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Who Will Make Peace When Palestinians Are Divided?

Lockout: Aziz Dweik, center wearing scarf, and other Hamas lawmakers leave the Palestinian Legislative Council?s building in Ramallah on March 1 after being denied entry by security forces loyal to the Palestinian Authority. Image by Getty Images

Whenever he is asked about prospects for a two-state solution, Moshe Elad, who was the first head of Israeli-Palestinian security coordination after the Oslo Accords, answers with a question of his own: “In the West, people see removing settlements as the most effective way of moving things forward. But say we reach a point where settlements are removed. Where the hell do we go from there?”

Elad, now a researcher at the Haifa-based Technion, took part in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in the late 1990s, and says that the sticking points today are the same as they were during those meetings. Only at least back then, negotiators on the Palestinian side could talk for their people.

Now, while the same negotiators, members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, claim the same mandate to determine the future of the West Bank and Gaza, the rival Hamas faction rules Gaza. Washington-based Palestinian affairs expert Nathan Brown, who was a member of the international advisory committee on drafting the Palestinian constitution, professes deep concern. “You can get someone to sign on the dotted line — maybe — but if they do, it’s not very clear who they speak for,” he said.

The division cuts to the heart of Palestinian society. According to a poll published in March by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, an independent think tank, 28% of Palestinians believe that the Gaza-based government is the legitimate one, and 26% believe that the West Bank one is legitimate. The question of who speaks for the Palestinians is even more complicated when one considers the fact that some 31% of respondents considered both to be illegitimate.

Locked Out: Hamas lawmakers were recently prevented from entering the West Bank Palestinian Legislative Council building. Image by Getty Images

According to many experts, the ramifications are serious. Even as the Obama administration pushes Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to hold indirect peace talks with Israel, these experts raise the possibility that a final-status agreement, widely seen as the end-game of the conflict, could prove useless if agreed upon.

Shalom Harari, senior research scholar at the Herzliya-based Institute for Counter-Terrorism, said: “Let’s say that suddenly, [Abbas] on the Palestinian side and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu on the Israeli side reach an agreement. How are you going to impose it on Gaza?”

Brown, who is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University, believes that settlement activity and Palestinian disunity are “equally worrying” for the prospects of a two-state solution.

Of course, many Israelis and many Palestinians take issue with Brown’s even-handedness, preferring to see the issue on the other side as more significant. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Andy David said that the emphasis on settlements is a red herring, as Israel showed willingness to dismantle settlements in Gaza and that it is the lack of a reliable Palestinian partner that has ruled out further Israeli concessions. Saeb Erekat, head of the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department, argued: “The Hamas-Fatah split is not the reason why a peace agreement has not been reached, but instead a byproduct of this failure.”

The premise of negotiations has always been that a two-state solution will cover both Gaza and the West Bank. But today, the bodies that back negotiations, the Fatah-dominated PLO and the P.A., are almost powerless in Gaza.

This has been the case since the 2007 military takeover of Gaza by Hamas. Today, Hamas frustrates plans of PLO/P.A. officials daily. In fact, when Nabil Sha’ath, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, visited Gaza in February, it was the first time since 2007 that an official from the Fatah government in the West Bank had gone to the coastal enclave.

Nonetheless, the PLO is the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people, according to the Arab states, the United Nations, the United States and Israel. It is responsible for reaching a final-status agreement with Israel and for ensuring implementation of that agreement.

Excluding Gaza from negotiations is, according to the PLO/P.A. and most of the international community, not an option. While Gaza is many times smaller than the West Bank, it accounts for a large part of the Palestinian population. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics says there are

1.49 million people in Gaza and 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank.

Many take this to mean that however willing Israel is to make concessions, on the Palestinian side it faces one group that is dead set against negotiations, Hamas, while another, the PLO/P.A., that says it is prepared to negotiate but knows that any agreement it reaches will be vetoed by Hamas. “There can be no negotiated solution of any kind in such a setting,” Brown said

Even in its own heartland, the West Bank, question marks hang over the PLO/P.A.’s ability to gain widespread public support for any agreement it may reach. Despite the P.A. retaining overall authority, Hamas is dominant locally in many neighborhoods and long-standing concerns about corruption within the P.A. continue to damage its internal reputation.

There are bitter arguments between Hamas and the PLO/P.A. over rival readings of the Palestinian Basic Law. The main reason for the ambiguity is that the document was drafted by optimists. The P.A. was established during the Oslo process as an interim body until there is an implementation of a final-status agreement, expected to happen by 1999. So, the authors simply stated that the president’s term would last out the interim period, and therefore they made no provision for re-election.

Instead, 1999 came and went without a final-status agreement, but as long as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was alive, it was inconceivable that anybody else would become president. A few months after Arafat’s death in November 2004, an amendment to the Basic Law fixed the term of the president at four years.

Frustration: Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president, has tried to reach an agreement with Hamas, without success. Image by Getty Images

Abbas was elected in January 2005, and Hamas claims that his term ran out in January 2009. But Abbas extended his own term by one year, citing (despite Hamas’s objections) authority in the Basic Law for him to do so. That extension ran out this past January. But new elections are on indefinite hold now, because of the Abbas government’s inability to reach agreement with Hamas on how the poll would be held in Hamas-ruled Gaza. In this legal limbo, Abbas’s presidency continues, however vague its legitimacy.

Meanwhile, Abbas and his supporters are questioning the legitimacy of another political structure. For most of its four-year term, the Palestinian Parliament, known as the Palestinian Legislative Council, hardly operated. This was a result of agreements between Hamas, which has a majority in the chamber, and the second-largest party, Abbas’s Fatah. Now, conflict over the chamber has intensified.

In mid-March, the chamber’s speaker, Aziz Dweik, along with fellow Hamas lawmakers, called a session. The P.A. then instructed caretakers to bar the Hamas legislators, arguing that the parliament’s term ended in January. Dweik claimed authority until new elections are held.

Outside the locked doors, the two factions held rival press conferences. Dweik said that he had taken “all the necessary, constitutional and legal procedures.” Abbas loyalist Ibrahim Khreisheh, the chamber’s secretary general, said that Hamas was, in effect, holding on to its majority by blocking new elections. “If Hamas is keen on the parliament, they should have committed to the law and held elections on time,” he said, going on to claim that Hamas has “attempted to maintain division, disabling parliamentary life and depriving our people from their right to hold elections.”

The battle over legitimacy looks poised to expand to a third arena — local Palestinian politics. The P.A. has set elections for July, but Hamas is planning to boycott them, to block them from taking place in Gaza and to urge its supporters in the West Bank to stay away in order to undermine the balloting’s legitimacy. The decision to go to the polls “was taken unilaterally and would deepen rift and boost separation,” Hamas politician Ahmed Bahar told the Xinhua News Agency as voter registration began in March.

These claims resonate with the public. According to a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 53% of Palestinians say that Abbas has lost his legitimacy as president and 53% say that the parliament has lost its legitimacy. (Even so, a majority of Palestinians place reunification of Gaza and the West Bank as their top priority.)

Some optimists on the Palestinian side believe that as long as Abbas is in office, he could conclude an agreement with Netanyahu and then put it to a popular referendum. That way, Abbas would solve the Palestinian constitutional crisis by solving the conflict, not vice versa. “We cannot keep the final solution hostage to Hamas,” said Salah Abdel-Shafi, P.A. ambassador to Sweden and a member of one of the most influential families in Gaza, in an interview with the Forward. “What is important is to agree borders of a Palestinian state and reach a final status — and we’re not so naive as to think we can implement this overnight.”

The issues that divide Israeli and PLO negotiators have been rehearsed so many times that Abbas and Netanyahu could reach agreement “not in a few months, but in a few hours,” claimed Nagi Sadeq Shurrab, professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. Abbas has enough of a popular mandate to conclude a deal and circumvent Hamas by this ploy, securing a total and immediate freeze to Israeli settlement in the process in order to ensure his popularity among Palestinians, Shurrab said. But it is unclear how an Abbas government unable to reach agreement with Hamas to hold elections in Gaza could do so in the case of a referendum.

If presidential elections did take place, the outcome could embolden Fatah and sideline Hamas, and therefore give a boost to the peace process — or it could do the opposite, extending Hamas’s dominance to the West Bank and pushing Israel and the Palestinians even further from agreement. Alternatively, and more conceivably, the two groups could come together under a power-sharing agreement.

The international community until now has been suspicious of such agreements, applying a policy of nonengagement with Hamas unless it recognizes Israel’s right to exist and renounces violence. This was the reaction in February 2007 when the Palestinians negotiated an arrangement allowing Fatah and Hamas to share control of the P.A., and Abbas, in his capacity as chairman of the PLO, to negotiate with Israel. The Bush administration opposed this unity accord and led an international drive to limit funds to the Palestinians following the formation of a unity government, which subsequently crumbled.

The Obama administration has indicated that it will take a different approach, and today growing voices argue that withholding support for such an agreement has failed to sideline Hamas. Last summer, Ahmed Yousef, senior adviser to the Hamas Foreign Ministry in Gaza, told an interviewer from the Web site “Hamas has shown enough ideological flexibility to convince the world that it can do business with Hamas. Hamas is part of the solution, not the problem.”

Brown says that while it is only “a maybe” that engaging Hamas would lead to results, he sees it as the only option available. He thinks it is possible that in a power-sharing arrangement with Fatah, Hamas could agree to a long-term cease-fire, during which a “slow evolution” toward moderation could take place. He elaborated, “It is not inconceivable to me that this could lead at some point to a comprehensive settlement — but this would be 20 years down the line.”

But what some see as the only route to keep the two-state vision alive, others view as a nail in its coffin. Jonathan Halevi, senior researcher on the Middle East and radical Islam at the Likud-oriented Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, thinks that any Fatah concessions to Hamas would constitute a “grave mistake” that could only lessen chances of an agreement. He asked, “How can Hamas, with its radical agenda, help to reach agreement with Israel?”

Those on the other side ask: As long as Hamas controls Gaza, how can an agreement take place without it?

Contact Nathan Jeffay at [email protected]

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