The façade of Palestinian unity has collapsed. Differences between Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah in the West Bank and Ismael Haniyeh's Hamas in the Gaza Strip, culminating in their 2007 civil war, have intensified. Prospects for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are increasingly dim.
"Nobody (on the Israeli side) knows who to talk to," says Jonathan Schanzer, director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., conservative think tank. He'll be in Cleveland on April 19 to talk to a meeting of The Republican Jewish Coalition about Israeli security and his new book Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine.
If Israel were miraculously to decide to relinquish control of the West Bank, remove the checkpoints, return parts of Jerusalem to Muslim hands, and allow some refugees to return to Israel, "there would be nobody on the Palestinian side to ratify this agreement," said Schanzer, a former counterterrorism analyst at the U.S. Department of Treasury.
"The Palestinian civil war has eclipsed the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the stumbling block to peace in the Middle East," he maintains.
During a recent teleconference sponsored by The Israel Project and a phone interview with the CJN, Schanzer spoke about the internal rift between the two major Palestinian political groups and what that means for peace.
The violent rivalry comes despite the fact that Hamas and Fatah have very similar ideologies, he says. Although their tactics differ, both charters openly call for destruction of the state of Israel.
Although Fatah has never recognized Israel, it is willing to engage in negotiations; it simply has a long time frame for the destruction of Israel, Schanzer explains. In contrast, Hamas seeks immediate engagement in war with Israel.
Other differences between the parties are stark. Hamas, which controls Gaza, is an Islamic political entity in the mold of Saudi Arabia and perhaps Iran, Schanzer points out. Fatah, in charge of the West Bank and supported by Sunni Muslims, is secular and more moderate.
The Palestinian factions have made diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinian government "infinitely more challenging," the Middle East expert notes. If Israel deals with Fatah, which controls 2.5 million people in the West Bank, it's negotiating with an unelected government.
Hamas, in control of 1.5 million people in the Gaza Strip, is the Palestinians' elected government. But, most Western governments identify Hamas as a terrorist organization. Hamas also won't talk to Israel, which it calls the "Zionist entity."
Working with Hamas in Washington would fly in the face of U.S. foreign policy not to negotiate with terrorists, Schanzer points out. It's a guiding principle dating back to Richard Nixon.
While Palestinians undoubtedly view Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a "warmonger," Schanzer does not see the new Israeli government as a major obstacle to peace. The inclusion of Labor leader Ehud Barak in Netanyahu's coalition represents a moderating influence, he notes.
Furthermore, the "likelihood of the Palestinians even getting to that point where a deal could be inked is so far from where we are now it's almost inconceivable."
A forward-thinking visionary, a Mahatma Gandhi, a Martin Luther King Jr., or a Nelson Mandela, must emerge on the Palestinian side for peace negotiations to move forward, Schanzer insists. This leader must champion economic growth, political liberalization, and a better life for a Palestine ruled by Palestinians.
There have been a few, limited steps in that direction, with several moderate Palestinian political movements: Palestine Forum led by a Palestinian billionaire with an economic vision for a future state; Wasatia, which means middle ground; and The Third Way, run by Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister who recently resigned.
If the Palestinians form a unity government that halts the rocket fire across the Gaza border into Israel, ends the incitement of hatred, and does not seek the destruction of the Jewish state, Israel is prepared to talk about the issues left on the table after the collapse of the 2000 peace talks, Schanzer insists. The Palestinians never came up with a counteroffer, a fact ignored "inside the Beltway and by the mainstream media."
American Jews are the quintessential overachievers. They always want to do something, Schanzer says. "But if the preconditions (for peace negotiations) are not there, those efforts will only hurt."
Until Hamas and Fatah talk about concrete steps necessary to ensure a brighter future for Palestinians, "I think we're stuck," he maintains. "At the end of the day, it's entirely up to the Palestinians. Israel can dangle some carrots and make things easier, but they will not determine what type of leadership will come out of the Palestinian landscape."
WHO: Jonathan Schanzer, Jewish Policy Center
WHAT: Gaza, Palestinian Civil War and Israeli Security
WHEN: Sun., April 19, 9:45 a.m.
RSVP: 216-831-2088 or [email protected]