The Palestinian Mess

by Elliott Abrams
A year from now, expect to see the same Palestinian, Israeli, and U.S. leaders pursuing the same policies.

The easiest thing to say about the Israeli–Palestinian situation this week is that it is a terrible and violent mess. I’ve written in the past about how I think we got to these circumstances, but however that occurred, we must still try to look ahead. What lies beyond the current crisis?

During 2013 and until this April, the main event was the Kerry negotiations. In May came the Fatah-Hamas agreement on a non-party or “technocratic” government, supposedly leading to Palestinian elections this year. In the last few weeks, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, apparently by people linked to or part of Hamas, has changed the situation again — as has last week’s murder of a young Palestinian, almost certainly by Israelis bent on revenge (and as I write, arrests have been made).

Now what? In the near term, the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have some key decisions to make. And so does President Obama, sooner or later.

For PA president Mahmoud Abbas, the question is whether to continue with the Hamas arrangement, leading to elections. Hamas’s role in the three murders makes that a great deal harder, as does the continuing Hamas rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. Even during the two weeks after the kidnapping, when the three boys were being searched for, Hamas did not let up and indeed increased the pace of rocket fire. This suggests that Hamas is unwilling to modify its behavior in the interest of sealing and maintaining the agreement with President Abbas and that it will continue to create a very difficult squeeze for him: He will be embracing both a terrorist organization actively conducting acts of terror and a stated policy of cooperation with Israel. He will be embracing Hamas, cooperating with Hamas — and cooperating with Israeli security forces going after Hamas. To his public, this will and indeed does look like hypocrisy and deception.

The Fatah-Hamas deal itself is and always was unworkable. Hamas wants into the PA and the PLO but is unwilling to pay the price that should be demanded of it: abandoning terrorism and violence and placing its armed forces under PA control. Abbas knows this: He knows that Hamas wants the PA to cover its huge Gaza payroll — 40,000 to 50,000 “civil servants” — because its own resources can no longer cover the bill (largely due to Egypt’s closure of the Sinai/Gaza tunnels and to reduced levels of Iranian cash). Abbas must also know that his Western donors, especially the United States, will not give him the additional resources this would require. Why not? Because Congress will not vote funds to cover the Hamas payroll in general; and, worse yet, an estimated 13,000 of those “civil servants” in Gaza are policemen, many of whom double as members of Hamas’s terrorist forces — the Izzudin al-Qassam Brigade, which the U.S., UK, and EU all list as a terrorist organization. Nor is it likely that Arab donors with bail him out, for some of the richest — Saudi Arabia and the UAE — loathe the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is a part. That leaves Qatar, whose ties with Hamas and Abbas are close and supportive, as the only possible replacement donor. But Abbas will be reluctant to put his government so completely in Qatari hands, and the Qataris may not wish to be the sole support of the expensive PA and thereby to offend (yet again) their Gulf neighbors.

So what will Abbas do? One line of analysis says that Abbas genuinely wants this unity deal to work because it is his crowning achievement — national unity, and recovery of PA control over Gaza — and paves the way to elections and retirement. He would leave in a blaze of glory, having gotten Gaza back after losing control of it in 2007, and having healed the breach that split Palestine into two parts. That’s possible, but Abbas has talked about retirement year after year after year without leaving. An alternative theory is that he wants to be seen to be trying hard for an agreement with Hamas and for elections because that is popular with the Palestinian people, but he does not really want the deal to last or elections to be held.

To me it seems that the most likely outcome here is inertia: Abbas stays in office after the arrangement with Hamas breaks down. If the pressure for elections is very strong, he can hold them solely in the West Bank. Or put another way, he can say all Palestinians must vote; then Hamas will refuse to participate and will bear the burden of public criticism for that. But I am convinced the person most likely to be the Palestinian president one year from today is Mahmoud Abbas. And I would bet against Palestinian elections being held at all.

Meanwhile, Abbas must maintain the difficult balance he has in fact held since Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s death: partner of the Israelis in improving Palestinian economic life and fighting terrorism, while attacking the Israelis constantly for sins real and imagined. With negotiations dead for now, he will continue and enlarge his attack on settlement activity (even as construction beyond the Israeli security barrier, outside the “major blocs,” declines) and on the Israeli occupation. He will now face the U.N. question again: whether to seek membership in additional U.N. organizations, try to take Israel to the International Criminal Court, and rev up a diplomatic offensive. If the Hamas agreement tanks and there are no Israeli–Palestinian negotiations, it is predictable that he will do just this, in order to appear to be fighting back against Israel in the eyes of his constituents.

For Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the immediate question is how hard to hit Hamas now in Gaza. It seems that most targets in the West Bank have been rolled up (in the aftermath of the killing of the three teenagers), and Israeli security forces do not wish to disrupt Palestinian life there so much that they evoke huge protests and more violence. Gaza is a different story, and there the Israeli air force has been striking day after day in response to rocket fire. A ground operation into Gaza is not inconceivable, certainly if one of those rockets from Gaza hits a target like a school and there is considerable loss of life. Because the Gaza/Sinai border has largely been sealed by the Egyptians, rockets that Israel destroys cannot be easily replaced nowadays by Iran. This suggests that operations destroying large rocket caches are militarily fruitful, so the question is what size and duration of operation would be needed.

As of the July Fourth weekend, Egypt was acting as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, trying to get both sides to return to the previous understandings that Hamas would restrain rocket fire and Israel would undertake no ground operations. The Israelis were satisfied with that previous situation as the least-worst option, because they want to avoid a major ground incursion into Gaza and are not at all sure what would happen if they “overthrew” Hamas. They have no desire to occupy and run Gaza themselves, nor do they want a vacuum to be created that may allow al-Qaeda–linked jihadis to rise in power and influence. For them, a Hamas that is able and willing to keep the levels of rocket fire down — including by policing the activities of other Palestinian terrorist groups — is an outcome they can live with. But 60 rockets in two days fell on Israel this past Friday and Saturday, and that is a pace Israel will not tolerate.

If the current violence can be stopped, what of the future of Israeli–Palestinian relations in the next few years? In Israel, a number of influential voices were heard — prior to the kidnappings and murders and the current violence spurred by the killing of the Palestinian boy — urging reconsideration of unilateral steps in the West Bank. This is what former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert proposed in his 2006 campaign, and he won on this platform (though that was before Gaza became Hamastan in 2007). The idea is for Israel to pull back to the line of its security barrier, which encloses all the major blocs and about 12 percent of the West Bank, thereby setting its own border for years or decades to come. Settlers on the far side of that line would move or be moved back into Israel and the major blocs, but — in most versions — the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would not; it would prevent a security vacuum, prevent Hamas and other terrorist activities in the West Bank, and have a presence in the Jordan Valley for many years to come. Polls suggest that Israelis are today strongly opposed to such unilateral moves (by about two to one), on the ground that previous unilateral withdrawals in Lebanon and Gaza left those locations open to terrorist takeovers. But in the current version, the IDF would not leave, so no vacuum would be created, and the argument is that Israel will sooner or later be forced to do something to change the facts on the ground in reaction to American and European pressure.

Such moves would destroy Israel’s current governing coalition, some of whose members would leave rather than approve them. Moreover, they would split Netanyahu’s party, the Likud. It seems unlikely to me that he would contemplate these steps, even if he thought them sensible in the long run, unless he can figure out what new coalition would support them — and support him in undertaking them. The fight over withdrawal from Gaza caused a split in Likud, forcing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to leave and form his own new party. Netanyahu wants to control Likud, not divide it and of course far less to lose control over it and lose power.

Sometimes the support of an American president, and of the United States more generally, can be enough to make such a plan viable politically in Israel, and it’s possible that George W. Bush’s support allowed Sharon to prevail on Gaza disengagement. The circumstances of 2004 and 2005 do not obtain today, however. Bush was extremely popular in Israel then, and America was asserting its dominance in the Middle East by undertaking the Iraq War. Today we are seen to be a declining power in that region, President Obama is not trusted by Israelis in general or by Netanyahu in particular, and we do not have the ability to push such a plan over the top. For the next couple of years, or at least until the next Israeli election produces a different governing coalition, unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank is not going to happen. And of course, the threat to the region and especially to Jordan and Israel from the growing jihadi strength in Iraq and Syria makes Israelis less likely to take security risks. The current violence in the West Bank, Gaza, and Arab areas of Israel will only harden Israeli views that now is not the time to lower their guard.

Finally, what does the Obama administration do? There is no hint that Secretary of State John Kerry will revive his own efforts soon, and rightly so: Nothing has changed that would make success more likely. Still, there will be both international and domestic pressure on the administration to “do something,” and violence between Israelis and Palestinians only increases that pressure. There are two options, broadly speaking. One is to present an American plan, a sort of “Obama Parameters” like the “Clinton Parameters” that President Clinton presented at Camp David. This will appeal to Obama’s vanity, but it will go nowhere. Both sides are likely to thank him, happily celebrate all the parts with which they agree, sadly criticize and reject the parts with which they do not, and then forget about his proposals. As just noted, President Obama does not have the clout to change the situation with such a pronouncement — and many of his advisers know it. My guess is that he’ll go forward anyway, just to show he tried something and was not passive. But especially next year, when he will be a lame duck and may have lost the Senate, announcing “Obama Parameters” will lead nowhere. 

The other option is far less dramatic: a lower-key effort to improve life on the ground by enhancing Israeli–Palestinian cooperation, diminishing the footprint of the Israeli occupation, improving Palestinians’ mobility in the West Bank and their economic prospects. That all seems hopeless right now, in the aftermath of these murders, but as the months go by, it could be more realistic. It can be done without too much publicity and without threatening the political survival of Abbas or Netanyahu. Whether the administration has the clout or ability, or ambition, to achieve even this is doubtful to me. The record of five and a half years suggests not.

Where does all this pessimism leave us? It leaves me thinking that big changes in the Israeli–Palestinian situation are unlikely in the next couple of years, due to the combination of domestic politics in the United States and Israel and among the Palestinians, and the growing terrorist threat in the neighborhood.

What could change that calculation? Significant violence by Israelis against Palestinians could, especially if it involved important locations such as the Temple Mount, and the government of Israel will be working as hard as it is now to prevent such acts. PA support for violence could, but Abbas has always opposed violence and will continue to do so. (PA security forces were trying to tamp down last weekend’s violence, for instance.) A decision by Hamas to cause a serious escalation of violence could, but provoking a serious Israeli incursion into Gaza that would do great damage to the Hamas infrastructure does not seem to me in Hamas’s interests right now, when its resources are strained and the world’s attention is focused on Iraq, Syria, and ISIS, not the Israeli–Palestinian theater. Big talk, yes; threats, yes; more rocket fire, too — already the current violence has led Egypt to serve as a mediator, which means it is talking with Hamas in ways it has been unwilling to undertake since the Egyptian Army took back power a year ago. But a significant rise in violence that forces Israel to reply with a major incursion does not seem to be Hamas’s desire.

Perhaps that’s wrong, and I can see the opposing view. If the agreement with Fatah and the PA breaks down, what does Hamas do? Its position in the West Bank has just been badly hurt, and the situation in Gaza is deteriorating. Hamas could decide to bide its time, engaging in just enough attacks on Israel to keep its angry young men loyal (and not drifting off into Islamic Jihad and other groups) and waiting for a different regional situation or new American or Israeli leaders. That appears to be the Hamas game. But one should consider the possibility that Hamas will feel it is losing steadily due to Israeli and Egyptian (coordinated) pressure and the failure of its political effort to jump into the West Bank, the PA, and the PLO. Perhaps it will see no hope looking forward unless it shakes things up, raising the level of terrorism until Israel is compelled to strike back in a larger way. The theory would be that such Israeli moves would force the PA and all Arab governments to get behind Hamas, making it seem to the “Arab street” to be in the heroic vanguard against Israel. Maybe, but it’s quite a risk for Hamas, which might get lots of sympathy in the Arab street but no actual support from Arab governments. That would leave Hamas even weaker when the conflict finally ended.

The bottom line: Big changes are unlikely, and most likely a year from now the same leaders will be in place pursuing the same policies. We may yet see Hamas raise the level of terrorism and Israel respond by going after Hamas in Gaza in a significant way, and we may see President Obama offer his own proposal as to what a final peace agreement should look like. But once another round between Israel and Hamas is over, and once the ink is dry on Obama’s presentation, nothing fundamental will have changed. None of which should come as a great surprise to anyone who has been watching the so-called peace process roll on decade after decade.

 — Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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