On my mind: Palestinian obstacles to statehood

With an Islamist regime allied with Iran in Gaza, and a Western-oriented government in the West Bank, reconciling the pieces is a challenge.

April 5, 2011 23:31
4 minute read.
Palestinian demonstrators call for reconciliation

Palestinian unity rally 311. (photo credit: Reuters)


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The greatest obstacles to attaining Salam Fayyad’s goal of a Palestinian state this year are in his own backyard. They are the ongoing failure to hold new elections, and the rift between Fatah and Hamas. Only the Palestinians can remove these roadblocks.

Palestinian discord has become clearer amid the unrest across the Arab world. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Libya and other countries, citizens clamor to replace long-standing despots with democratic rule, and Islamist forces have reemerged, seeking a role in the still-undefined new order.

Ironically, the Palestinians have pioneered, so far unsuccessfully, wrestling with this political and ideological dichotomy. With an Islamist regime allied with Iran in Gaza, and a Western-oriented government, backed by the US and EU, in the West Bank, how to reconcile the pieces of the prospective bifurcated state remains an essential challenge many in the international community ignore.

While the Palestinian Authority boycotts direct peace negotiations with Israel, country after country is recognizing a Palestinian state that does not yet exist, or is upgrading the status of Palestinian diplomatic representatives. Questions they should be asking are what kind of state do they expect to welcome into the family of nations, and who will be in charge of that state? Whether the leadership will be truly committed to establishing and sustaining democratic rule, or succumb to the extremism of Islamic radicalism is an issue, given that half of the putative state, Gaza, has been under Hamas rule since 2007.

Elections are a necessary – though insufficient – condition for true democracy. But a new state will also need the rule of law, plus civilian control over the military and civil society.

THE RECORD so far is not encouraging. In the last PA elections, held in January 2006 in Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas gained a majority of the legislature seats, and 18 months later violently seized control of Gaza.

Mahmoud Abbas, who in 2006 won the presidency for a two-year term, has resisted holding new elections, even though the legislative and presidential terms expired in January 2009. The last attempt, in January 2010, was cancelled by Abbas when Hamas refused to participate or even allow citizens in Gaza to vote.

More recently, responding to the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Abbas declared in February that local elections would take place in July, and for the presidency in September. However, he quickly withdrew that plan when Hamas balked, reiterating its refusal to recognize his authority.

One senior aide to Abbas spoke publicly about going ahead with elections, even if Hamas, and therefore Gaza, would not participate. A novel, albeit risky idea. If Abbas would proceed with the reforms Fayyad has undertaken, hold limited new elections and return to direct negotiations, there might be a chance to achieve a first stage of statehood in the West Bank.

For Abbas, however, seeking the elusive unity of the Palestinian people trumps regaining the path to democracy, even in part of Palestine.

Reenforcing the stalemate, Abbas has proclaimed again that elections will not happen without Gaza.

In response to the turmoil in surrounding Arab countries, Abbas tendered the resignations of his prime minister and cabinet in mid- February. Fayyad, who was immediately reappointed prime minister, has found that forming a new government is just as difficult as achieving a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. His attempt to create a broader coalition that would include Hamas elicited fierce opposition from both Fatah and Hamas itself.

Abbas, forever aspiring to assert himself as leader, offered to visit Gaza to meet Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. However, even before Hamas terrorists fired dozens of mortar shells and rockets into Israel last month, obstacles to agreeing on the terms and conditions for that visit – the first since 2007 – were even more challenging than getting the PA to sit down again with Israel.

Until Hamas reforms, any reconciliation is impossible, which is the main reason countless Egyptian efforts to mediate have failed. Now, struggles in the wider Arab world between advocates of democracy and Islamists could accentuate Palestinian differences.

This is not the right platform to launch a new state that will be internally stable and coexist in peace and security with Israel, as well as with Egypt and Jordan. A sustainable peace, as the Obama administration continues to stress, can only be achieved through direct negotiations. The sooner these talks resume, the better for all.

Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders, as well as their supporters around the world, should admit that major roadblocks to a successful state have been erected by the Palestinians themselves, and that removing these barriers will require creative initiatives.

The writer is director of communications for the American Jewish Committee.

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