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The Road from Mecca

1.

The idea that negotiations conducted bilaterally between Israelis and Palestinians somehow can produce a final agreement is dead. The world, slowly, is coming to this realization. Its fate was sealed in part because neither side has the ability, on its own, to close the gaps between the positions they have taken. The two parties also lack any sense of trust, but that, too, is not an overriding explanation. If bilateral negotiations have become a fast track to a dead end it is because today neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli political system possesses the requisite degree of coherence and cohesion.

On the Palestinian side, the national movement is undergoing its most fundamental, far-reaching, and destabilizing transformation since Yasser Arafat took it over and molded it in his image over four decades ago. The transformation is more complex than a mere question of succession. It is the metamorphosis that comes with the passing of a man who gradually had become the movement and on whom all serious political deliberation depended. Arafat achieved what, before him, was the stuff of unachievable dreams and, after him, has become the object of wistful nostalgia: the identification of man and nation; the transcendence of party politics; and the expression of a tacit, unspoken consensus.

Competing organizations, leftist and Islamist in particular, challenged him. He faced opposition and dissent within his own Fatah. One after another, Arab countries sought to bend the nationalist movement to their will. But by dint of hard work, personal charisma, and political acumen, and assisted in no small measure by the steady accumulation and astute use of arms and funds, Arafat managed to control Fatah, co-opt the leftists, keep the Islamists at bay and Arab states at arm’s length.

Arafat never bothered with a detailed program. He trusted his instincts and inclinations that—disputed and contested as they were—implicitly and through a tortuous process became those of the national movement as a whole. As both leader of the national movement and father of the political compromise, he could straddle two seemingly incompatible worlds, that of the revolutionary and that of the statesman, and embody both steadfast commitment to the original struggle of 1948 and pragmatic acceptance of a two-state solution. On core issues, what he did mattered far more than what he said. Accused of indecisiveness and passivity, Arafat acted resolutely when he believed it necessary and when he saw fit.

Arafat bequeathed a system aching to fall apart; it had only a brief, transitional afterlife. After his death, Fatah continued to rule, albeit without the confidence and sense of unquestioned entitlement to which it had grown accustomed. After Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006, Fatah still clung to its former habits of domination, controlling the civil service as well as the security forces and, with only rare exceptions, monopolizing international relations and legitimacy.

Much of this was an illusion, and a transient one at that. Deeper down, irreversible structural changes were afoot. Today, a little more than two years after Arafat departed from the scene, the Palestinian movement no longer has workable political institutions. It lacks effective leadership. It has lost any clear and readily recognizable political program.

The Palestine Liberation Organization once could justifiably claim to be the people’s sole legitimate representative. Not anymore. Today, it appears antiquated and worn out. It barely functions and, insofar as it does not yet include the broad Islamist current principally represented by Hamas, it is of questionable authority. Fatah, long the heart of the national movement, is deeply divided, rudderless, and bereft of any clear political program, prey to competing claims to privilege and power.

Rival sources of authority have multiplied. The presidency is in the hands of Fatah; the government in those of Hamas. Gaza is cut off from the West Bank; each is developing its own outlook and creating a separate identity. Old divisions are resurfacing between Palestinians living in the occupied territories and those languishing in exile. Competing security branches and militias are proliferating while families and clans play an increasingly assertive role. Foreign countries, Arab and Western, wield greater influence and in greater numbers.

Today there is serious doubt whether the Palestinian national movement can confidently and effectively conduct negotiations for a final peace accord, sell a putative agreement to its people, and, if popularly endorsed, make it stick. There is insufficient consensus over fateful issues, but also over where decisions should be made, by whom, and how.

The Mecca agreement reached last February between Fatah and Hamas, and the formation of a national unity government that followed, is a first step toward clarification. It’s an important step, but it may yet fail and what has happened since has only partially allayed concern that the two rival movements cannot work together. Fatah clings to the belief that it has not lost any power and Hamas to the notion that it has gained a preponderance of it. In the Gaza Strip, where competition is most intense, fighting between the two groups has persisted, although it is now less violent and more susceptible to control. An immediate wholesale breakdown of relations between the two groups at the moment appears less than likely, for nothing unites Palestinians more than an antipathy to violent internecine strife. Should a breakdown of relations between the two nonetheless occur, fueled by domestic power struggles and stoked by outside interference, it would cause mayhem, instability, and violence, directed initially at fellow Palestinians but also, in time and inevitably, at Israel.

Even if the Mecca agreement and the unity government survive, they will face a period of deep and enduring instability, prompting a sweeping and significant change on the Palestinian political scene. The Mecca agreement is about the establishment of a national unity government, but that is the least of what it is about. If successful, it marks the beginning of the end of single-party rule and the dawn of wider political participation. It affects the distribution of power within all Palestinian institutions, those of the PA as well as those of the PLO, political as well as military bodies.

If fully implemented, the agreement will mean Hamas’s integration into the PLO as well as the integration of Hamas’s armed wing into the Palestinian Authority’s security structure. It will set off nothing less than a political revolution concerning the source of political authority, how decisions are made, and what those decisions might be. The agreement is a test of whether genuine power-sharing can work in a system that has never before known anything of the sort. Forming a new government, in other words, has not ended the conflict within the national movement. It has simply set off a different, thornier phase. It has also prompted tensions within Hamas over how to deal with Fatah and how to adapt to new realities. With any diplomatic progress, Hamas will come under pressure to further clarify its position on relations with Israel, and the movement could divide. Some in Hamas might argue that the next phase of the struggle should be a civilian—i.e., nonmilitary—jihad; others that the time has come to further radicalize and expand the fight. A split could give rise to a breakaway, radical jihadist spin-off that might quickly flourish because its members are already operating on the ground and have roots in society. Even under optimal circumstances all this will take time to sort out. Until then, the Palestinian national movement will be a work in progress, caught between one system that has expired and another that is still struggling to take shape.

Whatever happens, the Palestinian movement will remain a fluid entity, as difficult to pin down as it will be to pressure or to deal with. The US and Israeli governments will be tempted to ignore the change, persisting in their attempts to isolate Hamas and deal only with non-Islamist members of the government. But it is only a matter of time before such fantasies come crashing down. One of the goals of the US and Israel may be to bolster Abbas, yet nothing has weakened the Palestinian president more than misplaced international attempts to strengthen him. If Hamas feels thwarted in its attempt to share power, it will do what it can—and it can do much—to torpedo Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. One cannot prevent the Islamists from ruling and then expect them to acquiesce in a political process from which they have been kept out. To negotiate with the Palestinian Authority while simultaneously excluding Hamas would be tantamount to negotiating with only one part of the political system, controlling only part of the security forces, and commanding only partial loyalty from a divided, and inherently suspicious, population.

2.

Can Israel’s current political system deliver what its Palestinian counterpart cannot? There is cause for doubt. Not so long ago, Israel acted with apparent self-assurance. Prime Minister Sharon had established himself as master of the nation’s domestic politics; in the diplomatic world too, he commanded the initiative. Seeking direction, Israelis needed to look no further. He said very little, but what he said was telling: he spoke not of resolving the conflict, but of drawing Israel’s borders; not of historical reconciliation with the Palestinians, but of practical separation; not of negotiated agreements, but of unilateral Israeli steps. Captivated, the Israeli people listened; converted, they followed.

How distant that time now seems. If bold peace moves require strong and self-confident leadership, there is little reason for hope. Clarity has given way to confusion, and on an almost unimaginable scale. The performance of the Israeli military in last summer’s Lebanon war was more than a setback; it was a shock to a nation for whom the security establishment historically has been at the very heart of society and polity, a pillar of strength even amid political storms. The political system itself is in quasi-perpetual crisis. Each passing day brings a new, bewildering scandal and more public inquiries implicating in one form or another many of the nation’s most prominent figures.

Corruption, no longer an aberration, virtually is a way of life. Less surprised than resigned, Israelis are disillusioned with politics and government. The scarcity of charismatic leaders and the new generation of run-of-the-mill politicians is another symptom of a system in crisis. Sharon, who presented himself as the last great Israeli hero, openly feared the day Israel would become a country like any other, no longer animated by grand visions and a conquering war spirit, a victim of impatience, weakness, and hedonistic materialism. If he could see it, he might say that the day has come.

Nor is there much ideological enthusiasm remaining for a two-state solution. Israelis accept it and most believe it is inevitable, but gone is the passion or zeal. The dream of Greater Israel has expired, but so has Oslo’s vision of peaceful reconciliation with the Palestinians. There has been too much violence and bloodshed, and too much disenchantment with the Palestinians, their leaders, and their methods and ability to govern, for it to be otherwise.

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