Jun 13th 2009

The Palestinians at a Pivotal Crossroads

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

President Obama's push for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict has given the Palestinians an historic opportunity to end their disastrous state of affairs. Although many parties involved in the conflict-especially the Arab states and Israel-have contributed directly or indirectly to Palestinian suffering, the Palestinians have undoubtedly inflicted the greatest injury upon themselves by forgoing numerous opportunities to make peace with dignity. With the best of intentions by the international community, and even with unwavering American and Arab support, only the Palestinians united in their purpose and committed to a peaceful solution can end their hardship and realize a state of their own. Sixty-two years of dislocation and despair can come to an end; the question is will the Palestinian leadership be able to present a united front and rise to the historic occasion?

There are five prerequisites that the Palestinians must collectively meet to achieve a state of their own. Certainly no one should expect either the Palestinian Authority (PA) or especially Hamas to adopt all of these simultaneously or immediately. One thing however must be clear: no Israeli government-regardless of its ideological leaning-will compromise on these five issues, nor will the Obama administration break its resolve in backing them. These demands on the Palestinian leadership are consistent with the requirements imposed by the US, EU and Israel calling on the Palestinians to renounce terrorism, accept prior agreements and recognize Israel's right to exist. Hamas has shown in the past an unwillingness to cooperate with demands from the international community, but it seems that with new US efforts to push reconciliation, Hamas has a unique opportunity to join the political process as a recognized party. The PLO under the leadership of Yasir Arafat went through the same pain, and in 1988 recognized Israel and renounced terrorism. In a recent interview with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, he agreed not only to a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, but conceded that "when the time comes, Hamas will make some of the moves demanded of it by the West."

Form a united front

As the Egyptian-brokered talks between Fatah and Hamas continue, it is becoming more imperative that the Palestinian leadership show a united front as they face upcoming negotiations with the US and Israeli governments. A Palestinian unity government will allow Hamas to save face as it can commit to the two-state solution that the Hamas charter forbids. This will give the radical yet undeniably popular group a voice and stake in the negotiating process, and can bring Hamas to the table as a significant political force rather than an armed faction with a devious political agenda. Both Hamas and the PA (which represents the Palestinian Liberation Organization) know that the prospect of reaching a viable peace deal with Israel requires that the Palestinians speak in one voice. Hamas as a popular movement has secured a place in the Palestinian body politic and no one can effectively deny Hamas a say in negotiations. This why it is critical that Hamas is included in the Palestinian government, because left to its own devices and with no prospect of exercising some power over Palestinian affairs, it will undoubtedly resort to violence to disrupt the process. It appears though that the Egyptian-mediated negotiations between the PA and Hamas to form a unity government have advanced considerably, and the two sides may well reach an agreement this summer.

That being said, Hamas must nevertheless drop the illusion that it can control the Palestinian political agenda entirely. It must realize that the PA, with the support of the United States and other powers, will soon have a military powerful enough to confront Hamas' future challenges and to prevail. The recent clash in the West Bank proved that Fatah soldiers are willing to take on Hamas if necessary. Hamas must further be disabused of any illusion that it can overthrow the PA by political or violent means and take-over the West Bank. The continued training of PA security forces in Jordan with American funding, monitoring and equipping remains essential. It sends a clear message to Hamas' leadership that there will be no chance of unseating the PA and that time is not in its favour. And finally, if Israel is to make any major concessions to the Palestinians, it will only do so knowing that they are in agreement with a united leadership supported by the Arab street. Israel will not risk giving up an inch of land to the PA if it feels threatened that Hamas can hijack it and use it to launch violent attacks. If Hamas wants to gain legitimate political credibility in all of Palestine, it must demonstrate to the International community and to Israel in particular that it can act as a credible and responsible political partner along with the PA.

End all acts of violence

Cessation of violence is fundamental not only to the resumption of peace negotiations but for fostering confidence between all parties. Decades of violence and counter-attacks have not improved the Palestinian prospect for statehood in any capacity. Although the PA has acknowledged this reality, and worked to quell violence in the West Bank, Hamas has made violent resistance against Israel the pillar of its strategy. Hamas too has realized, however-especially following the Gaza war-that continued rocket fire can only get them so far. During the war Hamas' fighters could not confront the Israeli army and assumed defensive posture as they were no match to Israel's overwhelming military prowess. The militants furthermore used women and children as human shields to raise the collateral damage and to bring international pressure on Israel to end the fighting. Now that Hamas has suspended violent resistance, it must continue to reinforce it at all costs in order to become a party to the peace negotiation. Should Hamas choose instead to violently disrupt the political process that the US is leading with the active involvement of the Arab states, it will risk losing all the political capital it gained throughout the past decade.

Ending the calls for Israel's destruction

Challenging Israel's right to exist will get the Palestinians nowhere, as has been demonstrated in the past. If Israel feels threatened that it must fight for existence it will justify all means, however severe, to ensure its long-term safety and survival. Moreover, Israel does not need Hamas' recognition, though in ongoing negotiations Hamas has indirectly had to acknowledge Israel's existence as a reality. Hamas' leadership has agreed to 1967 borders, a long-term ceasefire and the possibility of living in peace with Israel, as was conveyed by former President Jimmy Carter. Khaled Meshal may come much closer to accepting Israel in his upcoming policy address. Moreover, Hamas is also fully aware of the changing political dynamics in the region as the Arab states are moving toward reconciliation with Israel. The Obama administration has repeatedly reaffirmed America's unshakable commitment to Israel's security and a viable Palestinian state. Hamas should not forsake this opportunity for an unrealistic goal of calling for Israel's destruction. This is a chance that Hamas may not want to miss, especially after watching Hezbollah's recent defeat in the Lebanese Parliamentary elections.

Give up on the Palestinian right of return

This may be the most difficult demand for the Palestinians to come to terms with; it represents one of their toughest bargaining chips and in a large part caused the collapse of the negotiations at Camp David in 2000. While in theory, the Palestinian right of return appears logical, no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could possibly envision the return of any significant number of Palestinian refugees to Israel proper. From the Israeli perspective, any sizeable influx of Palestinian refugees will change overnight the demographic make-up of the state. This is not a question of right and wrong; it is simply a matter of Israel's survival as a Jewish state for which it was created, and Israel will never abandon or compromise on this principle. That being said, any Palestinian refugee who opts to resettle in their homeland should be able to do so in the West Bank or Gaza once a Palestinian state is created.

In past negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the Palestinian representatives understood that a solution to the refugee problem lies in resettlement and/or compensation. The United Nations General Assembly resolution 194 (1948) which called on Israel to allow the refugees to return to their original homes is not binding, as is the case with all General Assembly resolutions. Moreover, resolution 194 was superseded by the binding United Nations Security Council resolution 242 (1967), which instead called for "achieving a just settlement to the refugee problem." Having preached the gospel of the right of return so consistently over so many years, the Palestinians' leadership may not be in a position to simply drop the issue altogether unless it is a part of the whole package of a peace agreement. Yet, the sooner they begin to modify their narrative, prepare the public, and indicate to the United States their readiness to address the refugee problem in the context of resettlement and compensation, the easier it will be for the Israelis to make concessions in other areas such as the settlements, where they feel less threatened.

Embrace the Arab Peace Initiative

The leading Arab states-especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt-must persuade Hamas to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative and rejoin the Arab fold. The Arab Peace Initiative generally calls on Israel to give up the territories captured in the 1967 war and to find a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem in exchange for peace with all Arab countries. This offers Hamas a clear way out of its self-imposed isolation. This is an opportunity Hamas should not forsake, as the Initiative represents the collective Arab will and provides the basis for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. Its merits have been acknowledged outside the Arab world by President Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres among others, and it will likely be included in the Road Map as the official framework for negotiations. Moreover, the leaders of the Arab states are determined to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which has been feeding extremism to the detriment of their own regimes. And once Syria joins the peace process on that basis, which may be sooner than later, Hamas will stand alone in the Arab world in its struggle against Israel. Moreover, if Hamas is seen as an obstructionist undermining the prospect of a comprehensive peace, it will force many Arab states that support President Obama's peace offensive to take severe punishing measures against Hamas. Hamas' leadership can see the writing on the wall, and
to maintain its political viability it must find a way to join the Arabs states. While it will take time and a concerted effort to include Hamas in the Annapolis process, in the interim it should accept the Initiative created by the Saudis who are instrumental to its survival.


Although these requirements for peace are not new, they have eluded the Palestinians for decades. These years of struggle have also been instructive, however, as the Arab states led by Egypt have gradually concluded that Israel cannot and will not be marginalized or destroyed. A majority of Palestinian civilians have also finally come to accept the premise of a two-state solution. Time and circumstances matter greatly and now both Israel and the Palestinians face an unprecedented opportunity to forge a lasting peace.

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