There has been a lot cheerleading in the media the last few days for Secretary of State John Kerry and the new Middle East peace negotiations he has sponsored. While expectations that the talks will lead to peace couldn’t be lower, the main narrative explaining that tends to stick with the notion that neither Israel nor the Palestinians really want peace. That piece of conventional wisdom is generally false since it is based on a false moral equivalence between the position of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu has been offering peace talks without preconditions for years and signed (and kept) peace agreements with Yasir Arafat during his first term in office. Abbas has already turned down a far more generous peace deal in 2008 than anybody can imagine him getting this time around.
But as wrongheaded as the attempts to preemptively blame Netanyahu for the inevitable failure of the talks are, the real mistake in most coverage of this event is the omission of the one factor that by definition makes an agreement impossible: Hamas. The problem with Abbas is not just that he isn’t really interested in genuine peace or that he is in the ninth year of the four-year presidential term for which he was elected. It’s that he and his Fatah Party-run PLO don’t speak for the 40 percent of Palestinians living in Gaza who are ruled by Hamas. While Politico deserves some credit for highlighting this crucial factor in an article today, it has been relegated to a footnote elsewhere. The problem is not just that Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s existence or its right to exist. It’s that Hamas is already running an independent Palestinian state in all but name right now and thus maintains a functional veto over anything that Abbas might sign, assuming, of course, that Abbas signs anything. While some may see this as a reason to lift the boycott of the terrorist movement, what it really means is that peace is simply impossible so long as Hamas is left in place.
Peace process optimists acknowledge the absence of Hamas at the table but say it is irrelevant. Their argument claims that Hamas has already implicitly recognized Israel via indirect cease fire talks following bouts of fighting along the border, and that the Islamist group has effectively ceded responsibility for negotiating with the Jewish state to Abbas and Fatah. But these are merely tactical steps that do nothing to change Hamas’s worldview or its purpose.
Those who see the two movements as somehow complementing each other ignore the fact that Fatah and Hamas remain locked in a death struggle over control of Palestinian politics. The main currency in that competition remains violence against Israel and fidelity to the guiding principles of Palestinian nationalism, the chief of which is rejection of Israel’s legitimacy.
The dynamic of Israeli politics is such that the overwhelming majority of Israelis are likely to support any peace deal that promises an end to the conflict, as they did in 1993 when the Oslo Accords were signed. But if Abbas ever presents a deal to his people that will, as it must, preserve Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and put an end to the fantasy of a “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees, he will be handing his own head on a platter to Hamas. As has been pointed out numerous times over the last decade, Abbas is much weaker than Yasir Arafat. Yet even the old terrorist didn’t feel he could get away with signing a peace agreement that ended the conflict.
Nor will including Hamas in the talks or an American decision to embrace the Gaza government make it easier for Abbas to deal. Support for this idea is based on Western naïveté and ignorance about the basics of Palestinian politics. Their international legitimization will only strengthen the forces of intolerance and intransigence within Palestinian society that already make peace unlikely.
Twenty years ago, the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin believed that Oslo would empower Arafat and Fatah to take on Hamas and eliminate it, thereby clearing the way for peace. But instead of waging war on the Islamists, Fatah chose instead to continue its own terrorist offensive against Israel. A historic opportunity was lost and the current circumstances don’t appear to offer Abbas the same chance. Until the day comes when either Hamas abandons the Islamist philosophy it inherited from its Muslim Brotherhood mentors or the PA finds a leader with the will to fight Hamas, the chances for peace are minimal. It is this Hamas factor, and not Netanyahu’s toughness or even the chance that he will weaken, that remains the obstacle to peace for which Kerry has no solution.