Mideast Peace Talks’ Hidden Threat

Mideast Peace Talks' Hidden Threat

by Jonathan Schanzer, Politico

Some 46 percent of Israelis believe that President Barack Obama is “pro-Palestinian,” according to a Smith Research poll this summer. Since then, that figure most likely has ticked higher. After all, in July, the president upgraded the Palestinian delegation’s diplomatic status in Washington, and the peace talks that start Thursday are designed to lead inexorably to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by the end of his first term.

Supporters of Israel bitterly assert that Obama has done more for the Palestinians than any other president in history. But they may be wrong. Obama may not yet know it, but the new peace talks could single-handedly destroy the Palestinian cause.

Put simply, the Palestinians are at war. In 2006, Hamas, the faction best known for its suicide bombing campaign of the 1990s, won legislative elections that earned it the right to form a governing coalition. Fatah, its longtime leading rival, refused to play ball, prompting a 15-month political standoff. And in June 2007, Hamas launched a bloody coup in the Gaza Strip, killing hundreds of Fatah members and shooting some in the legs to leave them crippled.

After the coup, Hamas retained control of Gaza, where it maintains an iron grip. Fatah still clings to power in the West Bank. And the conflict continues, with spats and flare-ups reported regularly by news agencies and human rights groups in both fiefdoms.

By pushing new peace talks between Israel and the West Bank-based Palestinian National Authority, Obama has officially excised the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip from the equation. Indeed, he has effectively put a halt to a Palestinian “peace process” that has been sputtering since the summer of 2007.

The Arab states have long understood the dangerous significance of persisting Palestinian fissures. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Mauritania and Turkey have collectively tried and failed on more than a dozen occasions to broker peace between Hamas and Fatah. Obama, meanwhile, has ignored the conflict entirely.

In the past week, some Palestinian leaders have voiced concerns about the new U.S. initiative. In the words of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, successful negotiations could “liquidate the Palestinian cause.”

While given to hyperbole in describing his dreams of liquidating Israel, Meshal is not exaggerating. If Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas moves forward with U.S.-sponsored diplomacy and ultimately inks a deal with the Israelis, the West Bank leader will be openly spurning Hamas, a permanently anti-Israel faction that currently represents 40 percent of the Palestinians (1.7 million) in the Gaza Strip — and perhaps the majority of Palestinians, who overwhelmingly elected Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections.
There are other challenges, too. A Palestinian state, as endorsed by the Obama administration, very likely would include only the West Bank, where the leaders are not democratically elected. Indeed, in the 2006 elections, Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad won only 2 percent of the vote, and Abbas’s term as president expired nearly two years ago.
Who does the Obama administration suggest rule this proposed state? If it’s Abbas and Fayyad, Obama will be advocating yet another illegitimate authoritarian Middle East regime. That’s certainly not a “pro-Palestinian” policy.

There’s also the lingering matter of the Gaza Strip. If only the West Bank makes peace with Israel, Gaza’s status remains unresolved. Would Hamas declare a second state? That, too, would hardly benefit the Palestinians. Rather, it would deepen the geographic and political split that has set back the Palestinian cause ever since 2007.
Moreover, an isolated Hamas would have little choice but continuing to remain on the Iranian dole. Thus, Gaza would become an official terrorist state, disavowed by all its neighbors, leaving its people with fewer opportunities.

At this point, the very goal of these renewed talks — peace — comes into question. What happens when Israel responds to Gaza’s terrorist provocations after an agreement is signed with the West Bank? Are Gazans not Palestinians? Would the West Bankers not feel solidarity with their Gazan brothers and seek renewed confrontation with Israel?
Obama has yet to answer these questions. With no apparent political endgame, his peace talks may do more harm than good for the Palestinian cause.

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of “Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine.”

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