Two separate internationally-mediated tracks of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy have been making headlines over the past few months: efforts to revive the stalled peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and attempts to achieve intra-Palestinian reconciliation. In theory, the two could be—and should be—part of the same drive. In practice, however, it appears that talks between the Palestinian factions are headed for a dead-end while most of the attention is focused on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Down the road, this could prove to be a fatal blow to the peace process.
It is true that representatives of Fatah and Hamas have been meeting periodically over the past weeks. Both administrations pay lip service to unity and on May 25 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promised a unity government within “the coming two weeks.” Moreover, Hamas has reportedly undergone a major transformation toward moderation in the last months, purging its leadership of hardliners and observing the ceasefire with Israel more carefully than in previous years. Its leaders have even suggested that they would not oppose the two-state solution, narrowing the gaps not only with the Palestinian Authority, but also with Israel.
However, those who doubt that Palestinian unity is in the works are not limited to detractors such as Hamas’s more extremist rival Islamic Jihad. Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American intellectual, blamed the divisions on Israeli and US policies, but also on Fatah and Hamas themselves. “At best, they can try to create a ‘federal’ government to join two stand-alone geographic areas,” he wrote in a recent email, adding that this would leave Palestinians residing in Jerusalem, in Israel, and in the Diaspora outside the political system. “These three constituencies will come back to haunt both Hamas and Fatah.”
Gershon Baskin, a veteran Israeli peace activist, offered a broadly similar assessment, explaining that such an initiative would require the leaderships and the security forces of Fatah and Hamas to integrate with one another, which is very unlikely. He added that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Gaza, which is expected in June and could theoretically aid the reconciliation drive, would anger Abbas, the Israelis, the US, and the Saudis, and “is not constructive at this time.”
While the busy travel schedule of Secretary of State Kerry has drawn some criticism, there appears to be a real—though perhaps final—possibility for an opening in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Some of Kerry’s tireless efforts have reportedly backfired (for example, his attempt in April to influence former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad not to resign or more recently to dissuade Erdogan from visiting Gaza), but he has also chalked up impressive successes. He clinched an Arab League agreement in late April to accept “minor” land-swaps in the Arab Peace initiative of 2002 (which calls for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a just solution to the refugee problem in return for recognition and full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world), and also reportedly forced the Israeli government to temporarily suspend major construction in the settlements.
Moreover, Kerry has assembled an impressive team to tackle some of the thorniest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Two recent heavy-weight arrivals are former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, tasked with propping up the Palestinian economy and preparing it for independence, and the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, who will attempt to mediate Israel’s requests for security arrangements in a future Palestinian state. Blair’s team is reportedly hoping to bring USD $4 billion of private investment to the Palestinian territories over the next three years, slashing unemployment by two-thirds and raising wages by some 40 percent. The caveat is, as Kerry bluntly stated, is that this would not be fully possible without peace.
Some analysts believe that a successful peace deal would not only solve Palestine’s pressing economic woes, but also Israel’s. While both Israelis and Palestinians reacted coolly to the economic perspectives—the PA said it would make no "political concessions in exchange for economic benefits," while the new Israeli finance minister, Yair Lapid, chose to embark on a path of painful budget cuts that has already slashed his popularity—both need it badly. Moreover, as the prominent Israeli peace activist Bernard Avishai wrote, the point is not to avoid the core issues with economic talk. “We have to start working these problems as if independence presumes interdependence,” he asserted.
Avishai also recently revealed that the latest known Israeli and PA positions on borders—those discussed between Abbas and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008—had already been bridged in theory. Without getting into the fine details of the Olmert-Abbas talks, or of how representative both individuals are of their respective constituencies, we can safely say that there are mainstream currents of both Israeli and Palestinian political discourse which can bridge the gaps between the two sides. The real problem is not only the Israeli drift to the right, embodied by right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but also the Palestinian split, alongside Abbas’s own stubborn insistence on preconditions to the talks.
An argument has often been made that the peace process at this stage can only be advanced through secret means rather than through public diplomacy. There are many indications that what is publicly available from all the initiatives currently underway is just the tip of the iceberg (“Kerry’s plan remains opaque, even to officials in the Obama administration,” the AP reported recently), so it is possible that some of these figurative landmines are being dealt with separately, through unofficial channels.
There are certainly reports that Abbas is feeling massive international pressure to drop his pre-conditions, and it is also conceivable that the complex processes underway inside Hamas could lead to its acquiescence in a peace process down the road. (The Israeli military operation last November contributed to marginalizing the radicals and empowering the moderates inside the movement, and one has to wonder also if the civil war in Syria might serve as another unofficial rallying point, given Hamas’s break with the Bashar al-Assad regime last year and what is known and rumored about Israel’s involvement there.) Netanyahu, too, could conceivably change his policies, and polls suggest that he could win the backing of his society if he does so. There is ample precedent for right-wing Israeli leaders (such as Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin) undergoing dramatic transformations, and just days ago, Kerry praised the Israeli prime minister’s "seriousness" about peace.
Yet the danger remains that if all these issues are not addressed comprehensively, they will remain a Trojan horse that could ruin any potential peace deal. And while the good news is that for the first time in years there is a real sense of momentum toward peace—both on the ground and in the international community—the bad news is that if this opportunity is missed, another may not arise for a long while.
Victor Kotsev is an independent journalist and political analyst focusing on the Middle East.