Political factions Fatah and Hamas must reconcile in order to pursue a sustainable peace in the Palestinian territories, and if and when a power-sharing agreement is brokered, the international community must be willing to accept it, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG).
"As long as the Palestinian schism endures, progress is on shaky ground. Security and a credible peace process depend on minimal intra-Palestinian consensus," it said.
The report comes amidst renewed calls by President George W. Bush to jump-start a dormant Middle East peace process that has, thus far, received a lukewarm reaction from Arab nations and Israel. But it appears the Bush administration remains intent on exploiting the Palestinian fissure even further by presenting two starkly different options for a resolution.
"There is the vision of Hamas, which the world saw in Gaza… By following this path, the Palestinian people would guarantee chaos, and suffering and the endless perpetuation of grievance… They would crush the possibility of a Palestinian state," Bush said in a Jul. 16 speech aimed at promoting a new peace conference that would assess how to improve Palestinian governance while challenging Iran’s alleged influence in the region.
"There’s another option…it is the vision of President [Mahmoud] Abbas and Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad…it’s the vision of a peaceful state called Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people," he said.
Yet, according to Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator and senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think-tank based in Washington, Bush’s speech "is best characterised as pushing down softly on the accelerator of a failed Middle East policy."
"The president continued to promote deepening divisions among the Palestinians, insist on preconditions to a two-state solution and display an unwillingness to outline his own parametres for an Israeli-Palestinian endgame deal," Levy told IPS.
"Even the 190 million dollars of money pledged to the new PA government was mostly a repackaging of old commitments," he said.
In June, renewed clashes between the competing Palestinian factions accelerated into a battle for all-out control of Gaza, as Hamas security forces overran Fatah installations in fighting that left 140 Palestinians dead and more than 1,000 wounded.
"The disregard for civilians and property reflected the brutalization of Palestinian society and growing disintegration of norms and values since the current Israeli-Palestinian confrontation erupted in late 2000," according to the ICG report.
In response, beleaguered President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the national unity government, declared a state of emergency and appointed US-educated and pro-West economist Salam Fayyad as prime minister of a new executive office in the West Bank.
While welcomed by the US and Israel, Abbas’s actions carried out in the context of "emergency decree" do not appear to satisfy most Palestinians.
"Many Palestinians concur with the contention that Abbas’s installation of a new government without parliamentary ratification, and presidential decrees appropriating legislative powers or transferring them to the PLO, violate Palestinian law," says the ICG report.
With Hamas, the Islamist political party backed by Iran and described by the US as a terrorist organization, firmly in control of Gaza, Washington has thrown its support behind Abbas and Fayyad, further marginalizing Hamas, isolating Palestinians in Gaza, and effectively splitting the Palestinian polity further. And the Bush administration has also prodded Israel to take conciliatory steps towards Fatah.
Israel has restored financial and security ties that were suspended following the January 2006 Palestinian election victory of Hamas. Israel also began transferring Palestinian customs revenues withheld for a year. Most recently, Israel provided amnesty to 178 "wanted militants," most members of the Fatah-affiliated al-Aqsa Brigades, and agreed to release 255 mainly Fatah prisoners from jail.
Yet simultaneously, Israel has maintained its siege of Gaza and refused to speak to the Hamas leadership. Within Israel, there is a small group of public figures, among them former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, who say that, because of Hamas’s ascendancy, it is time to negotiate with the movement’s leaders.
"Hamas has demonstrated that when in distress, it is pliable to practical arrangements on the ground," Halevy wrote in an op-ed in the online version of the New Republic. "Contacts should be established with Hamas to see if a long-term armistice with it can be obtained. It must be a tough eyeball-to-eyeball exercise in which Hamas is brought to a point where its self-interest dictates such an understanding," he wrote.
Yet, no sooner had Abbas set-up a parallel executive office than Bush proclaimed him "the president of all the Palestinians" and promised to assist his fledgling government as part of his "West Bank first" policy. In a meeting with the Palestinian cabinet Thursday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed an agreement giving the Palestinian Authority 80 million dollars to reform its security services.
And Bush’s proposed fall peace conference, which will be chaired by Rice, may be one of the few times that Israeli and Arab leaders will meet jointly to work through political differences. Most observers believe that in order to gain legitimacy the conference must bring in the Arab League, and most importantly Saudi Arabia.
But in a news conference in Jeddah with Rice and Secretary of Defense Bill Gates, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said a precondition for Saudi Arabia’s attendance at the conference was that it tackle the four big "final status" issues: the fate of Palestinian refugees; the status of Jerusalem; the borders of a Palestinian state; and the dismantling of Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
Saudi Arabia has played a significant role in attempting to broker a peace with Fatah and Hamas, most recently mediating the Mecca Agreement, which aimed to end almost a year of bitter fighting between both factions and form a new PA coalition government. The agreement collapsed when Hamas took control of Gaza in July.
"We are interested in a peace conference that deals with the substance of peace, not just the form," said Faisal. "If it does so, it would be of great interest to Saudi Arabia."
Ultimately, any movement towards a peace agreement will depend on stable Palestinian consensus and the Islamists’ inclusion in the political system.
"That was Abbas’s original intuition. It led to the January 2006 elections and then to Mecca," said the ICG report. "The parties’ understandable current anger not withstanding, it remains the right one."