For a peace process reality check, there is a four-letter word – Gaza. This small territory, about twice the size of Washington, DC, both epitomizes the prospect of peace and forms a major obstacle to fulfilling the vision of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Gaza, after all, was supposed to be part of a projected Palestinian state. That was the fundamental premise of prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to remove all Israelis from Gaza and transfer the territory to the PA in 2005.
At the time, the prospect of a Gaza managed successfully by Palestinians inspired some confidence in negotiating the West Bank piece of the envisioned Palestinian state. Analysts dusted off plans for connecting Gaza and the West Bank by road, bridge or tunnel, while guaranteeing Israel’s security. Europeans and Americans lined up with offers of financial assistance for building Gaza.
But the dream quickly turned into a nightmare. Some Palestinians welcomed the Israeli exit by destroying agricultural and other facilities erected by Jews, and given as a goodwill gesture to local Gazans. Rockets and missiles were launched by the thousands into Israel. And Hamas delivered the final blow by violently seizing control only 18 months after it won the first, and last, Palestinian legislative elections.
Putting its unyielding theology first, Hamas invested in building an infrastructure to wage terror and war against Israel. The Hamas Charter calls explicitly for Israel’s destruction. Refusal to accept the Quartet conditions for a spot at the peace talks – renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of all previous agreements – ensured that Hamas would remain at loggerheads with Palestinian Authority President Abbas and his Fatah faction. Hamas, already on the US list of terror organizations, looked isolated.
But isolation is an ambiguous term. Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza and Khaled Meshaal, from his refuge in Qatar, have been feted by Arab governments as if they were perfectly legitimate interlocutors. Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi’s election as Egyptian president enabled Qatar’s emir and several Arab foreign ministers to visit Gaza. Each embraced Gaza Prime Minister Haniyeh and declared unequivocal support for Hamas. Peace with Israel was not mentioned.
Abbas, who could easily travel to Washington and European capitals, was absent. The leader of the Palestinian people, headquartered in the West Bank city of Ramallah, could not enter the other piece of a putative Palestinian state. When negotiating with Israel, he was not representing Gaza.
Gaza was barely mentioned during US Secretary of State John Kerry’s nine-month effort to achieve Israeli- Palestinian peace based on a two-state settlement. Washington, stung by the fatal suicide bombing of an American diplomatic convoy in Gaza in 2003, had forbidden officials to visit, especially after the Hamas electoral victory in 2006. Visits five years ago by then US Senator John Kerry and by Congressmen Brian Baird and Keith Ellison, who came to examine the aftermath of the 2009 Israel- Hamas war, were the exception, and these Americans did not meet with Hamas officials.
Advocates of a two-state solution had hoped for a different outcome. We will never know what might have happened had Sharon not been felled by a stroke, or if Yitzhak Rabin had not been assassinated. What we do know – and it is crystal clear – is that the Palestinian leadership, given the opportunity in Gaza, squandered it miserably. Together with PA rejections of Israeli peace overtures in 2000, 2001 and 2008, and, most recently, Abbas’s refusal to extend the Kerry-led peace talks and his reconciliation with Hamas have colored perceptions about peacemaking.
Since securing an agreement with Abbas, it has become clear that Hamas will retain control over its large supplies of armaments and continue to reject any peace talks with Israel, because it refuses to alter by one iota the Hamas mission of seeking Israel’s destruction. By joining up with Hamas, Abbas has slighted the United States, which jeopardizes aid to the PA, and relations with Israeli leaders with whom he had been negotiating.
And the regional situation has worsened since that landmark transfer of Gaza nine years ago. In addition to the ongoing threats from Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Hezbollah remains ensconced in Lebanon, jihadist groups are active in northern Sinai, and al-Qaida affiliated terrorists, battling in Syria’s civil war, are now active near the Golan.
The situation may appear grim, but it is not hopeless. Israel has never held back in seeking partners for peace. And the US has been, and will continue to be, critical to achieving Arab-Israeli peace. When the next opportunity may emerge is uncertain, but going forward, the quandary of Gaza as an element in a two-state accord cannot be ignored, however difficult it may be.
The author is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.