A strategy for dealing separately with the two Palestines

The Palestinian unity government talks chaperoned in recent months by the Egyptians appear to have failed. Cairo is now talking about forming a joint committee or "executive framework" that will be virtually powerless vis-a-vis the two existing Palestinian governments in Ramallah and Gaza. This appears to constitute primarily a way for all involved to save face without admitting total defeat. The important unity issues–a jointly-formed government with an agreed platform, ground rules for new elections, merging Hamas into the PLO–remain unresolved. In the absence of a unity government, little or none of the international aid pledged for rebuilding dwellings destroyed in the recent war is finding its way into the Strip.

Accordingly, the de facto reality all parties face for the foreseeable future is that of the past two years: three states or political entities–Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Under these circumstances, while a two-state solution remains the only viable outcome to the entire conflict, talk of achieving it in the near future rings hollow. On the other hand, those Israelis who believe the present situation of a divided Palestine works to Israel’s advantage risk cultivating, through neglect, not one but two time bombs in our midst: a militant Islamist Gaza and a weak and unstable West Bank.

Thus, it behooves us to ask: Given that the current "three state" situation is not likely to change in the foreseeable future, how can we make the best of it? Before we contemplate reuniting the West Bank and Gaza, we need two separate strategies for these separate and disparate entities.

In the West Bank, we have to look for ways to ensure that moderates remain in power by implementing genuine confidence- and security-building measures that support them. This means an absolute freeze on all settlement expansion, dismantling of outposts and even–if and when the security situation permits–coordinated unilateral Israeli withdrawal from additional parts of the West Bank. While some form of final status talks may be helpful in creating an incentive for Palestinians–and US President Barack Obama’s resolve in this regard is encouraging–the real work that Obama’s emissary George Mitchell should prioritize is ensuring Israeli and Palestinian compliance with these conflict-management measures in the West Bank. This should be easier to accomplish with the Netanyahu government than insisting immediately on a full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian peace process similar to those that have failed since 1993.

Regarding the Gaza Strip, the situation is more clear-cut: all relevant parties must begin by recognizing that their strategies have failed. Israel’s military strategy failed back in January, as did the economic boycott strategy it pursued for nearly two years with the complicity of Egypt, the PLO and the Quartet. Egypt’s strategy of ensuring that Gaza is an Israeli problem just blew up in Cairo’s face with the revelations about Hizballah’s espionage and sabotage operations on Egyptian soil: Gaza is an Egyptian problem, too. Perhaps this explains why Israel’s reliance on Egypt to mediate ceasefire and prisoner-exchange deals with Hamas has also failed. Meanwhile, Cairo’s attempt to broker renewed Fateh-Hamas unification is failing because Hamas, with Iran’s backing, refuses to compromise its extreme views concerning Israel-related issues while the PLO is too weak to bend Hamas to its will.

Unless and until Hamas radically changes its attitude toward Israel, Jerusalem has every reason to quarantine it from the West Bank, lest a unity government or Palestinian elections strengthen its presence there. But quarantining physically should not mean ignoring politically. It’s time for Israel to signal that it is prepared to talk to Hamas unconditionally. On the initial agenda: prisoner-exchange and a long-term ceasefire. If these can be accomplished, then and only then should they be followed by a joint exploration of ways in which peaceful coexistence with Gaza can be merged with peace with the West Bank. Such an order of business, which is not necessarily incompatible with the Likud’s approach to the conflict, appears more promising than the failed policies of the past two years.

If Hamas refuses to talk directly with Israel–as most but not all Hamas leaders insist–then at least Israel will have taken the initiative and cast off its intransigent image. If Hamas insists on more Arab mediation, Israel should–with all due respect for the good intentions of our Arab friends–refuse. The experience of recent months appears to indicate that the fragmented and weak Arab state system is not up to the task of dealing with militant but dynamic Arab non-state actors in ways that benefit Israel.