May 1, 2017 | Politico

Can Trump Make Mideast Peace Without Gaza?

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will visit the White House this week for the first time in three years. By all accounts, his host is eager to resume Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. “I’m working very hard,” President Donald Trump told reporters earlier this month, in the hopes of “finally finding peace between the Palestinian people and Israel.” The president’s rhetoric on the peace process does not appear empty: He has consistently expressed his desire to make “the deal that can’t be made” in the region.

Yet Trump’s efforts are ultimately doomed to the same failure of his predecessors if he does not address the biggest obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement: Gaza.

Since the terror group Hamas expelled the Palestinian Authority from the territory in 2007, the potential for a two-state solution has been microscopic. The Bush and Obama administrations chose to support negotiations strictly between Israel and Abbas’s West Bank-based Palestinian leadership. Both administrations preferred to leave Gaza as some unsolvable Pandora’s Box, doomed to perennial conflict with Israel while under Hamas’ rule.

Yet this is fatally flawed logic. Any feasible peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians will require serious concessions from both sides. And no Palestinian leader sitting in the West Bank can compromise on the most sensitive issues in Palestinian politics – the status of Jerusalem, refugees, borders, etc. – while a rival party controls half the territory of a future Palestinian state. The very real fear for Abbas is that were his compromises to become public, Hamas would easily be able to rally public sentiment (and possibly action) against him and his Fatah party.

Last year, a Palestinian negotiator who was involved in the 2013 peace talks led by then-Secretary of State John Kerry told me Gaza was a “periphery issue,” and insisted that Abbas doesn’t need to control the Strip to negotiate on its behalf. Abbas doesn’t govern Palestinians in Syria or Lebanon, the official argued, yet he still negotiates on their behalf as leader of the Palestinians. This is flawed logic for one simple reason: The Palestinians are not claiming Syria or Lebanon as their territory in a future state. Still, the answer to the Gaza conundrum was in the official’s reasoning: Abbas may not have to control Gaza, but he does need a legitimate claim to it in order to sign an agreement.

He will not get it through reconciliation with Hamas. In the decade since the civil war, the gaps between the two Palestinian factions have only grown wider as successive reconciliation agreements collapsed. The ideological differences between both Fatah and Hamas, coupled with a long and bloody history, means both sides are incapable of viewing the competition as anything but zero-sum. Earlier this month, Abbas’s religious advisor called on Gazans to overthrow Hamas. In response, Hamas raided PLO offices in Gaza. Just last week, Abbas halted payments for Gaza’s electricity. Even Hamas’s new political document acknowledging the 1967 borders is less a gesture of good faith than a cynical ploy to secure regional funding and swipe at Fatah’s support base.

Hamas is not going anywhere in the Palestinian body politic, and neither force nor wishful thinking will diminish their ability to spoil the chances for a peace agreement. Whether through suicide bombings in the 1990s or the recent 2014 war, Hamas has historically sought to derail any progress made in peace negotiations through the use of terror. Rather than ignoring Hamas, the U.S. can support a political process that not only diminishes the terror group’s standing but also gives the more pragmatic (albeit flawed) Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority a chance at re-establishing a legitimate claim to Gaza in future negotiations.

A renewed push for a new Palestinian political process will undoubtedly evoke memories of the George W. Bush administration, which insisted on holding elections in 2006 – with the support of Abbas – and inadvertently paved the way for a Hamas electoral victory that the U.S. then refused to recognize. But the Bush administration’s errors were tactical, not strategic. Not enough was done at the ground level to prevent Hamas’s triumph. Though policymakers will be loath to risk another round of balloting, elections are still the strongest path for the relative pragmatists in Palestinian politics to garner legitimacy.

The first step would be for the Palestinian Authority to announce presidential and legislative elections in 60 days. This is the period of time mandated in Palestinian Basic Law if and when a succession crisis occurs. By announcing elections on this time-frame, Abbas and Fatah will be able to portray themselves as the “rule of law” party. Additionally, this would give the 82-year-old Abbas – who is 12 years into a 4-year presidential term– an opportunity to either step down or compete in new elections.

The second step would be for Abbas to initiate a general reform of the Fatah party. The strongest argument against another round of Palestinian elections – and the reason there hasn’t been any meaningful contests in over a decade – is the chance that Hamas could repeat its stunning 2006 victory. Yet in those elections Hamas merely won a plurality, not a majority, of votes by gaining 44 percent to Fatah’s 41 percent. Fatah entered the elections with deep divisions over who would be the party’s official candidates, and as such saw many of its disenfranchised members run as independents. For the Jerusalem district’s six parliamentary seats, for instance, Hamas fielded four candidates to Fatah’s six, but 29 candidates ran as independents and together garnered roughly 40 percent of the vote. In Gaza, approximately 28 independents who ran against the eight official Fatah candidates were affiliated with Fatah. Where Hamas never fielded more candidates than seat allotments, Fatah and its discontents diluted their support among voters. Crucial to the success of another round of elections is preventing similar disunity among Fatah.

Yet reforming Fatah is arguably the biggest hurdle in revitalizing Palestinian democracy. Fatah is even more divided today than it was in 2006. Abbas’s re-coronation at the party’s congress in November solidified his grip on power. For elections to work in Fatah’s favor, however, Abbas will have to reach out to disenfranchised party members – including those allied with his rival Muhammad Dahlan – and unify the party behind one list in each district.

The third step is to place conditions on participation in the elections. In 2006, the Bush administration refused to pressure Abbas into placing requirements – such as the renunciation of violence and adherence to the PLO’s prior agreements with Israel – on who could participate in the elections. This allowed Hamas to field candidates without reneging on the terror group’s platform. American officials would later lament this decision. “Forced by the Palestinian logic to choose between canceling the elections entirely or allowing Hamas-linked candidates to run, we chose the latter,” one former administration official wrote. “In retrospect, the decision was wrong in both principle and practice.”

Placing requirements on participation is a key source of leverage in the internal Palestinian political dynamic. Hamas officials will be posed with a dilemma: renounce violence and participate in the first free and fair elections in over a decade, or refuse and risk looking obstinate and out-of-touch with the Palestinian people. If the former, the U.S. should feel confident with a unified Fatah’s chances of defeating Hamas. If the latter, then the Palestinian street will see clearly which of the two major parties turned down the chances at democratic representation.

This plan is not without risks. Hamas could participate and win, Fatah could fracture at the last minute, or elections could take place in the West Bank only. And admittedly, the West Bank leadership’s incitement, endemic corruption and payments to families of terrorists make it far from an ideal peace partner right now. Still, that should not prevent U.S. policy from thinking creatively about Gaza. A Palestinian leader needs both the willingness to sign an agreement and the ability to deliver on its implementation. That is impossible so long as a leader in the West Bank does not, at the very least, have a legitimate claim to Gaza.

Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @GrantRumley. 


Palestinian Politics