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