is to end himself,” said Ross. What Arafat couldn’t, Abbas certainly cannot.
And so, while the U.S.-led Quartet thought it was pressuring Israel to make concessions to Abbas, Abbas rightly understood that the pressure was on him to live up to the Arafat standard. Or not. Abbas’s response — both reasonable and desperate — has been to try to change the subject to settlements, boycotts, U.N. membership or anything else to drive the discussion away from his limitations and back to Israel. The U.S. has been all too happy to take the bait.
Abbas, however, is finding it harder to buy time. He is caught among the competing interests of a resurgent Hamas’s desire to take over Palestinian governance; his own political failures and the need to find a safe place for himself and Fatah leadership if Hamas succeeds; Israel’s need to ensure that Hamas doesn’t succeed; and King Abdullah’s fear of dispossession, a fear Israel shares.
On Friday, thousands of Fatah supporters celebrated the first Hamas-authorized Fatah rally in the Gaza Strip since the bitter 2007 Palestinian civil war that ensconced Hamas as Gaza’s sole power. Noting the Hamas rally in the West Bank in late December, analysts posit a thaw in relations, and indeed, professions of Palestinian “unity” have been ubiquitous. But, oddly, it was called Fatah’s “48th anniversary” celebration. Fatah was, in fact, born in 1959, not 1964. It is the PLO that was created by the Arab League in 1964 over the objection of Fatah, which joined it only in 1967. Yasser Arafat became chairman in 1969.
The date may be a reference to the PLO and its Charter, the defining document of the Palestinian movement and perhaps the basis of future Hamas-Fatah “unity.” The Charter was to have been amended under the terms of Oslo and subsequent accords but, contrary to peace process optimists, it never happened. The PLO Charter remains the blueprint for Palestinian organization. It asserts that “Palestine” exists within the boundaries of the British Mandate of Palestine (Article 2)1. That the establishment of Israel is “entirely illegal” (Article 19). That “armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine. Thus it is the overall strategy, not merely a tactical phase” (Article 9)2. “The liberation of Palestine … aims at the elimination of Zionism in Palestine” (Article 15). There’s more if you need it.
Fatah is broke, corrupt, and despised by West Bank Arabs. In a poll last May, 96% of Palestinian 18- to 30-year-olds said corruption in the PA was either a “very important” or “important” priority, topping personal freedom, unemployment, and education. “Occupation” came in just above “boredom.” The U.N. vote on Palestine’s “non-member state” status may have made things worse by raising expectations that Fatah cannot meet. In what appears to be a bid for support, Fatah wiped out the electricity debts of Palestinian “refugees,” prompting outrage from non-refugee Palestinians who wanted theirs canceled as well. And in a bid for relevance, Abbas announced that henceforth, all documents of the Palestinian Authority will be labeled “State of Palestine.”
How is stationery supposed to compete with Hamas, which is on a roll? It has broken out of isolation, seen the blockade of Gaza eased, and received a nice check from the Emir of Qatar. All of which was made possible, says Hamas, by adherence to the “armed struggle” against Israel and the great “November War” against Israel. While more objective observers may think that last bit is delusional, in a December poll, more than 70% of Palestinians believe that Hamas won, and 74% believe that shooting rockets at Israel helps the Palestinian cause. Repressed on the West Bank since the civil war, Hamas nevertheless slightly outpolls Fatah in popularity.
Abbas has tried to align Fatah with some of Hamas’s popularity. It has been curtailing security cooperation with the IDF and created barriers to IDF operations in the West Bank. There are those who believe that a third “intifada” has already begun; there were 111 terror attacks in the West Bank in December, including Molotov cocktails, shootings, and stabbings. If “unity” comes, it will likely be more under Hamas’s rules than those of Fatah.
However, amid the amity, Hamas did sentence a Fatah “military commander” to fifteen years in prison for terrorism on Wednesday. Fatah denounced the sentence, saying it came from an “illegitimate court.” So Fatah appears to be hedging its bets.
In recent weeks, there have been discussions between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and King Abdullah II of Jordan, and between Abbas and King Abdullah. Both appear to involve the idea of a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation of some sort at some time. Abbas insists that any such move could follow only full Palestinian independence on Palestinian terms — i.e., the “right of return,” Jerusalem, etc. On the other hand, at least one report on the Netanyahu-Abdullah meeting suggests that Israel sees early confederation as a way to sidestep the problem of demanding that “Palestine” formally recognize Israel; Jordan already does.
The fact that the conversation(s) are (or appear to be) taking place suggests that the relevant parties are — not for the first time — well ahead of the U.S. in understanding that the ground is shifting. The new constellation in Washington will have to decide fairly quickly what allies to support and how best to do it before the administration finds itself bereft of both allies and options.