Analysis: Keeping Hamas Away from the West Bank

It seems that Israel and the US fell in love with the idea of the separation between a Hamas-led Gaza and a Fatah-led West Bank.

Abbas sits 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Abbas sits 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Wednesday's killing in Gaza indicates that even following the optimistic statements expressed in Sharm only two days ago, the transition to a new reality is still very far. Moreover, it should serve as a wake-up call for the Israeli government that the violence on the Israeli-Gaza border may eventually trickle to the West Bank (WB) as well. The main goal of the Sharm summit was to affirm President Mahmoud Abbas's status following Hamas' takeover of Gaza. Although no major decisions were made, the participants created the impression that Sharm was just the beginning of a broader political process between Israel and the Fatah government. It seems that Israel and the US fell in love with the idea of the separation between a Hamas-led Gaza and a Fatah-led WB. Although the collapse of the Rafah Agreement raises the fear of increased arms smuggling into Gaza, the Hamas government can at least serve as an address, facing the burden of responsibility towards its population, and the Fatah government as a political partner, receiving Israel's full support. Despite the skepticism that exists regarding Abbas capacity to become a real partner, Israel knows that without a political horizon, Abbas may lose the WB to Hamas. Under the same logic, it is clear that failed negotiations with Abbas could lead to the same disastrous result. The main reason for the political stalemate since the collapse of the peace process following the 2000 Camp David summit has been the absence of a Palestinian partner. Hamas' electoral victory further aggravated the Palestinian political dysfunction due to overlapping powers and authorities between President Abbas and the Hamas Government headed by Haniyeh. By staging a coup in Gaza, Hamas allegedly broke the rules of the game, and allowed Abu-Mazen to bypass the constitutional deadlock by firing the Hamas government. Indeed, The Sharm summit reflected the underlying assumption that following Fatah's defeat in Gaza, Hamas fully controls Gaza while Fatah has sufficient control in the WB to become the Palestinian address there. However, Fatah's inherent weakness is still severe: First, Fatah is divided from within, and not all its factions subjugate to the central leadership or refrain from terrorism against Israel; second, Fatah, unlike Hamas, is no longer a 'movement of the people'. With no apparent social and economic agenda, Fatah may not be able to unify its ranks and gain the support of the masses; third, recent elections for the Legislative Council suggest that Hamas may be more popular than Fatah in the WB; fourth, Hamas military strength in the West Bank should not be underestimated; and last, the existence of a multitude of security forces still plagues the PA, and complicates its ability to uphold public order and govern effectively. It is a common knowledge that the first step in problem-solving is identifying the problem. However, the problem facing Israel is especially entangled: on the one hand, without negotiations, Israel is likely to soon receive Hamas in the WB; on the other hand, unsuccessful negotiations would likely lead to the same outcome. This is why negotiations between Israel and Abbas must not fail. Therefore, Israel should guarantee two factors prior to negotiations: First, the advanced build-up of Fatah as an address in the West Bank, so that it can take full responsibility for the well-being of the residents in the WB and effectively control its territory; and Second, an agreement between Israel and Fatah, made in advance, on the scope of negotiations. Currently, Abbas argues for negotiations over a permanent status agreement and rejects the idea of the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders. However, without controlling Gaza, there are increased prospects that the political process would lead to either an agreed upon Israeli realignment in the WB, or a performance-based agreement which distinguishes between the signing of a permanent status agreement and its implementation. The writer is an Analyst Team Leader in the Reut Institute for Policy planning