The auguries for the latest Fatah-Hamas unity accord suggest it will probably go the way of the last one. Fatah and Hamas concluded a previous unity agreement (the “Mecca Agreement”) in February 2007, and by June 2007 Hamas was in a shoot-out with Fatah in the streets of Gaza (see here and here). (H/t: My Right Word)
Still, no one doubts that the 2011 reconciliation is intended to set the stage for the push on a Palestinian statehood resolution in the UN in September. What is less clear is what to do about it. And that’s where the modest proposal comes in.
This proposal was made at a panel presentation last week in Los Angeles. Rick Richman, a fellow blogger who runs Jewish Current Issues and contributes to Commentary’s “contentions” blog, offered the suggestion as a panel member at the Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors-LA event, and authorized me to blog about it afterward. (Video here. The whole event is well worth viewing; Rick’s presentation starts around 51:00.)
It’s a simple suggestion, but exactly right: take Fatah and Hamas at their word that they intend to hold an election in the next year, and make that election the contingency on which any other official action hinges.
This proposal is spot-on for several reasons. The first is that it fits the national character of both the US and Israel. It shifts the central question from whether we believe in the intentions or good faith of Hamas and Fatah to whether they will live up to a concrete, measurable obligation that almost everyone on the planet gives lip-service to.
It is out of character for Western governments to suffer policy to be made by default, as a reaction to campaigns of accusation, terrorism, and public tantrums. Our Western idea is that governments must act positively and concretely, with integrity and accountability. Neither the US nor Israel should make it policy to be in a symmetrical food fight with Hamas and Fatah, trying to see who can make the most kitchen garbage stick on the other and who can induce the most emotional partisanship. Other than terrorism, that’s the only method Hamas has; but it should not be our main effort.
Pointing out the truth about Hamas and Fatah has a place, certainly. Hamas is an unregenerate terrorist organization, and Fatah retains its position as the core of the Palestinian Authority only because it has had the luxury of avoiding tests of power. The stability enforced by Israel, and the territorial division of Gaza and the West Bank, are what guarantee that. This is not a union of leaders ready for functioning, well-behaved statehood.
The nature of their signing ceremony in Cairo this week attests to that. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal declined to share the podium with Mahmoud Abbas – or, in his version of events, Abbas declined to share it with him. A decision on where to seat Meshaal caused a delay. Neither leader actually signed the unity agreement himself, leaving that office to their deputies. Meanwhile, on the eve of the signing ceremony, Hamas rushed through the execution of an accused collaborator with Israel, in order to avoid Fatah’s procedural requirements for such executions.
Hamas and Fatah mounted their theatrics this week with fingers crossed behind their backs, the very picture of gangland thugs simulating the observances of civilization. There is utility in pointing this out – but there is none in putting all of Israel’s or America’s effort into a series of rhetorical skirmishes with gang leaders between now and September. That amounts to accepting the dispute on the terms dictated by Hamas and Fatah. And on their rhetorical battlefield, the conditions are prejudiced in advance.
Mandating an election, on the other hand, as a passage on the road to statehood, is our terrain. It is an entirely appropriate thing to ask. There is no valid way to argue against it: of course Fatah and Hamas should have to hold a free and fair election before there can be any serious consideration of recognizing Palestinian statehood. Even if their own history didn’t make the need for one obvious, it’s the right thing to do in principle. What is at issue here is a peaceful process on which the UN hopes, in advance, to put its stamp of approval under the UN Charter. There is no other official posture that the UN could take, and retain any moral significance as a world body.
This proposal puts the onus on Fatah and Hamas, which is where it belongs. It also sets a condition for the European Union to adjust to, forcing Brussels to choose between supporting an election – the obviously correct path by the EU’s own lights – and the irresponsible precedent of conferring peremptory statehood on an unelected “government” that includes an active terrorist organization. It gives Russia and China something to agree with, moreover, that does not unfairly preclude Palestinian statehood (which both have already recognized in principle), but rather seeks to regularize its attainment.
And it creates an opportunity for Arab-world engagement in a properly ordered event intended to have real consequences. Ensuring that the election is fair may not be a matter of any outside group being an honest broker, but outside groups with competing interests could serve the purpose well enough. The old-guard Arab leadership of Saudi Arabia and Jordan would not stand idly by while the Muslim Brotherhood or Iran tried to prejudice the election’s outcome.
In a tactical sense, this proposal would turn the statehood question around, from a mob-frenzy attempt to override the US in September to a process in which the US has announced – taking Fatah and Hamas at their word – that we will enforce a reasonable criterion. The election requirement puts the US back into the equation, and on unassailable terms. That in turn gives other governments something solid to coalesce around, a benefit the defunct “peace process” – as a process – no longer offers.
The requirement for an election could be announced as policy by Israel, but I believe it should be the explicit policy of the US as a Perm-5 member of the Security Council. To the objection that Fatah and Hamas could well be unable to bring it off – that they are likely to get mired in infighting – the answer would be “Yes.” They are likely to under any circumstances, but they are responsible for conducting themselves as good-faith aspirants to statehood. If they can manage that in the next year, then there is something to talk with them about. If they can’t, then statehood under their aegis cannot be endorsed anyway. Neither could it be endorsed if Hamas won a joint election.
The US needs to break the momentum of the Islamist factions seeking to converge on Palestinian territory. Doing so is in the best interests of Palestinian Arab civilians as well as in Israel’s. The Palestinian Arabs would suffer the most under the extension of Islamist rule (like that imposed by Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon).
It’s in the best interests of the region, and of the US and our other allies, as well. “Palestinian statehood” will be a destabilizing proposition as long as its definition and meaning are up for grabs by the “strongest tribe.” The US can put clamps on how much the proposition is up for grabs, by setting limits in principle on possible outcomes. The reasonable requirement for a Fatah-Hamas election, before statehood can be considered by the UN Security Council, is a limit we should set.