All Writings
June 19, 2006

Back To Step One

The news that Hamas and Fatah may conclude an agreement and avert not only more deadly clashes but reach a consensus on a national political agenda would be the best thing that can happen to the Palestinian people. Fed up with internal infighting, political disarray, corruption, and now, political paralysis, the public is crying, “Enough!” Maybe, just maybe, Palestinian leaders of all political, religious, and ideological leanings will finally set aside immediate narrow self-interests to answer their people’s call for an end to violence and suffering.

Having just returned from my sixth visit to the Middle East in less than a year, I certainly do not feel as optimistic as my natural inclination is to be. But then, I ask myself, what does it really take for the Palestinians, and especially Hamas, to comprehend what their real options are? If they are bent on self-destruction, then they should simply continue along their current road, isolated and shunned by the international community while locked in a deadly power struggle with Fatah, leaving scores of fighters and innocent people injured and dying. So what if their treasury is bankrupt, government employees have not been paid for months, violent demonstration have become routine, lawlessness is rampant, personal security is nonexistent, and the public is increasingly hopeless and despairing? To be sure, unless a modicum of stability and security is quickly established, the Palestinian leaders by their own hand will map out the road to national disaster.

So it is not a minute too soon for Fatah, Hamas, and other groups to come to grips with this bleak reality and choose another path. Whichever they select, however, the way will be treacherous and demanding, constantly testing their political will and requiring compromises and sacrifices to maintain a united forward course. Obviously, the situation would have been much easier had Hamas accepted certain political realities that led them to recognize Israel, renounce terrorism, and honor prior Israeli-Palestinian accords. But that is not what happened. Following meetings with scores of top officials in Egypt, Israel, Turkey, and the Palestinian territories, I have concluded that only a single event can introduce some degree of sanity into the dangerously deteriorating situation–a comprehensive ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians. Not having the liberty to elaborate or to identify my contacts, I can only say that our track-two effort, which focused on ending the violence on both sides, has made some headway. This prospect has replenished some of my optimism.

Ending the violence will benefit all players involved directly and indirectly in this conflict. It will stop Israel’s punishing retaliatory strikes and permit negotiations to proceed in a calm atmosphere. Maintaining law and order is absolutely necessary to restoring a semblance of normalcy to the shattered lives of the majority of Palestinians. Despite Cairo’s misgivings about Hamas, stability in Gaza would also serve the interests of Egypt, by virtue of the long border it shares with Gaza. Stability should also assuage American concerns about the potential for anarchy, a development that would effectively destroy what is left of the administration’s Road Map.

In addition, ending hostilities now will benefit the Palestinians, because of changing sentiments in Israel about unilateralism. While the Olmert government remains committed to territorial realignment, which calls for withdrawal from most of the West Bank, public support in Israel for a unilateral pullout seems to be ebbing. This erosion has been precipitated by international pressure on Israel to pursue a negotiated settlement and by the perception that unilateral disengagement from Gaza did not produce the desired calm. In this regard, the Palestinians may have won the international public relations campaign. If so, this “victory” gives them a golden opportunity to begin negotiations with Israel as long as calm prevails. And, should Hamas and Fatah agree on a united national agenda, there will even be no need for a referendum. President Abbas’s credibility in the eyes of his Israeli counterparts at the negotiating table will be greatly enhanced, however, only if all factions fully adhere to a comprehensive ceasefire. Then, Israel will also take critical steps to strengthen Mr. Abbas, such as ending targeting killings, removing many road blocks, releasing prisoners, and making public statements supporting his efforts.

Seeking an end to violence as the base on which all parties can build layers of confidence has been so far elusive. Yet, nothing other than both sides ending every form of violence offers the possibility for an agreement. Hamas and Fatah must now agree on the one prerequisite to reach national reconciliation that lets them begin the arduous negotiating process with Israel. Their commitment to ending hostilities must remain steadfast, regardless of how insurmountable the obstacles at times may seem.