September 20, 2016 | Newsweek

International Community Must Focus On Palestinian Unity, Not Israel, To Kick-Start Peace

A Palestinian court in Ramallah earlier this month suspended the local elections that were scheduled to be held in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on October 8. This marks eleven years since the last elections held in both territories. As long as the West continues to ignore this political stagnation, the future prospects for a viable Palestinian state will only become more remote.

The rift first emerged after the last time Palestinians held elections in 2006. The violent Islamic faction Hamas won those elections, prompting alarm across the international community. The fear was that the Palestinian Authority, an internationally-backed interim government, would be under the control of a terrorist organization. This would have complicated international funding, to put it mildly.

So, when the ruling Fatah faction refused to engage in power-sharing with Hamas, the international community supported the move. But this inexorably led to the Palestinian civil war of 2007, during which Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip.

Today, the West Bank and Gaza Strip are two separate entities. Despite their inhabitants’ shared aspirations for a unified Palestinian state, these two territories grow more separate by the day. With distinct governments, economies, bureaucracies, and financial patrons, it’s increasingly difficult to envision a reconciliation.

Some observers point to the two competing ideological visions of the Islamist Hamas and the secular Fatah factions as the wedge issue. That may have been the case in 2006, but it’s much more complicated now. Indeed, the spat between these two factions is less about ideology these days as it is a Machiavellian struggle for the control. Their inability to hold elections is only one outward manifestation of their inability to risk losing the territories they control.

Mahmoud Abbas, the head of Fatah, is now eleven years into his four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority. He refuses to name a successor or a vice-president. Remarkably, even the leader of the Islamic State terrorist organization, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has clearer plans for succession. In short, the ageing leader has suffocated political life in the West Bank. Political challengers are put down with brutality, press freedom has shriveled, and allegations of corruption swirl. The result is a brittle, autocratic government increasingly viewed as a tool for Abbas to wield power, rather than a state in the making.

On the other side of the Palestinian divide, things are not any better. The Hamas government was first elected as an alternative to Fatah corruption. But the leaders of Gaza run the territory like a mob syndicate. The Islamist group continues to prepare for more conflict with Israel rather than dealing with the economic problems of the people it governs. The humanitarian aid that flows through the notoriously overpopulated and poverty-stricken territory is pilfered by Hamas.

One report claims that Hamas has stolen 95 percent of civilian cement, even though the population desperately needs to rebuild homes and other edifices destroyed in the 2014 war against Israel that Hamas initiated. The Hamas leadership structure is also just as sclerotic as that of the West Bank. After recent secret internal elections, the de facto prime minister of Gaza is now about to become the external leader of the group. The people of Gaza have no say in who decides their fate.

Rather than addressing these failings, the international community continues to focus on getting the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. While admirable, the quest for diplomacy that yields two-states for two peoples is increasingly impossible to imagine. The Palestinians have two-states, themselves. So, what’s needed first is a plan to tackle the Palestinian political stagnation that has grown worse over a decade of international neglect.

A plan for political succession and reinvigoration is crucial for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Regardless of where things stand with Israel, this interim government is the only structure poised to run a future state. The more it loses legitimacy at home and abroad, the harder it will be to envision a viable two-state solution.

A plan for separating Hamas from the Gaza Strip is an even more daunting task. But so long as Hamas remains in power there, the chances of a unified and politically recognized Palestinian government are effectively nil.

A new British prime minister recently took office. A new U.S. president will assume office in January. French and German leaders will also be elected next year. New leaders mean new thinking. This will be crucial for the Palestinians, who have not seen new leaders in more than ten years.

Jonathan Schanzer is vice-president for research at Washington D.C.-based policy institute Foundation for Defense of Democracies, author of Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestineand a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer

Issues:

Palestinian Politics