(photo credit: AP [file])
The recent military takeover of Gaza by Hamas has completely reshuffled the cards of the Palestinian political deck. As with any political earthquake of this magnitude, the new situation presents both opportunities and dangers. What will determine which prevails are the policies that will be adopted to deal with the new realities.
Before exploring what these new policies must be in the context of achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace, it is worth analyzing the failed polices that resulted in the outcome in Gaza, as it is a safe bet that this outcome was not the intended one, save for Hamas, Syria and Iran.
There is no shortage of blame to go around. The Palestinian leadership did not decisively deal either with the growing military threat of Hamas as a militia, nor with the deep rot afflicting Fatah. Hamas, as the new Palestinian political actor, failed to address the international aid embargo levied against the Palestinians and the conditions for its removal. Elements within both Hamas and Fatah unhappy with the Mecca coalition government were encouraged in the belief that they could destroy the other.
Farther afield, Israeli and US policies that focused on isolating Hamas without focusing nearly as much on strengthening Abbas with more than words further weakened the Palestinian president internally and rallied Palestinians around the Hamas "underdog." The Quartet conditions, while necessary as an end result, were unrealistic in their time-frame and their inflexibility in encouraging Hamas's groping movement toward them.
Iran, aspiring to be the main regional power, adopted the Palestinian cause for its own interests and supplied weapons and money to Hamas through a problematic Sinai-Gaza border.
FORMULATING new policies that might achieve their intended results requires first and foremost recognizing three realities. First is that there can be no stability and security for Palestinians, Israelis and the region without minimal unity among the Palestinians, just as there can be no peace process without minimal Palestinian consensus.
Second is that a policy of feeding the West Bank and starving Gaza is illusionary. No current or future Palestinian leader worth his salt will sit idly by while 1.5 million civilians in Gaza suffer collective punishment for the Hamas take-over. In addition, a hungry and seething population will not blame Hamas for its condition but will instead undoubtedly swell the ranks not only of Hamas, but also much more ominously of al-Qaida and affiliated organizations.
Third is that Hamas cannot be eliminated from the Palestinian political scene or destroyed militarily. Owing much of its formative development to Israeli support and its official political ascendancy to the insistence of the US on the elections that brought it to power, it has become a permanent fixture of the Palestinian landscape, supported by a sizable minority of Palestinians and Iranian and Syrian patrons.
GIVEN THESE three realities, the formulation of policies that preserve Palestinian unity, realize Israeli security, and set the path toward a peaceful and negotiated settlement of the conflict based on the two-state solution need to contain the following ingredients.
The Palestinian president and new prime and finance ministers must be allowed freedom in disbursing international aid not only to the West Bank but also to Gaza, whether to meet Gaza's humanitarian needs or to pay the salaries of those workers in Gaza, including members of the security services, whose allegiance is to the new government.
Efforts to strengthen Abbas and his platform of achieving statehood through peaceful negotiations must move beyond lip service and include Israeli freezing of settlements and removal of outposts and checkpoints, releasing Palestinian prisoners, resuming the handover of Palestinian tax revenues and last but certainly not least, beginning serious talks on a final political settlement.
Justified efforts to isolate Hamas militarily, diplomatically, and politically must allow the organization an out, a path to evolving into strictly a political organization through meeting conditions within a realistic time-frame.
Immediately, would be Hamas's total adherence to a cease-fire and giving Abbas complete authority to negotiate a permanent settlement with Israel.
Later, would be recognition of Israel.
Otherwise Hamas will return to its role as a spoiler outside the political arena with violent consequences for Israelis and Palestinians.
STRENGTHENING Abbas and reforming Fatah will allow Abbas to negotiate a future power-sharing agreement with a reforming Hamas from a position of equality and credibility with the Palestinian people. It will also make statehood look real enough to Palestinians for the majority to abandon Hamas's vision and appeal.
When Palestinians come to believe that a real two-state deal is available through Abbas, many will reconsider their support of Hamas as has consistently been shown by polls showing a majority of Palestinians supporting a two-state solution.
Finally, the US as the indispensable actor to the conflict must re-engage in a serious and sustained manner. Though too late to achieve the Bush vision of a Palestinian state in the remaining months of his presidency, serious groundwork can be laid upon which the next administration can build.
The alternative is not simply the end of the Palestinian dream of statehood, but the maturing of the most extreme Islamist elements already in evidence in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza. That whirlwind will be reaped by all.
The writer is the executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine.