In one of those seemingly inexplicable turnarounds that make the Middle East so confusing to naïve Westerners, it appears that, at least for the moment, Hamas is more interested in peace with Israel than is the Palestinian Authority. Of course, Hamas doesn’t actually want to accept Israel’s existence or end its religious crusade against it. The rulers of the independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza have apparently sent out feelers to Israel about strengthening the cease-fire that has held since the end of last summer’s war. The PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and the rest of his Fatah Party are aghast about this and have folded their unity government with Hamas out of fear that the Islamist group will continue to gain ground in the West Bank. The juxtaposition of these two stories raises some issues about Israel’s dealings with both Hamas and the PA. But it also poses an important question to those who have been agitating for international recognition of a Palestinian state and urging boycotts of Israel: which Palestinian state do you support and what do either have to do with the quest for peace in the Middle East?
Israel’s willingness to engage in back channel talks with Hamas about ensuring the stability of the cease-fire will be cited by some as a reason for the U.S. to recognize or at least talk to the Islamist group. There is a certain superficial logic to the charge that supporters of Israel are being hypocritical when they call for Hamas’s isolation while the Israelis deal with them at least on some level. But the argument holds no water since Israel isn’t recognizing Hamas’s right to rule Gaza any more than the Islamists are prepared to accept Israel as a legitimate state even inside the 1967 lines. All that is happening in these indirect talks is that both parties are hoping to ensure that there is no rerun of the war Hamas launched last summer.
Israel’s government understands that it has no good options with respect to Gaza. The price of taking out Hamas would be too high both in terms of international condemnation and Israeli casualties. So the next best option is to maintain the relative quiet that has existed since the counter-offensive stopped Hamas’s firing of thousands of rockets at Israeli towns and cities as well as the use of tunnels to conduct terror attacks on border communities.
One might think the PA would applaud the continuation of the cease-fire since another round of fighting would lead to more casualties and devastation among the Palestinians in Gaza. Abbas still pretends to be the president of Gaza even though Fatah was thrown out of the strip in a 2007 coup. But his main worry is that his tyrannical grip on the West Bank is threatened by Hamas’s popularity. Abbas’s concerns about the cease-fire are to some extent counter-intuitive since the cheers for Hamas have always been the result of its willingness to spill Jewish blood while Fatah talks with Israel. But Abbas is clearly worried that a long-term cease-fire would strengthen a bankrupt Hamas regime. If such an agreement were to be made it might also improve the situation inside Gaza and lead to more rebuilding of homes in addition to the resources being expended on reconstruction of Hamas’s arsenal and fortifications. That in turn might lower the pressure on Israel to make concessions to Abbas in peace talks even though the PA has shown no interest in returning to the table since it blew up the last round of negotiations by signing a unity pact with Hamas.
While this seems confusing, the explanation for these maneuvers is easy to understand. Fatah and Hamas not only have different short-term goals. Hamas wants to hold onto Gaza. Fatah wants the West to recognize the PA as an independent state without first forcing it to make peace with Israel. Neither Hamas nor Fatah is interested or even capable of making a permanent peace with Israel, but each want the Jewish state to tolerate their continued rule even if both groups are corrupt, oppressive, and uninterested in improving the lives of the Palestinian people.
But since it isn’t possible for Israel to do away with either the PA or Hamas without paying an unacceptable price, the Netanyahu government must play the hand it is dealt. That means continuing to try and work with the PA on security cooperation (which is in Abbas’s interests as much as if not more than Israel’s) while hoping that eventually the political culture of the Palestinians will change enough to allow compromise and peace to become possible. As for Hamas, Israel must hope that eventually the people of Gaza (perhaps aided by neighboring Egypt, which sees Hamas as an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that threatens their security) will eventually rid themselves of their Islamist tyrants. Until they do, Israel must seek to restrain these terrorists either through military action or deterrence that can produce a long-term cease-fire.
Rather than seeking to force Israel to make concessions to a PA that still won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn, the Obama administration should back Israel’s efforts to keep the cease-fire. And it should finally stop coddling the PA and start holding it accountable for obstruction of peace talks.
Just as important, those advocating unilateral recognition for Palestinian statehood need to draw some conclusions from these events. There are already two rival Palestinian entities that pretend to sovereignty but neither is truly representative or the least bit interested in ending the conflict. Indeed, the PA that is held out by the Obama administration as a champion of peace turns out to be even less enthusiastic about avoiding bloodshed than Hamas. If you are advocating a Palestinian state now without peace with Israel, the question remains which one do you want: a corrupt kleptocracy that is still incapable of making peace because of ideology and its fear of being outflanked by Islamists or a corrupt Islamist terrorist tyranny? For the foreseeable future, those are your only choices.