Time to deal separately with Gaza

A Hamas-Fateh unity agreement is bad for the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, at least in the near term. If the current unity efforts are crowned with success, PLO negotiators with Israel, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, will have to show deference to Hamas sensitivities and toughen their stand on issues like the right of return. Assuming new Palestinian elections are the first order of business of a unity agreement, Fateh and Hamas will compete in displaying a hard line and peace negotiations will have to be postponed.

So obvious does this seem that one wonders what motivates Fateh to agree to talk unity while at the same time demanding final status talks. Why does Egypt, which is presumably dedicated to successful Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, continue all these years and months to shepherd endlessly abortive Palestinian unity talks? Why are appeals made to Syria to pressure Hamas to modify its unity demands when the only way to seriously influence Syrian positions is through a Syrian-Israeli peace process, about which the moderate Arab states are not enthusiastic? Why did the Obama administration seemingly wake up only last month to the detrimental effects of a unity agreement for the peace process and petition Cairo to desist?

I can conceive of two possible answers. One is that it’s all a sham and everyone is just going through the motions in the name of political correctness, with Cairo finding in abortive unity talks a convenient and harmless way to keep tabs on Hamas and leverage its failing regional leadership aspirations. The other is that the alternative to Palestinian unity–Palestinian disunity, i.e., the ongoing Gaza/West Bank, Hamas/Fateh geopolitical split–is simply so awful to imagine that unity efforts will continue no matter what the cost.

Under present circumstances, a successful Palestinian-Israeli peace process means an agreement with the West Bank alone, even though both Israel and the PLO would declare their intention that it eventually apply to the Gaza Strip as well. Eventually–because there currently is no prospect that Gaza will be pried loose of the Hamas grip. But an agreement with the West Bank alone is better–for Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab states and the world–than none.

And yet, argue the unity-at-all-costs advocates, a state in the West Bank alone won’t be "viable". As if the Palestinian West Bankers with their superb human resources and dedicated diaspora can’t create a state at least as viable as any other non-oil state in the Arab world. As if the addition of the overpopulated and impoverished Gaza Strip makes a state more viable. As if the emergence of a state in the West Bank won’t provide the greatest incentive possible for Hamas to moderate its ideology and join.

Rather, the real dilemma embodied in any effort to confront the possibility of a successful peace process without Gaza is the question, what to do with Gaza on its own. Certainly neither Egypt nor Israel, Gaza’s two neighbors, wishes to confront that question. Moderate Palestinians obviously shy away from contemplating the consequences of moving forward on the West Bank without Gaza: this would shatter their narrative of a two-state solution based on a Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Yet, if there is to be any viability to the notion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process mediated by the United States, it’s time for all parties concerned to recognize that, for the time being at least, Gaza is a separate entity. We all have to begin reevaluating our failed strategies for Gaza. We need to look for new strategies that don’t interfere with the process but are not, of necessity, a part of that process.