Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad
But Direct Israeli Negotiation With (Some) Palestinians Is Over-Sold
By Steve Schippert
Every American administration seeks to publicly position itself as the harbinger of Middle East peace and the new collection of minds capable of resolving a conflict beyond the reach of all others. It was true of the Bush administration and those before it and it is true of the Obama administration. So, before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Obama and the media get too carried away with a rare foreign policy achievement by the Obama administration, let's take care to temper expectations with reality over desire.
The announcement that direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians is set to resume this September is welcome news. Of course, there will be the usual mediators: the "Quartet." And, before considering the suggestions to follow, it must be stated that Israel is right to talk to any adversarial group that is willing to engage. The problem is one of unrealistic expectations from the US and the West amid minimal tangible returns possible between Israel and any solitary group absent the other.
The most glaring obstacle to any meaningful and tangible resolution(s) from the direct Israeli-Palestinian talks to be held in Washington, DC, is the list of participants. Or, more accurately, the list of non-participants. I'm talking about Hamas. The Hamas terrorist organization runs one of the two Palestinian territories, the Gaza Strip, without any discernable Palestinian Authority presence, participation or influence. Hamas effectively 'cleansed' Gaza of PA presence with brutal and bloody force. Hamas has effectively neutralized with blunt intimidation those it didn't kill or drive out.
In the larger West Bank territory, the Palestinian Authority - aka Fatah, and the current iteration of Yassir Arafat's PLO - has control, but not nearly the absolute control exercised by its rival Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Hamas has a sizable presence in certain towns of the West Bank.
Hamas is definitely not at the negotiating table. Nor, most certainly, will it ever be.
This means that, no matter what is agreed upon by the parties negotiating in Washington, expecting ground-breaking developments is delusional. Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas can agree to peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Without an aggressor like Hamas party to the agreement, it means nothing.
Absent Hamas' consent to any meaningful agreement, rockets and missiles will rain down on Israeli cities and towns as far as they can reach from Gaza, and likely from Hizballah as well to the north in Lebanon. Egypt and Jordan's presence does not compel Hamas to accept, nor will they be able to exert influence and pressure to bring Hamas in line for any agreed peace or any step in that direction.
To be sure, even though the rhetoric is positive and championing the talks as a major success and a foreign policy breakthrough, no one within earshot is suggesting hopes to the degree described above. But the above description is to illustrate a very vital point regarding the entire overall process going forward.
Israel can talk to the Palestinian Authority until the cows come home. The two parties can even reach truly monumental agreements. But it is all for naught unless and until Fatah (Palestinian Authority) and Hamas resolve their differences enough to reliably and trustfully address Israel with a joint, unified voice.
They may resolve their differences through bludgeoning and violence until one power reamins standing with authority. They may resolve their differences through negotiation and trade-offs and share power. They will decide the process. Eventually.
But until they do and resolve the current Palestinian split, negotiating with one party without the other - no matter which - will prove as fruitful as producing water with either oxygen or hydrogen rather than both.
This is not a criticism of the participants, the talks themselves or the effort to engage in whichever process avails itself this side of carnage. It is a criticism of those who talk this process up and employ rhetoric that leads others to believe there is greater hope than is warranted. In a very basic sense, uncomplicated by nuance and intellectual horsepower, it is more important in the longer view to bring Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to a table than it is to bring Israel and either party to another.