From my new op ed in the National:
There’s no question that the likely victory of Benyamin Netanyahu in this week’s Israeli election will be a setback for US hopes of brokering a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians. Mr Netanyahu is not interested in final-status talks, and his key coalition partner is likely to be the far-right Avigdor Lieberman, who advocates expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens and opposes any compromise with the Palestinians.
Still, there’s no doubt that Washington will continue to work with a Netanyahu government, just as it did when he won the 1996 election on an anti-Oslo ticket. The Americans may have their preferences, but they don’t for a moment imagine that they get to choose Israel’s leaders.
The same logic, of course, should apply for the Palestinians, but this has yet to be recognised by Washington, which has spent the past eight years trying to choose the Palestinians’ leaders for them – to increasingly disastrous effect.
Convinced in 2001 that Yasser Arafat and his autocratic style of leadership was all that stood in the way of Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Bush Administration demanded that he cede control over finances and the security forces to his elected legislature and its prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. Arafat died and Abbas replaced him as president, but the Palestinian electorate had other ideas about who should rule. When Hamas contested the 2006 Palestinian legislative election, the voters awarded it 74 seats to Fatah’s 45.
In a 180-degree turnabout, the Bush administration then insisted that Abbas revert to Arafat’s model of governance, keeping the money and the mukhabarat in his own hands and outside the control of the elected government. Not only that, the US imposed a collective punishment on the Palestinian voters for their choice, leading the charge to impose a financial siege. And when Abbas in 2007 formed a unity government with the democratically-elected ruling party in his legislature, the Bush Administration intervened directly to sabotage that effort.
The bloody denouement of this flawed strategy came in Israel’s 22-day pummeling of Gaza, that left some 1,300 Palestinians dead. But Hamas is still standing and is stronger politically. According to the latest survey by an independent polling organisation in Jerusalem, Hamas would win a Palestinian election if it were held tomorrow.
Israel and even some Arab leaders still speak fancifully about putting Fatah in charge of rebuilding Gaza, but that’s a dangerous fallacy. The reality on the ground is that no progress is possible in Palestinian political life – from Gaza’s ceasefire and reconstruction to meaningful peace negotiations with Israel – without the consent and support of Hamas. Tying progress on those fronts to efforts to marginalise Hamas gives Hamas an incentive to play the spoiler, and with the credibility of Abbas and Fatah in Palestinian eyes now at an all-time low, it simply isn’t smart politics.
Hamas has to be involved, but that requires finding a formula to deal with the prohibitions imposed by the US and its allies on engaging Hamas until the movement symbolically renounces violence, recognises Israel and embraces past peace agreements. Hamas is unlikely to make declarations that it would deem a symbolic surrender, and nor is the US likely to reverse itself on those preconditions, as President Barack Obama has now twice made clear.
The art of diplomacy, in such an instance, is to find a way for both sides to compromise without appearing to do so. And the good news is that there’s plenty of scope for closing the gap.
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