Hamas’ seizure of the Gaza Strip is either the biggest opportunity for progress in the Middle East, or it’s the door that Middle Easterners have slammed in the faces of any outsiders who want to have an influence on events in the region. Either way, it’s the Palestinians who need to decide.
What a tangled web
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the major challenge to compartmentalizing any question about the Middle East. Sure, the connection between Hamas fighters and Iraqi insurgents may be tenuous at best, and there may be nothing that really binds the West Bank and Gaza to the Straits of Hormuz and the Golan Heights. However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict matters to the potentially restive populations of Middle Eastern states. Not only do these regimes worry about how events in the Occupied Territories can inflame discontent within their own borders, but they have realized how invoking the Palestinian cause can be a useful diplomatic tool, particularly with Europe and the United States. Sometimes, the statement, “I’d love to talk to you about this other issue, but we need to show some progress on the Palestinian question,” is sincere; at other times, it’s a cynical but highly effective dodge.
Unfortunately, the US government has little progress to show on this front of its Middle Eastern policy. During the first half of this decade, the Bush Administration (and, by extension, the extremely uninterested and inert Congress) had hardly anything to say to the Israelis and Palestinians, other than some words of support to the Sharon government. In the last year or so, some portions of the Bush Administration, in particular Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, have been more “actively engaged.” However, the appearance of work isn’t the same as actual progress, or real willingness to exert serious pressure on both sides. The moment of truth came during Israel’s 2006 assault on Hezbollah. While Israeli aircraft and artillery flattened communities in southern Lebanon, American leaders, Rice included, did little to constrain the violence, waiting instead for the Israeli Defense Forces to decide when to stop.
Part of American unwillingness to restrain Israel was the Administration’s new policy, based on an even closer partnership with the Saudi and Israeli governments, constituting a major tilt towards Sunni factions in different Middle Eastern conflicts. Since Hezbollah was both Shi’ite and heavily supported by Iran, it would have been highly surprising if the Bush Administration, grasping at any new regional strategy that might work, had put the brakes on Israel’s assault—except, of course, if American decision-makers looked more closely at the details of what was happening. 2006 may go down in the history books as the year when, at least for the time being, the United States lost any hope of being an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given how much latitude the White House was willing to give its Israeli ally.
It would be a grave mistake to assume that, as a neutral or biased outsider, the United States could have stopped the fissure between Hamas and Fatah from breaking wide open. The choice between these two factions is odious to many Palestinians, so the United States had little power to make either side appear as the better standard-bearer for the Palestinian cause. Fatah is pickled in corruption and cynicism; ironically, Hamas is repeating the mistakes of a younger Fatah, displaying neither interest nor skill at the more compromising political strategy needed to escape the political margins. Revolutionary confrontation feels good, but it doesn’t convince the Israelis or anyone else that Hamas should be trusted to govern even the tiniest of states.
Many Israelis had already doubted that the Palestinians were capable of elevating a generation of leaders interested in making the fabled “final settlement” that would give Palestinians statehood and Israelis security, while also being able to deliver on the Palestinians’ part of the agreement. Hamas’ coup in Gaza seems to confirm these doubts. An even more fundamental question now arises: is there any one faction or coalition capable of representing all Palestinians? If not, the Israelis will “bunker up” until that situation changes.
For those who think that the Israelis might seize on this moment to reach a settlement with Fatah about the West Bank, don’t hold your breath. Two obstacles stand in the way. First, the Israelis know that they can’t stop Palestinians from moving between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, unless Israel is willing to sever all family, business, and other tie between Palestinians living in these two regions. Second, an agreement about Jerusalem that does not include the representatives of a sizeable fraction of Palestinians is no agreement at all.
The United States might benefit for a short time from the Palestinian fissure. Many regional governments, including the Saudis, were already tired of the Palestinians’ political intransigence. US officials might make some short-term progress on other issues, without looking over their shoulders. However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will return. If no one invokes it, there will be some new crisis—a shooting, bombing, hostage-taking, whatever—that will bring this ongoing tragedy to the forefront again.
Given the Bush Administration’s partiality to Israel, and disinterest in the Palestinian conflict, it’s hard to imagine US leaders jumping into the thick of the Hamas-Fatah conflict to help resolve it. With Iraq continuing to soak up resources and attention, it’s even harder to imagine that scenario. However, as long as the regional equation does not change, and the Israeli-Palestinian question has the power to complicate other issues, even the best outcome in Iraq will be, from a regional standpoint, only a holding action.