Recent weeks’ developments in and around the Gaza Strip raise an important issue for debate within Israel and among its supporters. Does Israel still have an overriding strategic interest in Palestinian unity? In the immediate future, should one of Israel’s objectives regarding the Palestinians be the restoration of a unity government uniting Fateh and Hamas, the West Bank and Gaza? And in the longer run, is it in Israel’s interest that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank be ruled by a single political actor or institution?
Looked at exactly one year after the abortive Mecca agreement that briefly created a Palestinian unity government this is not a simple issue. It bespeaks a number of complex possible scenarios and questions. Beginning with the obvious, neither Israel nor its neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, should wish to see the West Bank and Gaza unified under Hamas rule. This would empower Muslim extremists on two borders with Israel and in immediate proximity to sister organizations in Cairo and Amman whose rule there, should they ever take over, would constitute a major threat to Israel.
To the extent that Fateh has become a peace-oriented organization and can deliver on a stable two-state solution, Israel does have an interest in restoring Fateh rule in the Gaza Strip. Yet Fateh is too weak and corrupt to carry out a counter-coup in Gaza and take over from Hamas on its own. Under present circumstances, the only conceivable way to reunite the West Bank and Gaza under Fateh rule would be for Israel to conquer and reoccupy the Gaza Strip, then turn it over to Fateh. Not only would this strategy be extremely costly in terms of Israeli and Palestinian lives, but it would cast Fateh in the role of quisling or collaborator with the enemy, thereby hurting its chances of ruling successfully and making peace with Israel. Conceivably, an international force might be introduced into reoccupied Gaza in order to soften this impression by placing the returning Fateh rulers in the international rather than Israeli camp.
An additional scenario is that heralded by the West Bank-based Palestinian leadership, President Mahmoud Abbas and PM Salam Fayyad (and indirectly by the Olmert government in Israel and the international community): a West Bank-based Palestinian-Israeli peace wherein the West Bank prospers under the bounty of international aid and Gaza wallows in poverty. As a consequence (according to this scenario), either Hamas voluntarily foregoes its rule over Gaza or the people of Gaza rise up, overthrow Hamas and restore Fateh rule.
Objectively speaking, however, the likelihood of a successful Olmert-Abbas peace process is extremely low. Nor is Hamas likely to step aside in deference to a West Bank peace or to humanitarian suffering in Gaza.
This brings us to a fourth scenario: reverting to the status quo ante of a Fateh-Hamas unity government, more or less as constituted in the Mecca agreement of February 2007. Yet not only did this sort of coalition government fail once, dissolving into civil war; it was never a candidate for a peace process, embodying as it did radically different Palestinian approaches to Israel, with Fateh’s ostensible willingness to make peace contradicted by Hamas’ rejection of a two-state solution.
Here we come full circle to the present situation. In the absence of a military solution to Hamas’ aggression from Gaza–short of a major ground offensive that could prove extremely costly without guaranteeing long-term quiet and stability–more and more Israeli strategic thinkers are suggesting that we explore the possibility of a long-term hudna or ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza. Were such an effort to be undertaken and prove successful, it would have the immediate effect of ending any possibility of Palestinian unity.
And there would be additional strategic consequences. On the one hand, peace and quiet would reign in the Sderot and Ashkelon regions of Israel that border on the Gaza Strip, as well as in the eastern Egyptian Sinai, bordering on Israel and Gaza, and of course inside the Strip as well. This is no mean achievement in terms of the welfare of both Israelis and Palestinians. On the other hand, the leadership status of Abbas and Fayyad would be challenged by Hamas’ "success" and by the Hamas ceasefire model; nor could Abbas and Fayyad even pretend to be negotiating in the name of Gazan Palestinians. In other words, the peace process would suffer a setback and Fateh rule in the West Bank might be called into question. Meanwhile, Hamas would exploit the ceasefire to continue building up its military forces in the Strip, unimpeded by the IDF. This could have very negative long-term consequences for the balance of forces in the broader region.
Finally, we confront proposals by certain Israeli right wing strategic thinkers who are convinced there is no near-term possibility of a successful peace process and seek, as an alternative, to revert to a pre-1967 scenario in which Egypt is drawn into exercising dominant influence in Gaza and Jordan in the West Bank, thereby separating the two under different Arab national flags. The recent Hamas-engineered mass breach of the border into Sinai added additional Israelis from the center to this camp insofar as they perceive an opportunity for Israel to transfer Gaza’s economic and infrastructure dependency from Israel to Egypt.
The obvious problem with these scenarios is that Cairo and Amman are not interested. Egypt has enough problems of its own with its indigenous Muslim Brotherhood without adopting Hamas. Jordan already has too large a Palestinian population for its own demographic good without returning to rule over the West Bank. They want the Palestinian issue to be solved by Israel, not themselves.
To sum up, Hamas rule in Gaza is dangerous for Israel, which needs a stable two-state solution unifying Gaza and the West Bank. Hence Israel has a strategic interest in Palestinian unity under Fateh. But it has few ways to make this happen. Of all the diverse scenarios that touch on the issue of Palestinian unity, the one that is increasingly likely–in view of ongoing aggression from Gaza–is an Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip with the objective of eliminating Hamas rule there. But if it fails to dislodge Hamas or end the violence emanating from Gaza, it sows even greater Palestinian disunity.