As the new U.S. president considers whether to try to revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, he must understand the new realities shaping the conflict. It is well-known that Palestinians are divided into two major camps, Fatah and Hamas, who contest which truly represents the Palestinian people and diverge over strategy and tactics. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), dominated by Fatah, rules the West Bank, believes in negotiations, and sees the establishment of a Palestinian state on the lands occupied in 1967 as an end to the conflict. But it also can barely preserve itself in power despite enormous financial support from the international community. Hamas, on the other hand, controls Gaza and enjoys support among many Palestinians in the diaspora. It relies on armed resistance and terrorism and says it would be willing to reach a long-term truce with Israel but that ultimately Palestinians must rule all of historic Palestine.

What the new U.S. president needs to understand about the rift between Fatah and Hamas is that it does not matter whether Washington supports or rejects reconciliation efforts. Regardless of the U.S. position, this contention among brothers will continue; even if they reach an accord, it will not last. Other factors adding to this gloomy picture are the fact that Israel continues to construct new settlements and expands older ones in the West Bank and that it has built a security wall inside the presumed borders of the future Palestinian state.
Conscious of these developments, many observers now say that a two- state solution is no longer possible. But this is not necessarily true; what has collapsed is not the principle of sharing the land, but the idea that the way to reach this goal is through bilateral negotiations between the PLO and Israel.
Indeed, the days when the PLO could claim to represent all Palestinians are over. Now it lacks both the mandate to sign an accord with Israel and the capacity to implement one. Moreover, Israel has made progress on security issues a precondition for compromise over permanent status issues. But eight years of mutual violence since the failure of negotiations in 2000 makes it hard to believe the PLO will ever fulfill this condition.
Rather than continuing the process begun at Annapolis, the new U.S. administration needs to consider a two track strategy. The first track would aim to empower moderate Palestinians to expand their base of support in order to pave the road for peace and to ensure that an agreement can be implemented. This can be achieved by improving the economic situation of Palestinians, removing the checkpoints that hamper movement, insisting on reform of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, freezing construction of Israeli settlements, and prolonging the Israeli-Hamas truce in Gaza.
The second track should establish a new paradigm for negotiations in which the Arab countries together would negotiate with Israel to solve the Palestinian question as part of the wider conflict between Israel on one side, and Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians on the other. In contemplating such a dramatically different approach, it is legitimate to ask on which basis negotiations would proceed, why this new approach would be more promising than the bilateral talks begun at Annapolis, what would be in it for Israel, and whether the Arab countries and Palestinians would support it.
Regarding the basis for such negotiations, the idea would not be to convince the Arabs to drop their peace initiative of March 2002 or to press Israel to accept it, but rather to begin from the principles that both sides agreed to at the 1991 Madrid conference: land for peace and UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. Under this new approach, Arab countries would substitute for the weak and divided Palestinians. They would bargain collectively, through the League of Arab States, with Israel to reach a solution that included security arrangements for all parties. An agreement on Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees reached with all Arab states would be stronger and more durable than one reached with Palestinians alone. Such an accord would put Hamas and Hizbollah on the defensive; their choices would be to torpedo the agreement and confront all Arab countries including their ally Syria, or live with it and transform themselves into unarmed political parties.
For its part, Israel would reap several benefits. It would obtain security arrangements in which it could have confidence and normalize its relations with all Arab countries. Moreover, there is every reason to believe that Israel would obtain these advantages in the context of an agreement with Arab states on Palestinian issues that would be along the lines of the principles Israel and the PLO have agreed on in past talks including on sensitive issues such as territorial swaps, refugee issues, and shared sovereignty over Jerusalem.
The Arab countries have vital interests in resolving the conflict with Israel. Iran’s increased influence in the Middle East and the rising power of Hamas in Palestine and Hizbollah in Lebanon have made them more vulnerable to domestic pressure from Islamic movements that use the conflict to advance their political ambitions. Still, Arab states might shy away from direct negotiations with Israel, preferring to hide behind the Palestinians when it comes to making the necessary compromises for peace. At the time of the 1991 Madrid conference, Syria and Lebanon were against separating the negotiations tracks but much has changed since then. Perhaps the most serious obstacle would be getting Palestinians to sacrifice their independence and accept a kind of trusteeship from the Arab League.
It remains for the United States to examine the advantages of such an approach and encourage Israel, Palestinians, and Arab states to endorse it. In this context, the new U.S. president should keep in mind that the Arabs already implicitly proposed this approach via their peace initiative five years ago, and recently Israeli Labor Party leader Ehud Barak has stated that he and Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni are considering responding positively to that initiative.
Mohammad Yaghi is a columnist for the Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam.