Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to resume the direct peace negotiations broken off amid recriminations in December 2008, in 2006, in 2000, and all the way back. Benjamin Netanyahu for the Israelis and Mahmoud Abbas for the Palestinians don’t pretend to enjoy the prospect, and they groan audibly at the insistent pressure put on them by President Obama to cooperate. Hope springs eternal, of course, but did Obama never hear the forceful observation, commonly attributed to Einstein, that doing the same thing over and over again in the expectation of getting different results is insanity?
Obama has an end game in mind. For him, it is axiomatic that the establishment of a state of their own will place Palestinians on equal terms with Israelis. This “two-state solution” is all that’s required to bring eternal peace to the Middle East. It’s urgent too. Agreement in principle between the parties is now to come about within one year. In preparation for launching the state of Palestine, the United States has been talking up the merits of democracy, paying out hundreds of millions of dollars, and as in Iraq and Afghanistan, recruiting and training a police force, in theory to protect Abbas.
The parties at the forthcoming negotiations have always held, and still today hold, completely opposed views on issues that define identity, like the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, the return of Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem. Since the days of the British Mandate, objection to compromise has come from the representatives of two rival nationalisms, the Palestinian leadership and the Israeli Right. From the 1930s onwards, Palestinian leaders have been willing to ruin their people in warfare they could not win rather than concede the existence of a Jewish state in any part of the land. The Israeli Right took whatever chances there were to settle and incorporate land in the expectation that the Arab presence there would somehow dissolve like a mirage. Withdrawal in 2005 from the Gaza Strip was a final acknowledgment by the Israeli Right that the Arab presence is in fact permanent, and responsibility for ruling discontented Arabs is intolerable.
That is the starting point of the two-state solution, which is really no more than a diplomatic euphemism for partition, buried in it the fundamental question of how much is to go to Israel and how much to the Palestinians. It is yesterday’s missed opportunity, however. Blocked for so many decades by the rival nationalisms, partition has been overtaken by events. Withdrawal from Gaza opened the way for Hamas, a new component in the Israeli relationship with the Palestinians. Hamas is the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s foremost Islamist organization. In local elections in Gaza, Hamas began its rise to power by defeating Fatah, the armed militia on which Abbas depends. This was a classic case of “One man, one vote — once.” Hamas has postponed further elections. Then in a carefully planned coup, Hamas set about killing any and all Fatah members who did not come over to them.
Small in scale though it is, the Gaza Strip is now an Islamist emirate complete with sharia law and religious police to enforce it. The legitimacy of this dictatorship rests on the gun. Corpses are regularly fished out of the sea and found to have been shot in the back of the head. In the conviction that Palestine is a God-given trust to Muslims, Hamas rejects any idea of a two-state solution in favor of jihad, that is to say a struggle to the death with whoever does not share their Islamism. In its idiom, Hamas accuses Fatah of “waging war against Islam and Allah.” To Islamists, everything, then — to the Israelis or to Fatah, nothing. The no-holds-barred nationalism that long ago wrecked the Palestinians has acquired a religious dimension that is impervious to any possibility of compromise. Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader who lives in Damascus, immediately arranged for a dozen separate organizations, some of them jihadis and others secular, to sign a petition that talks were the result of coercion by Washington and “do not obligate our people to anything.” Violence on their part against the two-state solution is unavoidable. Iran has firmly sealed Hamas into its would-be global jihad by paying it an annual subsidy of $500 million, and provides weaponry, including missiles capable of reaching well into Israel, and Egypt, and Jordan too, come to that.
#page#Mahmoud Abbas, the titular Palestinian president in his capital of Ramallah on the West Bank, cuts a sad figure. So weak is his position that he cannot even return to his house in Gaza, which has anyhow been sacked in his absence. Although his term expired last year, he too stays in office by postponing elections. His tenuous authority to enter into direct talks with Israel comes from the votes of committees he has packed with Fatah supporters. It will be easy for him or anyone else to say that a decision reached in Washington has no legitimacy.
Khaled Abu Toameh, the Palestinian journalist with the courage to tell it like it is, does not hesitate to say that Hamas and Fatah are engaged in civil war and to supply the details. A meeting in Ramallah to protest against talks was broken up by plainclothes security men shouting Fatah slogans. One thousand schoolteachers have been fired for having suspect political sympathies. Abbas has arrested dozens of Hamas and affiliated supporters on the West Bank, and has placed a ban on Sheikh Hamed Bittawi, the senior Hamas representative there. The intra-Palestine civil war crosses frontiers: In the Lebanese city of Tyre, Hamas and Fatah sheikhs have just shot it out over the question of who should preach in a mosque. Abbas stays in power only because he buys loyalty by distributing to cronies the subsidies he receives from abroad. West Bankers resent the corruption. In the event of holding the elections that are overdue, Abbas and Fatah would almost certainly lose to Hamas, whereupon in a repeat of the takeover in Gaza they would face the alternatives of a bloodbath or exile. With another dictatorship in the making, nobody knows whom the American-trained police force would turn their guns against. Maintenance of the status quo is the only possible precaution against the West Bank’s falling under the control of Hamas, and therefore Iran, both of which have the declared purpose of putting an end to the Jewish state.
The end game of the two-state solution, then, is illusory, wishful thinking, outdated, because there are now two incompatible Palestines, and with Israel, that makes three states. Three into two won’t go.
Obama has expended a good deal of his diminishing political capital by insisting on these talks. As so often with him, the motive is obscure. At the very moment when the summons to Abbas and Netanyahu was announced, Iran was advancing to the next stage in its nuclear program by installing fuel rods in a Russian-built reactor on the Persian Gulf. Experts estimate that by the time the year allotted for laying the foundation of the two-state solution is over, Iran will have two nuclear bombs, maybe more. In the circumstances, doing the same talking as before in the expectation of a different result seems — well yes — insanity.