Donald Trump last week appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner to "broker a Middle East peace deal." Mediating an agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis is a "yuge" task, and Trump knows it. But he can make Kushner's job much easier if he appoints another envoy, too.
The U.S. needs someone to first broker a peace deal between the Palestinians themselves.
The Palestinian internecine conflict is a bipartisan blind spot. The last two presidential administrations labored to achieve a two-state solution without giving serious thought to solving the current three-state scenario. Indeed, Israel is currently sandwiched between two separate Palestinian statelets: a Palestinian Authority-run West Bank and a Hamas-run Gaza Strip. The West Bank government is open to making a deal with Israel in theory, but refuses in practice thus far. The government ruling Gaza seeks nothing less than Israel's destruction based on both religious and nationalist grounds. Both regimes insist that they speak on behalf of the Palestinians.
The nominally secular Fatah faction, which is the dominant political party in the Palestinian Authority, and the violent Islamist group Hamas have vied for power since the first intifada of 1987. In fact, the spate of Hamas suicide bombings in the 1990s may have been as much an attempt to delegitimize the Palestinian Authority as they were an attempt to derail the ongoing peace talks.
The George W. Bush administration, intent on spreading democracy in the Arab World, encouraged the two factions to square off in elections in 2006. Hamas won the contest, but the Palestinian Authority refused to allow the terrorist group to govern. Tensions hit their zenith in 2007 when Hamas launched a war and successfully wrested control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority still clings to power in the West Bank while Hamas today controls the Gaza Strip. Both rule with brutality, for fear that the other may attempt to consolidate power across the Palestinian divide.
While Washington has made tepid efforts to empower Fatah at the expense of Hamas over the years, it has done little to tackle the problem head-on. By contrast, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have all tried to broker power-sharing agreements between the two Palestinian parties. More recently, Russia and Switzerland have gotten into the act. The Russians probably even thought they succeeded last week when Hamas and Fatah agreed to a "new national council." But the news came amidst reports of that Hamas and Fatah were accusing each other of carrying out "politically motivated" arrests in their respective territories. As expected, the purported agreement reached in Moscow was yet another false alarm.
But we need to give these governments credit. They understand that the low-intensity conflict between the two most powerful Palestinian territories makes a peace agreement with Israel impossible. Indeed, they understand that the Palestinians lack a legitimate leader capable of representing both territories or engaging in productive diplomacy with Israel.
Rather than address the geopolitical split that renders any Palestinian leader incapable of signing a peace agreement with Israel, the Obama administration insisted that settlements are the primary obstacle to peace. While there may come a time and place to address that issue, the focus on settlements was putting the cart before the horse. Any diplomatic effort to end the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis to include the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel must first solve the Palestinian internecine conflict. From there, a bilateral negotiation can ensue between two leaders—one Palestinian and one Israeli—that legitimately represent their people.
Admittedly, it will be no small task to negotiate peace between the Palestinians. The two sides harbor an ideological hatred for one another that is equal to if not greater than what we often see between Palestinians and Israelis. Their painful memories of the bloody 2007 Gaza conflict are not soon to be forgotten.
There is also the diplomatic and legal challenge for American officials of avoiding direct dealings with Hamas. For years, there have been whispers of occasional track-two diplomacy between U.S. think tanks and the Palestinian terrorist group. This could be one angle to explore. But even indirect messages to Hamas should not signal acceptance. The group must disarm, relinquish its control of the Gaza Strip and allow for a single Palestinian Authority government to rule.
If Trump is looking for a bold step to take in his first one hundred days, he should appoint a Special Envoy to Solve the Palestinian Conflict. In doing so, his message would be clear: The United States is committed to diplomacy between Palestinians and Israelis, which hinges on a solution to the longstanding Palestinian internal dispute.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).