As June opened, it was easy to joke that an honest headline writer could only proclaim “Hamas Gives Up Control of Gaza; Israel Outraged.” But with the abduction of three Israeli teenagers who were reportedly hitchhiking in the West Bank, it is clear that the implications of the current political situation are not funny. Yes, the Hamas ministers who governed Gaza since its 2007 split with the West Bank have left office to pave the way for a technocratic Cabinet trying to reunite the Palestinians. And yes, Israel is outraged.
But now three young lives hang cruelly in the balance. And whatever their fate, the region’s leaders seem able to produce only short-term, reactive policies that expose their own political bankruptcy. In the absence of even a pretense of a peace process, episodic violence, escalating rhetoric and unilateral actions are all they have to offer.
Without new leadership or new ideas, we are only likely to see further descent into the ugliest forms of conflict. The Israeli, American and Palestinian leaderships all seem powerless in the face of forces they themselves have unleashed by action and inaction. Those forces have not merely buried two-state diplomacy, but now also threaten to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into an inconclusive generational struggle with neither winners nor resolution.
For its part, the Israeli leadership has imposed a clampdown on the West Bank generally, arrested a wide swath of Hamas leaders and deployed harsh rhetoric — extremely threatening against Hamas, and contemptuous of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority that he leads. Whether the Israeli government can rescue the teens is unknown.
Meanwhile, the rhetorical bluster cannot obscure the underlying problems for Israel’s leaders that only a few will openly admit. First, “security cooperation,” as it is called — in which P.A. security forces help prevent attacks on Israeli targets and suppress anti-Israel activity — has worked to greater and lesser degrees over the past two decades. Life for Israel (and for Israelis) has been better with it than without it.
Second, the existence of the P.A. itself is a net plus for Israel, which is why it continues to collect taxes on its leadership’s behalf. The collapse of Palestinian autonomy would undermine Israeli security, likely burden Israel fiscally and damage Israel internationally.
Third, the existence of a Hamas government in Gaza, noxious as it was, not only led to considerable restraint on the part of Hamas, but also led the self-styled “resistance”] movement to force others to scale back their “resistance.” That generally meant less violence; because Hamas had something to lose in Gaza, it usually held its fire.
The Israeli political leadership can offer bluster now, yet can agree on no alternative strategy or even a set of tactics other than to find new ways to prop up the status quo. Of course, the severity of Benjamin Netanyahu’s charges against the P.A. leadership and its agreement with Hamas may back Israel into a rhetorical corner. But to date. at least, little has been done in practice to undermine the wobbly Palestinian autonomy structures.
The United States has reacted in a manner opposite from that of the Israelis: It offers carefully parsed statements suggesting a suspicion of Hamas responsibility for the abduction, and carefully hedged suggestions that the P.A. is cooperating with Israel on the issue.
Most of all, it has continued to push for a new Palestinian cabinet that does not include Hamas in order to avoid triggering draconian cutbacks on aid and contact that are mandated by congressional legislation. These careful statements may help the State Department spokesman survive daily briefings relatively unscathed, but it only illustrates the tightrope the United States has had to walk since the collapse of John Kerry’s peace push.
Having invested all its energies in an Oslo-inspired process in which the supposed beneficiaries have shown, at best, perfunctory interest, the United States is left, like Israel, with only an impulse to shore up the status quo, and hoping something better might come along, someday. That is not leadership; it is barely even coping.
A weak Palestinian leadership can be cowed into accepting the requirements on reconciliation imposed by American law, but any path forward — such as negotiations or Palestinian elections — has either run aground or now faces insurmountable obstacles.
The P.A. leadership has fallen into the same trap of running its hardest only to stay in place. Whatever domestic legitimacy it ever had was in its supposed status as the kernel of a Palestinian state. That seems to have receded now, both as a realistic possibility and as a national goal for many Palestinians.
Unlike Westerners, who deluded themselves that Salam Fayyad was somehow reviving state building, most Palestinians came to conclude that the P.A. simply serves as a convenient front for Israel and Western powers, an employer and provider of some basic services (such as education), and a mechanism for security cooperation with Israel.
The abduction, which has shone attention on that security cooperation, has only highlighted the degree to which the P.A. — at least in Palestinian eyes — is a device for managing Israel’s occupation. The P.A. leadership did manage to get Palestinian reconciliation on its terms, but so far it has brought little else and seems married to no viable long-term strategy.
With Israel, the United States and the P.A. leadership all directionless and devoid of initiative, Hamas at first appears to be different. It did take the initiative of giving up formal power in Gaza governance (though it is still not clear what that means in practice) as part of the unity deal. If Israeli charges are accurate, Hamas then precipitated the current crisis by abducting teenagers.
Yes, Hamas can take short-term actions that even those who know the movement cannot fully predict. But there seems to be no strategic vision driving this player, either; it entered elections, seized power in Gaza and then gave up this same exclusive power, all based on what appear to be somewhat impulsive actions. Having jettisoned the need to show it can administer a poor besieged enclave may allow the movement to return to its violent roots, but that path never seemed to bring the liberation of Palestine much closer. Hamas appears to be rolling the dice rather than pursuing any vision. And in the current political stalemate, that is what passes for an initiative.
It may be time for leaders to stop focusing on odd mixes of meaningless diplomacy, treading water, pusillanimous parsed formula, and truculent rhetoric — but such boldness requires not only political courage, but also new ideas. Without those, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may pass from the realm of clashing national movements struggling to come to mutual terms into simply the interminable misery of two peoples engaged in mutually imposed suffering.
Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.