Instead of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, both sides just want to contain it.
After four decades at the centre of Arab-Israeli politics, the notion of a comprehensive final peace deal is disappearing. The mutual violence and the realities on the ground since 2000 have made it harder to re-engage in talks, resolve outstanding issues and sustain any negotiated agreement. The violence has also served to consolidate the notion of “no partner” on both sides.
Ariel Sharon had long argued that the essence of the conflict was existential and irresoluble. Partly as a result of failure at Camp David in 2000, and partly as a result of Sharon’s own success in pulling out of Gaza unilaterally, this view is now entrenched at the centre of Israeli politics, as is evident in the continuing popularity of Sharon’s new Kadima party.
Instead of resolving the conflict, the Israeli view is that it is better to manage it via unilateral acts and a new long-term incremental process that may or may not lead to an agreed resolution. Unilateralism, in the meantime, allows Israel to preserve its core interests, such as maintaining a state with a Jewish majority, at the price of marginal concerns, such as the sacrifice of isolated settlements in areas of Arab population density.
Ever since the mid-1970s, the Palestinian mainstream as represented by Arafat and his secular nationalist Fatah movement has adopted the notion of a comprehensive settlement based on a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. But things are changing on the Palestinian side as well. Camp David’s ill-managed attempts to force a settlement, Israel’s subsequent attempt to besiege and break Arafat and “sear the Palestinians’ consciousness” with superior force, in Moshe Ya’alon’s words, and the devastating consequences of massive settlement construction and the separation wall in the West Bank had all already combined to shape a growing Palestinian perception that there was no Israeli partner and that the two-state paradigm was dying on its feet.
Hamas’s sweeping gains in the Palestinian elections should not be understood as a vote in favour of political Islam or even as hostility to Fatah’s programme. Rather they were a manifestation of popular revulsion against the previous decade of false hope and unfulfilled promises, of protest against Palestinian misgovernment and incompetence, of anger at Israel’s continued occupation and arrogance and the international community’s biased and patronising attitude towards Palestinian national aspirations.
The net result is that Hamas is now in the driving seat. It will not disarm or discard the ideological opposition to Israel’s existence embodied in its charter in the foreseeable future. It may, however, be ready to mothball its arms and accede to a decades-long extendable truce. It is ready to end attacks on Israeli targets, including civilians, provided the Israelis do the same. It is willing to uphold law and order in the Palestinian territories and maintain a transparent and accountable system of government. It is willing to work with Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and president of the Palestinian authority (PA), and it is ready to deal on an operational (non-political) basis with Israel.
The real paradox is that Hamas—unlike Fatah and the PA establishment—is not fixated on the notion of statehood or a negotiated final settlement. Like Sharon, Hamas sees the conflict in existential and open-ended terms. To that extent it may even be ready and willing to coexist with Israeli unilateralism. Rather than seek new negotiated agreements that would demand recognition of Israel, a Hamas-formed or backed government could develop a “parallel unilateralism” based on filling the vacuum left by any future Israeli withdrawals and giving priority to issues such as political reform, democratisation and economic reconstruction without having to give up on Palestinian rights and aspirations regarding Jerusalem, the final borders of the Palestinian state or refugees’ right of return.
Although Hamas has a majority in parliament, it won less than a controlling two thirds of seats and less than 45 per cent of the popular vote. The Palestinian national movement as a whole remains resolutely secular. Fatah itself is not reconciled to defeat, and some of its leading elements seem bent on derailing Hamas, just as Hamas acted as spoiler to Fatah over a decade of Fatah rule. Hamas has also hardly begun to sort out its problems with the PA’s donors including the EU, let alone the thorny issue of relations with a hostile Israel and US, both apparently bent on facing down a Hamas regime.
Moreover any policy based on parallel unilateralism will have to confront the reality of the occupation and imbalance of power with Israel. Israel still dominates every facet of Palestinian life. It commands Palestinian borders, airspace and waters and all movements of goods, people and security forces from one point of “Palestine” to another. There is the yet to be completed 750km of separation wall, 450,000 settlers have been implanted on Palestinian soil, and the putative capital of Palestine has been enveloped by Jewish “neighbourhoods” and all but severed from its Arab hinterland.
In such an asymmetrical situation it is legitimate to ask whether parallel unilateralism can work, Hamas-led or otherwise. Given the situation on the ground, anything less than a truly radical Israeli territorial withdrawal may seem to deliver too little at too high a price from the Palestinian point of view. But any further “painful compromises,” including the handing over of large swathes of territory to Hamas, are unlikely to be popular in Israel.
The current momentum carrying us away from a negotiated settlement is also, and by extension, moving us away from the two-state paradigm as we have known it for some 30 years. The emerging political, psychological and physical landscape no longer matches the criteria of the desperate peacemaking of Camp David and Taba 2000, or the 2003 informal Geneva initiative.
In these circumstances there is a case for beginning the search for a new paradigm. This could entail a move from ideas of territorial partition and national separation towards a view that emphasises the nature of Arab-Jewish relations within one Israeli-dominated space. From this viewpoint, the Palestinians’ task would be to change the struggle against the largely invisible and virtual apartheid that exists today—in the sense of two people living on one land, one dominant and the other subject—into a new moral and political framework for pursuing their aspirations.
Separate statehood was never the only or even the prime Palestinian demand. It was more an offshoot of the mid-1970s downscaling of the notion of “liberating” Palestine in its entirety than an object in itself. Given a straight choice between a suspended peace process that eats away at Palestinian basic rights, statehood on a small part of the land, or access—in one form or another—to the land in its entirety, the majority of Palestinians even today are likely to opt for the latter.