In January 2006, in an election that monitors recognized as free and fair, the Islamist movement Hamas won 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had pushed hard for the elections, since she was confident her Fateh allies would win. Hamas’s victory came as a complete surprise and embarrassment to both her and the Fateh leaders. Angered by the Hamas victory, Rice and Fateh decided to join with Israel in working to overturn it.
Israel and the United States rapidly defined three tough conditions for dealing with the new Palestinian government and vowed that as long as it refused to meet these conditions they would quarantine and attempt to undermine it. The conditions—that the new government recognize Israel, renounce all use of violence, and commit to observing all agreements signed by previous, Fateh-led Palestinian governments—were considerably more stringent than those defined for opposition forces included in successful peace negotiations in South Africa or Northern Ireland, or indeed, in nearly all negotiations over decolonization in decades past.
The Hamas leaders refused to meet the conditions. But they made clear that, while they were unwilling to recognize Israel, they were happy to delegate the conduct of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) foreign affairs to Palestine’s Fateh president Mahmoud Abbas—a long-time negotiator with Israel—and a non-Hamas Foreign Minister. Hamas preferred to focus on tackling pressing social and economic issues at home, they said. When Hamas invited one independent lawmaker to be Foreign Minister, the Israeli government threatened him with lethal violence. He demurred.
With Washington’s full support, Israel tightened the economic siege it had long maintained around the Gaza Strip, a Hamas stronghold. (Israel’s national security advisor, Dov Weisglass, infamously spoke of putting Gaza’s 1.45 million people “on a diet.”) Israel stepped up its extra-judicial executions of suspected Hamas military leaders and detentions of Hamas politicians without trial. Among the incarcerated were more than twenty of the elected parliamentarians from the West Bank. Israel lobbed hundreds of tons of deadly ordnance into Gaza. Hamas and other militant groups from Gaza also fired hundreds of primitive rockets and mortars into Israel. Both sides suffered, but scores of times more Palestinians than Israelis were killed and wounded in those exchanges.
Sometimes Washington took the lead in the anti-Hamas campaign. In 2006 the Bush administration started arming and training Contras-style fighting units recruited from Fateh. In June 2007 the U.S. and Israel jointly supported the formation of a rump Palestinian “government” under pro-Fateh politician and longtime Washington ally, Salam Fayyad. The Palestinian parliament, shorn of both those elected legislators imprisoned by Israel and those stranded in Gaza, was unable to prevent Fayyad’s appointment as Prime Minister. Then, last November, President Bush hosted a high-profile summit in Annapolis, Maryland to jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He and Rice hoped that the talks’ success would boost Fateh’s standing among Palestinians at Hamas’s expense.
All those efforts to break Hamas failed. On January 23 this year, the movement surprised the world again when it organized a spectacular mass bust-out—from Gaza into Egypt. Most Gazans had never before been able to leave the tight confines of the Gaza Strip, which has been in one form or another of near-total Israeli lockdown since 1987. The breakout assumed the dimensions of a fiesta—or a chaotic shopping spree. Many Gazans had a little money stored away because every Gazan family has at least one member who has emigrated and works abroad. But under the siege, they literally had nothing to spend their remittancces on. Many hundreds of thousands of Gazans made their way to the felled border fence, walked across with some savings, and rapidly cleaned the shelves of stores in the small Egyptian communities on the other side.
While the breach was open, hundreds of Egyptian Islamists who are considerably more militant than Hamas slipped into Gaza and started settling in there.
Egypt’s security forces worked hard, and with some success, to prevent the Gazans from leaving a small enclave around the border, which is separated from Egypt’s big population centers by many miles of the Sinai desert. A small number of lucky Gazans made it to the Mediterranean resort of El-Arish. Still fewer made it any farther west.
Meanwhile, all kinds of people traversed the border in the other direction: Gazans who had been trapped outside Gaza for months by the border closure; traders of all kinds eager to sell their wares (usually at inflated prices) to a suddenly accessible market; well-wishers as well as Islamist extremists from various portions of Egyptian society; and a delegation of pro-Hamas parliamentarians from staunch US ally, Bahrain. We can also assume that the militias of Hamas and its allies used this opportunity to ship in arms and other strategic supplies. For eleven days Egypt’s security forces were unable to re-seal their seven-mile border with Gaza.
The Gaza bust-out greatly increased Hamas’s standing among Palestinians and revealed significant, if not yet decisive, political support for Hamas throughout the Middle East. It diminished and infuriated Washington’s allies in the Fateh movement. Most importantly, it made clear that the idea of crushing Hamas, or even sidelining it from Palestinian decision-making, was unrealistic.
The January 23 breakout was preplanned and timed to coincide with a big conference of Palestinian militant groups and leaders that opened, under Hamas sponsorship, later that morning in Damascus. But once the Gaza-Egypt border was open, Hamas’s leaders discovered that regulating the cross-border flow was in their own interests. While the breach was open, hundreds of Egyptian Islamists who are considerably more militant than Hamas slipped into Gaza and started settling in there. Hamas’s leaders, therefore, feared they might lose control of the situation along Gaza’s crucial and much longer border: the one with Israel.
Thus, by February 3 they were ready to work with Egypt’s security forces to reseal their mutual border. Hamas cooperated with Cairo only on the condition that Cairo agree to do something that Hamas badly needed from them: mediate rapidly and in good faith with Israel and the other relevant parties. The desired agreement would cover three points: first, a ceasefire with Israel that would end the Israeli assassination operations against alleged Palestinian militants, the armed exchanges between Israel and Gaza, and preferably also those between Israel and the Palestinians of the West Bank (the form of the ceasfire would be a tahdi’eh, which is a “stop-gap” arrangement, as opposed to a more formal and far-reaching hudna); second, a prisoner-release agreement involving the exchange of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal taken captive by Hamas allies in June 2006, for as many Palestinian prisoners as possible; and third, an agreement on the re-opening of the crossing points between Gaza and the outside world that would allow normal economic life in Gaza to resume. Preferably, from Hamas’s point of view, this arrangement would involve Gaza gaining access to the global economy through Egypt, or directly via its own airport and seaport, rather than through Israel, as had been the case since 1967.
The Hamas leaders also needed outside help to mediate a new agreement with PA president Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fateh. But several other intermediaries were already working on that. For the ceasefire, the prisoner exchange, and the crossing-point negotiations, Egypt’s intervention was crucial.
Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president, was unable to reseal the border with his own forces, so he had little choice but to accept Hamas’s offer. Hamas is an offshoot of, and still has close ties with, Egypt’s main opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood—though the Brotherhood has followed a determinedly nonviolent path since the early 1980s. The Brotherhood’s power has been rising considerably in Egypt in recent years. The pro-Hamas, pro-Brotherhood passions aroused in Egypt by the Gaza bust-out reportedly infuriated Mubarak, whose twenty-seven-year presidency has in recent months faced mounting challenges regarding political succession and explosive rises in the prices of basic commodities.
In mid-February Egypt’s powerful security boss Omar Suleiman started mediating between Hamas and the Israeli government on the three points. By March 6 Rice was quietly expressing her support for his efforts. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, under intense pressure to stop the rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel and to win Shalit’s release, had his own motives for participating. Burned by his unsuccessful thirty-three-day war against Hizbullah in 2006, Olmert may have concluded that, in Gaza as in Lebanon, Israel could not count on solving its problems through sheer military force. Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader and Israel’s defense minister, apparently assessed Israel’s options differently. He tried to block the Israel-Hamas negotiations.
By April 24, however, it looked as if Olmert and Hamas were finally about to reach a preliminary agreement providing for a reciprocal ceasefire between Israel and Gaza and the lifting of some aspects of Israel’s siege of Gaza. On April 24, Hamas emissaries were in Egypt, reportedly to give their final nod to this agreement. Suleiman was said to be planning to travel to Israel soon thereafter to nail down the final terms and to launch negotiations over the hoped-for extension of the ceasefire to the West Bank and a prisoner exchange. The mid-April rounds of that Egypt-mediated negotiation were conducted simultaneously with the meetings that former president Jimmy Carter held in Israel and with Khaled Meshaal and other Hamas leaders. Carter was conducting a broader mission dedicated to fact-finding and a broad assessing the prospects for peace and de-escalation. He was generally eager to stand aside from the details of the ongoing, Egypt-mediated negotiation. He was briefly drawn into the prisoner-exchange negotiations, in response to a personal plea from Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai, the head of the Shas Party, whom he had met in Jerusalem. But that intervention led nowhere.
Hamas is relatively young as a political organization, but it has surprised some observers with its effectiveness and resilience. It grew out of the now-defunct Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, throughout the first twenty years of Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, focused on building networks of Islamist religious, social, and educational institutions in the occupied territories. Then, after the first intifada erupted in 1987, the Palestinian Brotherhood founded an overtly political organization, the Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement), Hamas. That intifada, which was largely nonviolent, lasted until Fateh (and PLO) head Yasser Arafat concluded the Oslo agreement with Israel in 1993. During the first intifada, Hamas coordinated its anti-occupation activities informally with Fateh and the other secular nationalists. But the formal recognition of Israel that Arafat agreed to at Oslo was anathema to Hamas. After all, Hamas’s 1988 charter described the whole area of British Mandate Palestine—including present-day Israel—as a waqf, or sacred Islamic trust “for all future generations of Muslims.” Therefore, none of the territory could legitimately be recognized as a sovereign Jewish state.
For many years, Hamas rejected everything derived from Olso. That included the PA, which Arafat established inside the West Bank and Gaza in 1994, and the elections that the Oslo process decreed should be held for the PA’s president and parliament. In 1996, Hamas refused to take part in the elections. Arafat and Fateh won them handily.
By contrast, when a second round of parliamentary elections were scheduled for early 2006, Hamas decided to participate. That decision marked a sea-change in the movement’s thinking and brought it to a position of cautious involvement in public political life that is very similar to that adopted by Lebanon’s Hizbullah. Both movements define themselves and act as Islamic movements within clearly defined national constituencies; both exercise effective control over significant portions of their national territory, where they maintain robust, if technologically limited, armed capabilities; both devote considerable efforts to building and maintaining strong social-support networks serving their constituencies; both have run successfully in parliamentary elections; both reject the legitimacy of the state of Israel; and both oppose the high degree of influence the United States wields in the Middle East. Like Hizbullah, Hamas refuses to negotiate directly with Israel, though it is willing to work with compatriots who engage in direct talks. Both argue that it was armed action, not negotiation, that forced Israel to withdraw from long-occupied portions of their homelands. Both have been the targets of lengthy and determined efforts by Israel to crush their military and political capabilities. The military wings of both movements have succeeded in firing rockets into Israel and inflicting significant damage on Israeli ground troops, thereby acquiring the ability to deter many significant kinds of Israeli military action. Israel also has considerable deterrent capability against each of them, and within the strategic parameters defined by this (highly asymmetrical) mutual deterrence both movements have shown themselves ready to conclude and maintain third party–negotiated ceasefires with Israel. Both are strong allies of Iran and Syria because of their shared resistance to U.S.-Israeli policy in the region and because the movements receive baskets of aid from the two states—arms, financing, logistics, training, and political support—that are key to their survival.
These parallels are not surprising. Hamas and Hizbullah have coordinated closely and directly with each other since at least the early 1990s. Now their leaders see themselves as full members, along with Iran and Syria, of what they describe as the Jabhat al-Mumana’a (Blocking Front), a coalition designed to block the implementation of the United States’ aggressive—or in the Bushists’ term, “transformative”—plans for the Middle East. As movement theorists and sympathizers explain it, the Jabhat al-Mumana’a is an expansion of the earlier concept of a Jabhat al-Muqawama (Resistance Front), whose task was “merely” to resist the expansionist aims of the local power, Israel.
Within the Jabhat al-Mumana’a, Hamas plays a pivotal role as the Front’s only self-identified Sunni Muslim member, and it has wide support among Palestinians and non-Palestinians throughout the Sunni Arab world. Through its existence and activities, therefore, Hamas it has done much to challenge the U.S.-Israeli attempt to enroll Sunni-dominated Arab regimes into an anti-Iranian coalition on the basis of a thinly veiled—indeed, sometimes overt—anti-Shia agenda.
He conceded that the West Bank would have to remain in a state of limbo for some time to come.
When I first heard about the Gaza bust-out, I recalled an interview I conducted in Gaza in March 2006 with Dr. Mahmoud Zahhar, the veteran Hamas leader who was named foreign minister in the all-Hamas government that was formed shortly after we spoke. Zahhar, a flinty and hard-driving strategist, is one of the few remaining members of the first generation of Brotherhood/Hamas leaders. In the 2006 interview, he described a clear plan whereby the Hamas-led PA government would, after Israel’s recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, focus on rebuilding the Strip’s war-shattered physical and social infrastructure. He conceded that the West Bank would have to remain in a state of limbo for some time to come, but the Gaza Strip could be rebuilt by wresting it away from Israel’s forty-year-long economic stranglehold and opening its ties to the global economy through Egypt instead.
At the time, that goal seemed daring and unusual because “the political unity of Gaza and the West Bank” had long been a shibboleth of Palestinian thinking. But it was not totally unrealistic. In early 2006, Israel and Gaza were experiencing an extended lull in armed clashes. The year before, Hamas and Fateh had both announced, and then upheld, an agreement to cease unilaterally all armed actions against Israel from Gaza. In summer 2005 that ceasefire allowed the Israeli government to evacuate reluctant settlers and its own occupying forces from the whole of the Strip without being subjected to Palestinian fire. Thanks to the continuing ceasefire, political organizations inside the Strip were able to run an orderly late-2005 campaign for the parliamentary elections without the disruptions that any large-scale cross-border violence with Israel would inevitably have provoked.
The withdrawal from Gaza had been extremely controversial within Israel. Then, in early January 2006, its author, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, suffered a stroke that plunged him into a coma. Ehud Olmert stepped in as acting head of both the government and Kadima, the new party that Sharon had founded to pave the political way for the Gaza withdrawal. But Kadima had never tested its program of “unilateral actions, rather than negotiations” at the polls, and faced its first general election on March 28. Olmert evidently judged that not allowing too sharp an escalation of tensions with the Palestinians prior to then was best for Kadima’s election chances. So he had an interest in maintaining the ceasefire—at least, through the end of March.
Kadima won the election, and Olmert set about the complex coalition-formation negotiations that follow every Israeli election. On March 29 President Abbas swore into office the Hamas-dominated PA government led by Ismail Haniyeh. From early April through late June, exchanges of fire continued to multiply across the Gaza-Israel border, and also between the IDF and Palestinian militants in the West Bank. Then on June 25, militants from the Hamas-allied Popular Resistance Committees tunneled into Israel and attacked an IDF position there, killing two soldiers and capturing Shalit. They took him back to Gaza, hoping to exchange him for some of the thousands of Palestinian detainees held by Israel. Israel struck back with a broad and damaging military operation against suspected military targets in the Strip. Any prospect of winning an easy extension of the 2005 ceasefire was lost. And since calm between Gaza and Israel was a vital precondition for the success of Zahhar’s plan to rebuild Gaza by opening it to Egypt, any hope for the speedy pursuit of that plan was lost, too.
Throughout late 2006 and 2007, the Hamas leaders had to deal with the growing military challenge that Fateh was posing, with Washington’s encouragement, to their strongholds in Gaza. In April 2007 a Jordanian paper leaked details of a plan whereby hundreds of U.S.-armed and U.S.-trained Fateh units who had been sent to Gaza under the guise of “upgrading the Palestinian security forces” would seize control. Hamas pre-empted the plan’s implementation. In five days of brutal fighting, Hamas fighters routed the newly deployed Fateh forces from the Strip. Many Fateh fighters defected to Hamas. Some were killed. The Israelis finally allowed the battered Fateh remnants to transit Israel and regroup in the West Bank. In Ramallah a badly piqued President Abbas announced the dissolution of the Hamas-led government and its replacement with a “technocratic” government led by long-time U.S. ally Fayyad.
Secretary Rice’s military envoy, General Keith Dayton, had seen the first class of graduates of his Palestinian training program march into defeat in Gaza. But with the help of Fateh’s security bosses he started assembling the next cadre of trainees, who were sent for training in Jordan. In the West Bank, Fateh also cooperated more closely than ever before with the Israeli security forces in rounding up, detaining, and sometimes also torturing suspected Hamas sympathizers.
Throughout 2006 and 2007, living conditions inside besieged Gaza became increasingly difficult. In mid-January 2008, the Israeli government implemented a plan to start cutting the supplies of fuel and electricity into the Strip. Israeli officials explained they would continue progressively cutting the Strip’s power supplies until Hamas and its allies in Gaza stopped rocketing southern Israel. Hamas said it would be prepared to stop both its own rocketing and that of the other groups, but only after securing agreement on a reciprocal ceasefire with Israel. The Olmert government expressed no interest—at least, not until after Hamas demonstrated, with the mass bust-out into Egypt, that it had other ways of breaking the siege.
Regardless of how the ceasefire negotiations develop, the emergence of the movement, with its core political positions still substantially intact, as a major—perhaps dominant—Palestinian political actor has already changed the dynamics of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy considerably. Until recently, the paradigm on which all this diplomacy was based was the “two-state solution,” which envisions an Israeli state and a Palestinian Arab state living side by side in the territory of pre-1947 Mandate Palestine. A corollary to that was generally—at Israel’s insistence—that the borders and other key aspects of this arrangement should be negotiated directly between Israelis and Palestinians, a process that would allow Israel’s representatives to gain “confidence” in the good intentions of the Palestinians. (Many Palestinians, and others, have noted that centering the negotiations on this bilateral encounter left the Palestininian side, which is stateless and still lives largely under Israeli occupation, considerably disadvantaged relative to their occupiers. Many Palestinians—but not Abbas or Fayyad—have sought the added confidence of having the U.N. or another international presence in the room, as well.)
The political pillars of the two-state solution were always Fateh and its secular allies, on the Palestinian side, and Labor and its leftist allies, within Israel. But over the past decade, both Fateh and Labor have grown considerably weaker within their individual bodies politic. Those two parties have been largely displaced by Hamas, and Likud, respectively. Of key importance: neither Hamas nor Likud ever believed in the two-state solution.
Yet while the local support for the two-state solution was eroding, the idea was slowly gaining traction among U.S. policymakers. President Bill Clinton was the first to convey open support for it, in December 2000. President Bush first opposed it, then expressed tentative backing for it in June 2002. Since then, he has developed his version plan even further, adding an assurance to Israel in an April 2004 letter that he foresaw most of the big settlement blocs in the West Bank, including those in and around Jerusalem, as being under eventual Israeli sovereignty. At the Annapolis summit of November 2007, Bush articulated a clear goal of obtaining agreement from both Israel and the PA, by the end of 2008, on the terms of a final, two-state-based peace agreement between them. However, the direct negotiations between Olmert and Abbas that followed Annapolis—just like the ones the men had held before—were quickly mired in disagreements. The territorial issue lies, as always, at the heart of these differences. Olmert’s government has continued to launch hundreds of new housing projects in settlements in and around occupied East Jerusalem. The continued expansion of these settlements makes the creation of a viable Palestinian state in the remaining discontinuous chunks of the West Bank virtually impossible. No Palestinian leader could ever hope to cede to Israel the amount of land eaten up by these settlements and survive.
The territorial basis for a viable two-state solution has eroded just as surely as its political support in the two national communities. Fateh was founded in the late 1950s as an essentially secular nationalist organization whose goal—counter to the pan-Arab nationalist trends then sweeping the region—was to gain the specific national liberation rights of the Palestinians. By focusing on Palestine as such, Fateh’s founders did much to re-establish— among Palestinians who were still reeling from the 1948 “catastrophe” (nakba) of forced removal from their homes and their subsequent dispersal to numerous, often hostile, Arab countries—a sense of Palestinian national identity, unity, and purpose. But slowly, starting in Gaza and the West Bank in the late 1970s, Palestinian Islamists of the Brotherhood and later Hamas also started to appropriate—quite illegitimately from Fateh’s perspective—that sense of Palestinian-ness, giving it their own Islamist flavor. Hamas challenged many of Fateh’s long-held positions including its insistence that the PLO, from which Hamas has always been excluded, was the “sole” legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Hamas also opposed Fateh’s post-Oslo willingness both to grant recognition to Israel and to accept as a final outcome a radically truncated Palestinian state situated in just the West Bank and Gaza, which between them comprise only 23% of the land of Mandate Palestine.
From the 1960s onward, Fateh and its secular allies suffered massive human losses as they battled, sometimes in very wrongheaded ways, for their political goals. When they concluded the 1993 Oslo agreement with Israel, they argued that all those earlier losses would be vindicated once they had achieved an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and all, or very nearly all, of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Oslo held out that possibility, but no firm promises; in the fifteen years since, the prospect has receded rapidly, as Israel has consolidated its hold on the West Bank, more than doubling the number of its settlers there and supporting them with extensive infrastucture upgrades.
The Geneva summit collapsed in mutual recriminations and a few weeks later Asad died of a heart attack.
Because Hamas never bought into the idea of the two-state solution, they place no importance on the location, or even the idea, of a lasting boundary between the West Bank and Israel. (In this, they are almost exactly like Likud.) Hamas may thus, paradoxically, find it easier than Fateh to reach an accommodation with many of the 450,000 Israelis now living as settlers in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. One intriguing augur of this came in early February when the veteran pro-Hamas journalist Khaled Amayreh, who lives near the West Bank city of Hebron, reached an agreement on general principles for coexistence and de-escalation with settler rabbi Menachem Froman. Amayreh said the Hamas leadership fully supported the document, which he and Froman had negotiated during meetings held over the course of several months. It laid out a clear plan for a Gaza-Israel ceasefire. But regarding long-term issues in Gaza and in the West Bank, it said only, “God is the greatest of all and He alone can bring an end to the problems between the noble Palestinian people and the distinguished Jewish people in the Holy Land.”
Hamas’s relatively greater willingness to accept the long-term presence of Israeli settlers in the West Bank is doubtless linked to the strength of its insistence on the fulfillment of Palestinian rights and claims inside 1948 Israel—an issue that no Palestinian leader, from any party, can easily ignore. But the fact that the settlers’ continued presence in the West Bank is not a complete deal-breaker for Hamas, as it is for Fateh, gives Hamas another important point of potential strategic convergence with many Likud supporters.
When Ariel Sharon founded the centrist party Kadima in 2005, he drew members from both of the two parties that have dominated Israeli politics since 1948: Likud and Labor. That development masked the underlying dynamic between Likud and Labor, one that has shifted significantly away from Labor in recent years and thereby helped undercut the political basis for a two-state solution.
The political career of Labor’s current leader, Ehud Barak, provides some context for Labor’s slide and may help explain how its decline affects prospects of the two-state solution. Barak was the reputedly brilliant former IDF chief of staff who in 1998 was cherry-picked to “save” a badly demoralized Labor in the 1999 general election. He ran for the premiership on a clear pro-peace ticket, promising to conclude a final-status peace with the Palestinians “within six to nine months” of his election. That promise helped propel Labor to victory. Barak first tried to rush to a final peace with Syria, but that attempt was marked by arrogance (and a measure of possible deceit.) He set President Clinton up to lure Syria’s veteran president, Hafez al-Asad, into a summit meeting in Geneva with a promise that Barak was ready to agree to the complete Israeli withdrawal from all of occupied Syrian Golan that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had promised back in 1994. But Barak reneged on that promise at the last minute. The Geneva summit collapsed in mutual recriminations and a few weeks later Asad died of a heart attack. Meanwhile, Barak was pioneering the concept of un-negotiated, unilateral withdrawals by pulling Israel’s troops out of positions in South Lebanon that they had occupied since 1978, handing Hizbullah a massive victory. Inside Israel, Barak’s newness to the give and take of political life—and the arrogance with which he treated coalition partners—sped the unraveling of the domestic coalition through which he ruled.
In late 2000, facing the electorate a second time much sooner than he had expected, he rushed into the fateful “Camp David 2” summit with Arafat. Once again, the arrogance he displayed to his negotiating partner helped doom the project. Labor lost the February 2001 election, and the once-reviled Ariel Sharon became prime minister. Labor’s members ignominiously swept Barak from the role of party leader. He decided to leave political life and join the numerous former IDF generals who work in Israel’s lucrative international arms business. But during his last weeks in office he had done significant damage to the peace movement. Many of its long-time leaders later claimed that between his avowal that he had made “a generous offer” to the Palestinians at Camp David, which Yasser Arafat had been quite unreasonable to reject, and his stated belief that the Israelis now had “no partner for peace,” Barak effectively killed the peace movement.
In the 2006 election, Barak was back on Labor’s ticket, though not in the top slot. Later that year, after Defense Minister Amir Peretz resigned his government and party-leadership posts in the wake of the thirty-three-day war, Barak replaced him in both roles. As defense minister, Barak has used brute force in Gaza to try to end the periodic launchings of rockets into southern Israel and Hamas’s holding of Shalit. Meeting exactly those same kinds of challenge with force was what led Olmert and Peretz into such a dead-end in Lebanon in 2006, and there is no reason to believe that Barak or the IDF has found any military “quick fix” since then.
But Barak’s handling of the everyday tasks involved in the occupation of the West Bank is a confusing indicator of Labor’s lack of focus. At the Annapolis summit, the Israelis committed themselves—once again—to reducing the number of the checkpoints that the IDF maintains throughout the West Bank. West Bankers deeply resent the checkpoints, which are always a humiliating reminder of the IDF’s power over their lives, and often involve degrading treatment of respected community members. The checkpoints stifle Palestinians’ movements even deep within the West Bank, denying West Bankers the opportunity to pursue any form of normal life. Publicly justified as an attempt to defend Israel against Palestinian militants, the checkpoints betray Israel’s almost complete lack of trust in the security forces run by its Palestinian ally, Fateh. The Fateh participants in the Annapolis-launched peace talks have repeatedly begged for as many of the checkpoints as possible to be removed. But under Barak, as Defense Minister—the man who makes policy on this matter—the number of checkpoints rose from 563 to 580 in the four months after Annapolis. Barak and Olmert also failed to dismantle any of the “illegal settler outposts,” as Olmert had also promised at Annapolis to do.
Since the Gaza bust-out, Barak has been described by both Israelis and Palestinians as taking actions that were almost certainly specifically intended to block progress toward an Israeli-Hamas ceasefire. But he has also been acting, whether intentionally or not, in a way that undercuts the possibility of Israel concluding a formal peace treaty with Abbas and his negotiators. If he were merely a defense minister from a small party, those actions might not be so momentous. But he is not. He is the head of the Labor Party. So his dramatic deviations from a pro-peace policy have large consequences for a Labor Party that has already lost much of its political clout inside Israel. Indeed, if Olmert’s Kadima-led coalition falls apart, the still-hardline Likud looks poised to take over along with some even harder-line allies.
With Labor much diminished from its formerly commanding position in Israeli national life and the near-total political collapse of Fateh, the prospects for the two-state outcome are dim indeed. But very few Palestinians and probably even fewer Israelis are ready for the other major outcome that has been proposed and discussed over the decades: a single, binational democratic state in which citizens from both nationalities would enjoy full political equality.
So, even with a ceasefire, what are the prospects for peace over the next five to ten years? Most likely there will be a “two-entity” situation, with one of these entities being a small, quasi-state administration operating in Gaza and the other an Israel that is unable to disentangle itself from the West Bank. Neither of these entities would be a settled state, secure within stable and recognized borders.
This hardly constitutes an enduring, solution. Israel cannot maintain its current, extraordinarily repressive measures against the 2.3 million Palestinians of the West Bank over the long run. And if it cannot meet the West Bankers’ demands for self-determination and the liberation of their territory, then the West Bankers might turn to demanding full equal rights for themselves within the Israel that threatens to engulf them. Meanwhile, the claims of the five million or so Palestinians who are refugees either from pre-1967 Israel or from the West Bank for, first and foremost, a return to their families’ homes and farms, or failing that proportionate compensation, will continue. It is worth remembering, too, the high proportion of Gazans who come from refugee families. Even a Gaza that becomes economically rehabilitated to some degree will not abandon the broader Palestinian movement. And Jerusalem will always remain a touchstone issue—for Palestinians and for a billion other Muslims around the world, just as for Jews in Israel and beyond.
As Israel reaches its 60th birthday this May, its citizens have reason to be proud of many of the state’s achievements. But it has still failed to find a fair and sustainable accommodation with the Palestinians who were the earlier residents of its land, and this failure will plague its relations with its neighbors and others around the world until it is resolved.
In mid-January, I sat down in Damascus for a rare, on-the-record interview with Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas’s political bureau and therefore the overall head of the movement. My timing was terrible: it was just one week before the Gaza bust-out and Meshaal, as one might expect, would not share that plan with me. But he avowed that Hamas had no intention at all of striking U.S. targets, expressed cautious interest in the idea of a ceasefire with Israel, and argued that Hamas’s political legitimacy stemmed from its mandate in popular elections. He said he strongly wanted to return to a working agreement with President Abbas, while he expressed considerable disdain for Prime Minister Fayyad. (In the middle of the interview, the phone rang. Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was on the line, and the two men talked about the Gaza situation for five minutes. Meshaal is far less tightly quarantined than Israel and the U.S. would desire.)
Throughout the encounter, security was understandably tight. Meshaal survived a 1997 assassination attempt ordered by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and, like all Hamas leadership, is always at risk of execution by Israel’s Mossad. But it is clear now that the tactic has backfired. The broad campaign of extra-judicial executions that Israel has maintained against Hamas over the past ten-plus years has forced the movement both to establish a robust, flexible leadership structure widely distributed among several countries, and to maintain its longstanding strategy of continually developing new generations of leaders. Hamas’s leadership is much younger than that of Fateh, as evidenced by the appearance of a wide range of youthful officials in Hamas’s public media. Israel has not succeeded in destroying Hamas. Indeed, for many reasons, the movement is now much stronger, more coherent, and more disciplined than it was ten years ago.
Hamas is not going to disappear any time soon. And the rising power of Hamas and its Israeli mirror image, Likud, will ensure that the peace diplomacy of the next five years is vastly different from that of the last fifteen. The next U.S. president needs to find a new way—even if it is indirect at first—to deal with Hamas.