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Playing Favorites in Palestine

One of the first questions that President Obama’s Mideast envoy George Mitchell will have to address is how to deal with a politically empowered Hamas and a politically weakened Fatah.

Some counsel that America should continue its policy of trying to strengthen Fatah and undermine Hamas. But attempts to pit one Palestinian faction against another have been, and will continue to be, counterproductive (not to mention contradicting our respect for democracy). In the interests of ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and ensuring Israel’s security in the Middle East, the United States should instead be dealing with all elected representatives of the Palestinian people.

Historically, Israel has sought to elevate a Palestinian leadership that would promote its national security interests. At the same time, Israel has continued expropriating Palestinian territory via settlement expansion. As it grew clear to even the most hopeful Palestinian that the occupation was not ending, Israel became unable to maintain a Palestinian leadership willing to guarantee its security. Israel would then turn against and seek to destroy the Palestinian leadership that it had previously built up.

Consider the Oslo Accords agreed to by Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in 1993. The accords brought the first intifada to an end and succeeded in providing a measure of calm in Israel for almost seven years (albeit punctuated by episodes of intense violence, such as the Hebron massacre by Baruch Goldstein in 1994 and the Hamas suicide bombings in 1996). The period of 1998 to September 2000 was among the quietest in Israel’s history, until rapid settlement increase and a lack of political progress finally became impossible for Palestinians to ignore. Israel’s response to the resulting second intifada was to destroy Arafat’s structure of governance in both the West Bank and Gaza in 2002, while effectively imprisoning the Palestinian leader until his death in 2004.

Today, Israel is once again attempting to build up a Palestinian leadership capable of serving its security interests. During the past 18 months, Israel cooperated with the United States in rebuilding the Fatah security forces in the West Bank while simultaneously attempting to destroy the elected Hamas government ruling in Gaza through intense pressure on Gaza’s civilian population. This culminated in the three-week war on Gaza that resulted in the deaths — according to the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights — of 1,285 Palestinians, including 895 civilians, of whom 280 were children, as well as the destruction of schools, universities, government ministries, factories and mosques.

In the absence of a political deal for the creation of a Palestinian state, Palestinian security forces in the West Bank will inevitably respond to social pressure to defend Palestinians from Israelis — including ever more aggressive settlers — instead of the other way around. Israel will respond, as it has in the past, by destroying those security units and the civilian government to which they report.

There is a better way.

If, as it appears, President Obama seeks to finally end this conflict, America should stop playing Palestinian (or Israeli) politics and begin pursuing American interests. This may require using American allies — such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey or the Europeans — as mediators with Hamas, while the United States engages directly with the elected representatives of the Palestinians, including independent politicians.

The goal of any discussions with Hamas must be to ensure that Gaza is opened to the world and that Hamas and Israel maintain a cease-fire until a permanent agreement can be reached. The basis for this already exists: Hamas has said it would end hostilities from Gaza for a period of one year — as opposed to Israel’s demand for 18 months — in exchange for a lifting of the siege on the 1.5 million Palestinians living there. That is consistent with Israeli security interests.

In the West Bank, the United States should begin to negotiate with Fatah, through the structure of the now symbolic Palestine Liberation Organization, on a permanent-status agreement. But America should also make it clear that it will not oppose a Palestinian unity government, such as the one that resulted from the Mecca agreement of 2007, in which the PLO would be empowered by Hamas to negotiate with the United States and Israel on the condition that any agreement would be submitted to a binding referendum. Ironically, after the failed policies of the last eight years, Hamas may now be needed to legitimize the PLO’s efforts.

One thing is certain: Continuation of the regime-change agenda of the Bush era will again lead to death and suffering — two elements that are the worst enemies of a sustainable peace.

Amjad Atallah is director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. He was a legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team from 2000 to 2003.

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