There was something interesting about the reaction to the consummation of the Fatah-Hamas unity pact yesterday. The agreement, which confirmed the entry of the Islamist terrorist group into the governing structure of the Palestinian Authority and the exit of the PA’s reform-minded Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, provoked the expected harsh words from Israel’s government. In Washington, the reaction from the Obama administration was equally predictable as the State Department spokesperson withheld judgment. Some members of Congress served notice that the PA’s embrace of Hamas meant the end of U.S. aid.
But the main conclusion to be drawn from the reaction to what can only be termed a momentous turn of events is something entirely different. The lack of alarm or even much worry about the impact of Hamas on the peace process makes it clear not only is there no more peace process to worry about, but that the Palestinians have made themselves irrelevant.
Where once the international chattering classes doted upon every aspect of Palestinian politics in a way that confirmed the prevalent myth that Israel’s antagonists were truly at the heart of all the problems of the Middle East, it is no longer possible for even their cheerleaders and apologists to pretend this is so. In the 18+ years since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians have talked and bombed their way not only out of peace and the independent state they claimed they wanted but also off the front pages. While supporters of Israel still keep their eyes on the goings-on in Ramallah and Gaza, the rest of the world is gradually moving on.
After so many years of international attention on the aspirations of the Palestinians, after Yasir Arafat’s betrayal of Oslo and his successor Mahmoud Abbas’s similar refusal to talk peace with Israel, it has become increasingly difficult for even Israel’s most persistent critics to hold the attention of Western policymakers. But by embracing Hamas while refusing to talk to Israel, Abbas has not only ended the peace process but cut the legs out from under those who hoped President Obama would maintain pressure on Israel to make more concessions for the sake of a peace the Palestinians clearly don’t want.
Even more to the point, the apathy with which the Fatah-Hamas unity pact has been viewed only makes it more obvious the world has more pressing concerns. Those who long argued the Palestinians were central to all Middle East conflicts have found their faulty arguments are no longer accepted at face value. At a time when it is clear to even the dimmest of foreign policy bulbs the real struggles in the Middle East are those between Islamists, autocrats and democracy activists as well as over the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the audience for the myth of Palestinian centrality has shrunk dramatically.
While peace between Israel and the Palestinians is still ardently desired by the West — and by Israelis — the unity pact just makes obvious what was actually already understood by savvy observers of the region. Peace will have to wait until a sea change in Palestinian political culture that will make it possible for the PA to sign a deal that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Until then, there really is no use worrying about appeasing the Palestinians or coaxing them back to negotiations in which they have no interest.
It is true the presence of Hamas in the PA government presents a clear threat to Israel in terms of security on the West Bank. But in terms of diplomacy, all it has done is to confirm the irrelevance of the Palestinians. Until they mend their ways, not even a president as eager to help them as Barack Obama has been can do much for them. If they wish, they can flout the wishes of the West and see if they can make it without the aid that keeps their corrupt government afloat. But whether they do or not can no longer be assumed to be of any real importance to anyone but the Palestinians themselves.