hamas fatah talks 248.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Everything in the Israeli-Palestinian and Palestinian-Palestinian spheres is connected these days: Gaza cease-fire talks, Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange talks, the new international aid effort for Gaza, the Gaza crossings issue and renewed Palestinian unity talks. The complexities of the situation are not easy to unravel. Yet for Israel, for moderate Palestinians and Arabs and for the international community, one truth must stand out: the emergence, out of this confluence of events and dynamics, of a Palestinian unity government in the near future could be a disaster.
A new unity government almost certainly means a formula for holding elections for the Palestinian Authority presidency and parliament no later than next January. As matters now stand, Hamas is liable to win those elections. According to Palestinian public opinion experts, Hamas emerged from the recent Gaza war stronger than ever, especially in the West Bank, where the Fatah party has been neither reformed nor rebuilt.
This means that a unity government could quickly confront Israel with the challenge of Hamas rule rather than "unity" rule in the West Bank as well as Gaza. At that point, it would not matter whether Israel, for its part, was governed by a narrow right-wing coalition or a broad center-right coalition: it would react with great alarm. So would Jordan, which does not want a Palestinian entity administered by the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas) on its western border and just reorganized its governing institutions so as better to counter Hamas influence.
Yet even prior to new Palestinian elections, a Hamas-Fatah unity government is almost certain to mean serious backsliding in West Bank security. The entire successful restructuring of PA security forces under General Keith Dayton has been directed not only at restoring law and order but at sharply restricting Hamas activity on the West Bank. Is it conceivable that Hamas would agree that these tough anti-Hamas security measures continue when it constitutes half the PA government? And yet, counter the proponents of a unity government, Hamas would also have to make compromises for Fatah to agree to share rule with it again. Some argue that Hamas would have to accept the Quartet's three preconditions of renouncing terrorism, accepting past agreements and recognizing Israel. It would have to agree that Fatah, meaning the PA as currently configured, administer the Gaza crossings and the extensive reconstruction aid being discussed by the international community at Sharm e-Sheikh and elsewhere.
There are three problems with these calculations: big, bigger and biggest. The big problem is that Fatah is relatively weak and Hamas strong, politically. It's clear who will be negotiating from a position of strength and how this will influence the outcome.
THE BIGGER PROBLEM is that advocates of the two-state solution look at the map and argue that a unity government is the only way to save it. Otherwise, the West Bank and Fatah will remain under separate governments and evolve into separate political entities. To this contention the reply is simple: under current circumstances, better to maintain the components of a three-state solution, with Israel and the PLO negotiating over the West Bank and Hamas contained inside Gaza, than to install effective Hamas rule in the West Bank as well as Gaza - which would preclude any solution at all.
Finally, the biggest problem is that none of the principals - Israel, the Quartet, the PLO and Egypt - has a workable strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza. Military force has failed to weaken Hamas; so has economic warfare (closing the Israel-Gaza crossings). Indirect contacts via Egypt and others, where issues like linking a cease-fire to a prisoner exchange are discussed, have failed. Indeed, tying the future of Israel's relationship with the Gaza Strip to the fate of a single IDF soldier reflects a bankruptcy of new strategic ideas in Jerusalem. And the notion of linking direct contacts with concessions on the part of Hamas has also failed. Under these circumstances, wherein no one really understands what has to be done regarding Hamas, encouraging the formation of a unity government appears near suicidal, if only because the outcome is so fraught with danger and uncertainty.
Israel and the Quartet would be better off abandoning their preconditions, opening the passages - thereby virtually assuring a cease-fire - and offering to talk to Hamas about long-term coexistence, even as Israel and the PLO talk in parallel about a political solution. Hamas would still be considered a terrorist organization as long as it directs violence at civilians. But because it successfully controls finite Palestinian territory, it - unlike other terrorist organizations - cannot be ignored politically.
If in this way progress can be made toward new political understandings with Hamas, while Israeli-PLO talks generate greater West Bank stability and begin rolling back the settlements and outposts - then and only then would the scene be set for encouraging a unity government. Alternatively, assuming that Hamas does not moderate its positions and continues to expand its influence as the dominant political power among Palestinians - a very possible outcome in view of emerging sociopolitical trends in the Arab Middle East - at least Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the West will know where they stand vis-Ã -vis the Islamists and can calculate what has to be done to secure the strategically-located West Bank.
In the absence of a functioning and moderate Israeli government with which to discuss these issues, this is where the Obama administration could best devote its near-term efforts.
The writer is co-editor of the bitterlemons.org family of Internet publications and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.