In his first televised interview after assuming the nation's highest office, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke live to the Arab world via the al-Arabiya television channel. He announced that he had dispatched his new special envoy, George Mitchell, to the Middle East to jumpstart Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy. Obama stated that it is "time to return to the negotiating table."
Negotiations are, of course, preferable to war. But, there are two nagging questions that the President must first answer before attempting to succeed where others have failed in the Holy Land.
The first question is a simple one: have the Palestinians accepted Israel's right to exist? This is critical to the success of any peace plan – and something that Obama's predecessors too often ignored.
Clearly, the Hamas organization still seeks the destruction of the state of Israel. The group's governing charter explicity states, "There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad." To this end, Hamas continues to fire rocket salvo after rocket salvo indiscriminately into Israeli civilian populations. These provocations were what prompted Israel to launch Operation Cast Lead in December 2008.
According to the mainstream media, however, all is not lost. The Fatah faction, as the New York Times or CNN describe it, is a moderate group that seeks peace with the Jewish state.
This is patently false. Article 12 of the Fatah constitution clearly states that Fatah seeks the "complete liberation of Palestine, and eradication of Zionist economic, political, military and cultural existence." To this end, Fatah maintains a squadron of jihadi fighters known as the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades that are as zealous as Hamas in their desire to destroy the Jewish state.
But, even if Fatah were a peace-seeking faction that desired meaningful dialogue with Israel, the Obama administration must answer a second, more complicated question: who speaks for the Palestinians?
As I describe at length in my new book, Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine, Hamas and Fatah are currently locked in a violent civil conflict that has rendered Palestinian-Israeli negotiations useless. As former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently observed after a Middle East tour, "the only thing that's going to create a lasting solution here is if there can be terms of Palestinian unity."
The Hamas-Fatah conflict is actually two decades old, dating back to the outbreak of the first intifada in late 1987, when the upstart Hamas organization, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, challenged Yasir Arafat's Fatah faction with competing bayanat, or leaflets, on the streets of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
During the 1990s, this political rivalry became increasingly acrimonious. Specifically, Hamas was steadfast in its opposition to Fatah's negotiations with Israel during the Oslo years. When Fatah took the reins of the Palestinian Authority, it launched a decade-long campaign against Hamas, leading to regular exchanges of public barbs as well as firefights in the streets. Quietly, a Palestinian civil war was brewing.
In September 2000, when Arafat turned his back on an American-brokered peace deal with Israel and launched the "Al-Aqsa Intifada" against Israel, it appeared that the Hamas-Fatah war had ended. Arafat released dozens of jailed Hamas members, and exhorted West Bankers and Gazans alike to "march on Jerusalem." Hamas and Fatah, united in their desire to destroy Israel, jointly launched a wave of terror against Israel.
But Arafat's strategy backfired horribly. Israel, for its part, responded with overwhelming force against Arafat's power structure – the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA). Even when Arafat's gunmen were not responsible for attacks, Israel hammered the PA. Thus, the more Hamas attacked Israel, the weaker Arafat became.
Within months, the PA was reduced to rubble, and Israeli tanks cornered Arafat in his presidential compound in Ramallah. Hamas, however, continued to grow, despite attacks against its leadership by the Israeli military, by providing the Palestinians with services that the PA could not. Under these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that Arafat failed to retain a monopoly on the use of force in the territories. Families and clans allied with Hamas soon controlled significant swaths of the territories.
When Arafat died in 2004, his deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, succeeded him. While Abbas had long been groomed for the job, he also failed to gain control of the territories.
Chaos and confusion worsened after the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006. In what ranked among the freest elections in the Arab world, the Palestinians overwhelmingly supported Hamas. However, after the final votes were tallied, Fatah refused to yield control. Sporadic violence erupted between the two sides, marking a bitter standoff.
After more than a year of violence and venomous public exchanges, Hamas carried out a brutal coup that crushed Fatah in Gaza. In June 2007, reports emerged of Palestinians being pushed off tall buildings to their death. Some Palestinians shot rival faction members point blank in the limbs to ensure permanent disabilities. Human rights groups reported unlawful imprisonments and torture in both the West Bank and Gaza.
By July 2007, there were two non-states ruled by two non-governments in the Palestinian territories – "Hamastan" in Gaza and "Fatahland" in the West Bank. Since then, the fighting has continued unabated. Human rights groups continue to issue reports detailing the beating, killing, and torture of rival faction members in both territories.
When war erupted between Hamas and Israel last month, it was an opportunity for the Palestinians to join forces against their common enemy, Israel. Instead, Fatah members reportedly provided the Israeli military with intelligence on Hamas targets in Gaza. From the safety of the West Bank, many Fatah members cheered the Israeli military incursion that weakened their rivals. One of Abbas' top aides said Hamas was "110%" to blame for the Israeli incursion.
Operation Cast Lead, while short-lived, only deepened the divide between these two warring mini-states. Fatah used the Israeli incursion as a distraction, arresting hundreds of Hamas fighters throughout the West Bank. As payback, when the war ended, Hamas rounded up dozens of Fatah activists suspected of "collaborating" with Israel. Some were shot in the limbs. Some were summarily executed.
The violence between Hamas and Fatah still rages. The Arab television network al-Jazeera recently reported that dozens of beatings and killings have taken place in the Gaza Strip since the end of the Israeli offensive. Masked men from Hamas' "security forces" are reportedly still exacting revenge against Fatah supporters.
Back in Washington, however, President Obama and his advisers have still not identified this internecine Palestinian conflict as a stumbling block to his plans for peace. The current policy is to work with Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction in the West Bank as if it speaks for all of the Palestinians.
Should this remain U.S. policy, any agreement forged between Israel and Fatah would undoubtedly be met with Hamas violence ¬– either against Israel or Fatah, or both. It is for this reason that there are increasing calls for U.S. engagement with Hamas. Former President Jimmy Carter, who met with Hamas leaders (against the will of the U.S. State Department) last year, is loudest among them.
Obama's hands are now tied. If he deals with Hamas, he would be negotiating with terrorists—something that would fly in the face of U.S. policy dating back to the Nixon administration. He would also be rewarding a terrorist group with recognition after two decades of suicide bombing and rocketing.
The Obama administration must now come to terms with the fact that if there is ever to be peace in the Middle East, the Palestinians must accept the existence of the Jewish state. And in order for that to happen, there must be a Palestinian interlocutor – an undisputed leader – who finds the moral courage to do this.
Without these two preconditions, attempts to force Israel to make territorial concessions would unnecessarily and recklessly endanger the security of the Jewish state.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism analyst for the U.S. Treasury Department, is deputy executive director for the Jewish Policy Center and author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave Macmillan).