June 24, 2011 | Commentary Magazine

Fatah, Hamas, and the Statehood Gambit

June 24, 2011 | Commentary Magazine

Fatah, Hamas, and the Statehood Gambit

On May 3,  Hamas and Fatah, the two largest and most influential Palestinian factions, created a unity government. Following a brutal civil war in 2007 that left Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip, the two foes appeared to be locked in an intractable conflict. Then, seemingly out of the blue, the Islamist terrorist organization and the militant faction created by the late Yasir Arafat joined forces. A gaggle of analysts, including former Clinton administration adviser Robert Malley, claimed that the agreement had grown out of the Arab Spring protest movements that rocked the Middle East, but that is mistaken. The tenuous deal between Hamas and Fatah was born of a political initiative that could soon have a profound impact on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

This September the Palestinians will ask the United Nations General Assembly to vote on a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) for a state that would encompass the entire West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It is likely that this vote will pass the two-thirds majority needed for recognition. “By September 2011,” said the Palestinians’ top man at the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, “we will have 130, maybe 140 countries recognizing the state of Palestine.” That number would include a core group of Latin American, European, and Muslim states.

Hamas found itself on the sidelines as the plans for the declaration were being developed. The Palestinian Authority, the governing entity of the West Bank that is backed by Fatah, had been going it alone. In the end, Hamas could not bear to be left out, and so a deal was hastily struck and signed in Cairo—a deal that included a mutually approved interim unity government that will be supplanted by the results of elections in 2012.

The inclusion of Hamas in this government is a foreign-policy nightmare for the Obama administration. The group has been formally declared a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department, which automatically means that the United States is legally enjoined from diplomatic engagement with any entity that includes it. And because the Department of the Treasury lists Hamas as a terrorist entity, there can be no U.S. aid to a Palestinian Authority in which Hamas plays a role.

Even before Hamas crept into the picture, members of Congress had already expressed opposition to the unilateral declaration of independence through press releases, letters, and statements. Indeed, a bipartisan resolution against the measure is expected after this article goes to press. The concerns of legislators stem from the fact that the borders of such a Palestinian state would overlap with land controlled by Israel, thus creating a legal and logistical conundrum. Even more telling, the unilateral declaration would grant the Palestinians land before peace—meaning that the Palestinians would be permitted to maintain their state of war with Israel even after a state is declared. This would effectively overturn the central idea of the peace process that has been in place since the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967.

The logic behind the unilateral declaration of independence is simple. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership have not been able to secure land concessions from the Israelis through negotiations. So why not get the demonstrably anti-Israel core of the United Nations to launch an international legal campaign to compel Israel to surrender land that has never been part of a self-governed Palestinian state? Such pressure could force Israel to relinquish the contested territories voluntarily in order to avoid an international boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign.

The question is: How did this idea come to fruition? And why were the United States and Israel caught so flat-footed by it? Therein hangs a fascinating tale that begins, surprisingly, in Brazil.

The UDI initiative has reportedly been in the works since 2005. That year, Abbas traveled to Brazil for the first summit of South American and Arab states, and met privately with Brazil’s leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. There, da Silva supposedly told Abbas that when he neared the end of his second term (which expired on January 1, 2011), he would help build a Latin American consensus for a unilateral Palestinian statehood declaration at the UN.

Latin America proved fertile ground for the initiative, especially with the rise of other governments of the left in South America’s most important countries—not only Brazil, but also Chile, Argentina, and especially Venezuela. On February 5, 2008, Costa Rica officially recognized a Palestinian state. In April 2009, Palestinian and Venezuelan officials established diplomatic relations and inaugurated a Palestinian embassy in Caracas. In November 2009, Abbas toured the region, visiting Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Venezuela. That month, Venezuela formally announced support for Palestinian statehood. (Cuba and Nicaragua, then under the control of the Marxist Sandinista regime, had recognized Palestine after an abortive declaration of independence issued by Yasir Arafat in 1988.)

The following year, da Silva continued to advocate for Abbas. In March 2010, he visited Israel and the Palestinian territories, expressing support for the Palestinians and criticizing the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In December, just before his term in office was to expire, da Silva announced that Brazil recognized an independent Palestinian state. With that, the Latin American floodgates opened. Shortly after da Silva’s announcement, Argentina expressed its support for a Palestinian state with pre-1967 war borders. Bolivia and Ecuador recognized Palestine as a sovereign state within the 1967 borders. Uruguay announced its intention to offer recognition in 2011 and further indicated that it would establish diplomatic representation, most likely in Ramallah.

On New Year’s Eve, Abbas attended a ceremony in Brasilia, where he laid the cornerstone for a new Palestinian embassy. In January 2011, other Latin American states joined the diplomatic parade. Chile, home to a Palestinian population of about 300,000, offered its unsurprising support. Guyana, Peru, and Paraguay followed. In February, Suriname joined in. Uruguay followed in March.

Latin America was not the only region to support the UDI initiative. In seeming preparation for this moment, in June 2010, France announced it would upgrade the Palestinian delegation in Paris to a mission led by an ambassador. Spain, Portugal, and Norway did the same later in the year. On December 13, 2010, a group of EU foreign ministers announced that they would recognize a Palestinian state “when appropriate.” This followed French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner’s announcement that Paris might support a United Nations–created Palestinian state if negotiations remained deadlocked. In the first months of 2011, Ireland, Cyprus, and Greece upgraded the Palestinian diplomatic delegations in their countries, and in March, the United Kingdom and Denmark followed suit.

The exact number of countries that plan to recognize a Palestinian state in September remains unclear. What is clear is that the Palestinians have leveraged the sympathy that exists for them within the international bureaucracy and exploited the pervasive frustration over the continued failure of the peace process. This marks a new and perhaps more mature approach to their Machiavellian designs on Israeli territory. And they have flummoxed Israel with the speed and cleverness of their maneuverings. Palestinian diplomats in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Peru coordinated between Abbas’s team in Ramallah and Latin American leaders to ensure that recognition of statehood came in rapid-fire fashion. The Israelis didn’t know what was about to hit them.

And what of the United States? There can be little doubt that President Barack Obama has helped to lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state. On June 4, 2009, Obama delivered a speech in Cairo calling on the Palestinians to renounce violence. He declared: “Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people.”

In the months that followed, U.S. officials referred openly to Palestinian statehood, even as the prospect for a negotiated peace grew increasingly remote. Then, in a visit to the region in March 2010, Vice President Joseph Biden slammed Israel for building in territories that lay beyond its 1967 borders. While the area was technically North Jerusalem, not East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital, Biden “condemned the action” and stated that the Obama “administration is fully committed to the Palestinian people and to achieving a Palestinian state that is independent, viable, and contiguous.”

This stormy encounter set the stage for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington later that month. Obama presented Netanyahu with a list of demands, including an extended freeze on developments in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In a deliberate snub, Obama declined to dine with Netanyahu. The administration subsequently sent up a series of trial balloons in the American and Israeli media, some suggesting support for a Palestinian state by 2011.

In April 2010, as this drama played out, Obama reportedly told Abbas that he sought to create a sovereign Palestinian state within two years. The White House has never confirmed this, however, and several U.S. officials have gone on record opposing the UDI,  including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But some recent reports suggested that the White House could tacitly approve it by declining to exercise a veto in the UN if other members of the so-called quartet that came together in 2002 to offer new and unsuccessful pathways to peace between Israel and the Palestinians—the UN, the European Union, and Russia—decide to recognize a Palestinian state.

Now, in a remarkable turn of events, any such notions may have been rendered moot by the Hamas-Fatah deal. As Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza celebrated the announcement, it became clear that the American foreign policy establishment had been caught unawares. The State Department stalled journalists seeking comment. And the White House issued statements indicating that it needed to learn more before issuing guidance.

Regardless of specifics, the deal makes it exceedingly difficult for Washington to support a Palestinian state. Engaging a government that includes Hamas, with its  track record of suicide bombings, rockets fired at population centers, and other grisly attacks against Israeli civilians, would run afoul of U.S. law. Besides that, a presidential election year looms, and the Democratic Party will find itself in an extraordinarily difficult position politically if it accedes to a Palestinian state run in part by a terrorist organization—especially when, according to the latest Gallup poll, only 17 percent of Americans say their sympathies lie with the Palestinians more than with Israel (63 percent sympathize with Israel).

The deal also complicates some Palestinians’ efforts to improve their image in the West. In 1988, after decades of deflecting pressure from the West, Arafat recognized UN Security Council Resolution 242, which acknowledged Israel’s right to exist in peace. This move prompted the U.S. to formally engage the Palestinians in diplomacy for the first time in history. A decade later, in 1998, the Palestinian National Council voted to amend the PLO Charter, removing its call for Israel’s destruction. That move led to President Bill Clinton’s efforts to broker a peace deal with Arafat that would have ultimately led to a Palestinian state. Arafat, of course, chose war with Israel instead, which destroyed the image of his movement inside the United States.

After Arafat’s death in 2004, the Palestinians regrouped. But ironically, when the Palestinian civil war with Hamas was raging in 2007, Fatah was starting to regain the trust of the West. This was in part due to the institution-building efforts of the PA’s prime minister, Salam Fayyad, perhaps the first Palestinian official with any public integrity. Compared with Hamas, Abbas and his Fatah party appeared moderate and pragmatic. Washington helped train a Palestinian army in the West Bank, and the U.S. contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds to the Palestinian Authority. All along, Washington’s goal was to sideline Hamas and foster a more moderate Palestinian polity.

Abbas knew that, and it has made his decision to partner with Hamas all the more painful to the Obama administration. In the end, Abbas’s decision appears to have been a deliberate message to the United States: the Palestinians don’t need you.

From his perspective, Abbas had little to lose. Despite Obama’s call for settlement freezes, the president has done nothing concrete to help move along the Palestinian national project. So, rather than work with Israel and through the good offices of the United States, Abbas chose to enter into an agreement with Hamas in a quest to unite the West Bank and Gaza as part of his pursuit of the unilateral declaration of independence.

Yet despite the clever diplomatic gamesmanship Abbas has demonstrated, his timing may be off. With the Arab world in an unprecedentedly unsettled state, this could be the wrong moment for the Palestinians to attempt to take center stage when the world’s diplomats gather at the UN in September. They may all have bigger and more pressing issues to cope with, such as the demands for democratization, the status of minorities in the region, and myriad new threats to stability. Given the fact that the United States will likely not give a Palestinian Authority interwoven with Hamas a penny of support (particularly if Congress has anything to say about it), the PA will need to rely on the largesse of others, like the Saudis, who will surely have other priorities—and who will not want to empower Hamas, which is a proxy for its greatest regional adversary, Iran.

Abbas has also placed himself in a position of considerable risk. He has implicitly relied on Israeli help to defend the West Bank from Hamas’s advances since the civil war in 2007—military, intelligence, economic, and administrative support to ensure that Fatah remains a strong counterweight to its Islamist rival. The Israelis will likely refuse to provide further assistance.

Finally, it is highly unlikely that the Fatah-Hamas partnership will last. Apart from their mutual vilification of Israel, the two factions cannot agree on the color of hummus. The unity government is merely a symbolic umbrella for the two mini-states that remain under the control of the two warring factions. The end result of this experiment in unity may not be a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood but a second Palestinian civil war.

Read in Commentary Magazine