President Bush does not seem to know it yet, but his peace plan for the Middle East is moribund. That is my chief impression from a recent three-month journey through the troubled region. A viable Palestinian state will not exist by the time Bush leaves office. Nor will one exist, probably, in the predictable future—not least because of the failures of US policy.
Cynicism prevails among Palestinians, and Israelis also. Azmi Bishara, a prominent Palestinian intellectual, decries what he calls “the Palestine settlement industry—that inexhaustible source of quasi-initiatives [and] pseudo-dialogues” that after 41 years of harsh Israeli occupation have led nowhere. To virtually every Palestinian I talked to, Bush's peace process has become a black comedy.
To them, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has become a forlorn figure, frequently flying to Jerusalem to entreat the Israelis to remove roadblocks and cease building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and then the Israelis blithely do the opposite. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his grandfatherly way has become a nearly pathetic figure—regarded by his own people as an American stooge, dependent on the United States to pay his huge bureaucracy, and constantly disappointed by Bush's refusal to pressure Israel.
The Israeli government is split between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the stronger of the two. Olmert fears for the future of Israel as a Jewish state under Palestinian demographic pressure and favors some sort of peace deal, but he will soon resign from office on accusations of corruption. Barak is leisurely in cracking down on settlements and wants to delay a final deal indefinitely.
Israeli peace advocates complain that the army in effect has a veto over Olmert and slows down or sabotages civilian orders to remove roadblocks and settlement outposts. Even if an accord is achieved before Bush leaves office, it will probably be no more than a cloudy declaration of goals that would take many years to implement. Olmert has admitted that no agreement on the division of Jerusalem can be reached this year.
Bush has done little to satisfy the Palestinians who entrusted their fate to November's Annapolis declaration, which promised “every effort” to conclude an agreement on a two-state solution before the end of 2008. At the White House in April, Abbas told Bush that when the Palestinian negotiators saw the latest Israeli proposals, they laughed. According to the eminent Israeli analyst Akiva Eldar, Olmert and his foreign minister Tzipi Livni demanded all of East Jerusalem except the Temple Mount, much of the Jordan Valley except for a walled enclave around Jericho, and the retention of all settlement clusters, such as Ariel in the heart of the West Bank.
The territory reserved for the Palestinians would be a patchwork of Bantustans cut off from Jerusalem with no continuity, no sovereignty, and subject still to incursions by the Israeli Army. A referendum containing such limitations would inevitably be rejected by the Palestinian population.
A struggle resumes?
When the peace process collapses, as seems so likely, the broad Palestinian struggle will probably resume. Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, the dynamic physician who heads the Palestinian National Initiative, told me in Ramallah that he hopes the struggle will be Gandhian and peaceful. But Nasser al-Qudawi, Yasser Arafat's nephew, thinks not.
“The resistance will resume,” Qudawi told me, “but it will bring more splintering of Palestinian society, more extremism, and more blood.” In the West Bank, Hamas and Islamic Jihad may flourish. Will Hamas fire rockets at Israel from the West Bank?
Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants have launched thousands of primitive Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel since 2000, killing 17 Israeli civilians, wounding scores, and destroying much property. Yet more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians, many of them children, have been killed by Israeli retaliatory attacks, and it is heart-rending to tour tiny Gaza and witness the devastation.
In the north of the Gaza Strip sits a lake of human waste. It exudes the stench of excrement and is threatening to burst because the Israelis have rationed the importation of cement. The waste seeps into the ground of Gaza and pollutes the aquifers, causing rampant diarrhea and infestations that afflict children most.
At Khan Younis near the sea, buildings chopped in half by Israeli bombs are still inhabited, and laundry hangs from the ruins. A man named Ahmed, who has lost a leg, invites me upstairs into his flat to meet his wife and 10 children. The ceiling sags. “Aren't you afraid it will collapse?” I ask. “We have nowhere else to go," he answers.
Since Hamas chased Abbas's secular government out of Gaza in June 2007, it has governed the Strip untainted by the Fatah faction's corruption and with modest benefits to the population of 1.5 million. Women feel compelled to wear the veil, the sexes are rigidly separated, and the judiciary can be severe. Sharia law has not been officially introduced, but the trend is toward more Islamization.
The Internet is monitored for pornography, but Hamas has cracked down on more radical Islamist groups that have attacked Internet café's. The police seem everywhere, but they have generally imposed order. Hamas's rivalry with Fatah remains savage. Despite recent efforts at reconciliation, blood continues to be shed between them.
The role of Hamas
Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the mystical quadriplegic who founded Hamas, said that the fate of Israel must be left to the will of God and future generations of Palestinians. But in June 2006 Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh declared Hamas's willingness to sign a document jointly with all Palestinian factions that it accepts Israel's existence. Hamas will not formally recognize Israel, preferring to offer only a hudna, a truce of 10 or even 30 years. But Hamas would accept a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that produces an independent Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders.
Israel and the United States have shunned Hamas until it explicitly recognizes Israel, and they have discouraged Abbas from negotiating with it. Bush regards Hamas not as a government but as purely a terrorist organization, as if any peace could be achieved by excluding more than a third of the Palestinian people. Barak believes that in good time and by brute force he can emasculate Hamas and crush its governance of Gaza.
Yet in mid-June, Israel accepted a cease-fire of six months in Gaza mediated by the Egyptians. The agreement won Israel a reprieve from Qassam rockets, and Hamas a suspension of Israel's military attacks and an easing of its economic blockade of Gaza. The deal was acclaimed in the Arab world, and deplored in Israel, as a victory for Hamas.
Hamas did not surrender in Gaza; its crude rockets forced Israel to sue for calm. To Palestinians, Hamas proved its creed that Israel understands only the language of force. Not only have Israel and the United States failed to topple the Hamas government, but Hamas has forced Israel to deal with it—even as President Abbas has achieved so little in his negotiations with Israel.
The Israelis fear that Hamas will use the calm to regroup its militia of perhaps 15,000 men and import more arms, and they may be right. The asymmetrical warfare between Israel and Hamas may continue in cycles, periods of quiet interspersed with periods of great violence and attrition, for many years. The Palestinians of Gaza have proved their capacity to absorb suffering. Though the West Bank is more bourgeois, it may come to do likewise under the banner of resistance.
Many secular Palestinian intellectuals have despaired of a two-state solution and have resumed their old dream of a unitary, democratic state for Jews and Arabs in all of historical Palestine. But there might still be a meager chance of achieving a two-state solution, depending on the will of the next US president.
Will he exert effective pressure not only on the Palestinians to end all violence, but on Israel to evacuate the settlements and retreat substantially to the borders of 1967? Should he do so, he will need also to create a formula to include Hamas in the solution if he truly wants peace. Paradoxically, the key to peace may be held by Hamas.
Edward R.F. Sheehan is a former fellow of Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.