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Eventually, there will be a ceasefire. But in the past few days, some of the best foreign affairs columnists around — Jackson Diehl and David Ignatius — have been arguing for a more comprehensive deal that will result in true peace, not just a pause before the next round of fighting. Will Saletan of Slate has made a similar argument, demonstrating the instinctive appeal of this idea across the political spectrum. Even Israeli politicians are lending their support to something similar, at least in public.
The idea of “demilitarizing” Gaza is at the heart of most peace proposals. What none seem to recognize is either the impracticality of such an objective or its repulsiveness to Hamas. Right now, Hamas maintains control of 1.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank thanks to its military forces. Hamas has negligible influence in the West Bank, where Fatah forces predominate. Hamas’ prestige depends on its ability to threaten Israel. To demilitarize is to abandon everything that has enabled Hamas to survive and, in its own way, prosper.
Even if Hamas were to sign a demilitarization deal, how would it be verified? Who would actually do the difficult work of policing Gaza to ensure that Hamas doesn’t simply restock its arsenal and extend its tunnel network? Fatah’s ability to do so is doubtful, nor would its control of Gaza be acceptable to Hamas. Ditto the United States and Israel, who don’t want the job anyhow. Saletan writes,
A credible international coalition would have to oversee the demilitarization. That’s a useful mission to propose to the many countries that have expressed outrage over the carnage in Gaza: Put your soldiers and your money where your mouth is. (The European Union reaffirmed this commitment on Tuesday: “All terrorist groups in Gaza must disarm.”)
Hoping for an international coalition, let alone a credible one, is profoundly unrealistic. Which European nation wants to referee one of the nastiest and longest-running conflicts in the world? As Saletan suggests, the mission will call for enforcing the peace, not just keeping it. It will entail urban combat and almost certainly the death of civilians. EU members neither want to shoulder the cost of such operations nor the certain damage to their reputations.
It is true that an international force has operated in Lebanon since Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah. The pathetic failure of that effort to prevent Hezbollah from rearming demonstrates why this one would fail as well. UN peacekeepers have no desire to confront terrorist organizations. But if you don’t fight, you can’t demilitarize.
Bring Fatah Back to Gaza
Someone has to be in charge in Gaza. Even if you demilitarize it, you can’t de-govern it. David Ignatius writes, when Gazans were “asked if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should send security personnel and other officials to take over administration of Gaza, 65 percent said yes.” (The poll was taken in June, before the fighting.)
I’m a skeptic of polls taken among captive populations, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Gazans would prefer Fatah. Of course, their perspective may have changed as a result of the war. Do they credit Hamas for sacrificing its fighters in order to demonstrate Palestinian resistance? Or do more of them blame Hamas for initiating a conflict destined to result in the death of hundreds of men, women, and children? Some Gazans may simply hate every side in this war.
But the opinion of Gaza’s population doesn’t really matter. Once again, the question is why Hamas would ever it allow its rival to establish a monopoly of force in Palestinian territories. While there may be a sort of Fatah-Hamas unity government right now, it’s essential to remember that the two sides have fought each other with a ferocity and brutality no less than that displayed toward Israel. For Hamas to accept Fatah rule is for Hamas to sign its own death warrant.
Let’s Try Palestinian Elections
A principal reason I have so much respect for Jackson Diehl is his concern for freedom in absolutely every country, regardless of whether it’s in the headlines or whether it has a cheering section among the Washington intelligentsia. As someone who believes that Palestinian democracy will be an essential component of any lasting piece, I read Diehl’s proposal with an open mind:
As the polls show, an election would probably break Hamas’s control over Gaza…A smart U.S. strategy would aim at brokering a deal between Israel, Abbas and Hamas whereby prisoners are released and the blockade on Gaza eased in exchange for Hamas’s commitment to a long-term cease-fire and free and fair elections for a unified Palestinian government. The result could be a new generation of Palestinian leaders with a genuine mandate from their people.
As with demilitarization or the return of Fatah, why would Hamas agree to any deal whose premise is that Hamas will lose power? Diehl says it explicitly — he supports the deal because he expects Hamas to lose. When Hamas (sort of) won the elections in 2006, it launched a violent campaign to oust the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority from Gaza. Should we expect Hamas to be more pacific if it loses?
Interestingly, Diehl doesn’t discuss demilitarization. Perhaps he recognizes how unrealistic it is. But what kind of free and fair elections can there be if Hamas holds on to its weapons? I confess that I supported the 2006 elections because of an idealism very similar to Diehl’s — an idealism I still retain. Yet Elliott Abrams, who was deputy national security adviser at the time, recently explained why the effort became a fiasco:
The last parliamentary elections were held in 2006, and there was a major dispute about whether Hamas should be allowed to run. Abbas then argued strongly and successfully (in that he persuaded Washington to back off) that an election without Hamas would be illegitimate: He would be barring his only real opponent, in the manner of all Arab dictators. We in the Bush administration made the wrong call and sided with Abbas, over Israeli objections. As Condoleezza Rice wrote in her memoirs, “In retrospect, we should have insisted that every party disarm as a condition for participating in the vote.”
The last sentence is key. Armed groups such as Hezbollah can hijack a democratic system when they deftly combine the use of both bullets and ballots. Unusually, Fatah did not employ such a strategy before and during the 2006 elections, so Hamas far outperformed expectations. It is unlikely Fatah will be so tolerant twice, especially since it knows to expect no reciprocity.
Someday, elections will be part of the solution in the West Bank in Gaza. Diehl correctly points out that the alleged purpose of the Fatah-Hamas unity government was to pave the way for elections, so there could be a Palestinian government with a popular mandate. But promising elections without intending to have them has become an old habit for Palestinian factions. If held now, it is difficult to imagine how they could be free or fair. While bad elections are sometimes better than none at all, I am less inclined to feel that way when an unrepentant terrorist organization is on the ballot.
So You Don’t Have Any Constructive Advice?
No, not really. I admit that Israel and, to some extent, Hamas face significant risks if the current war continues. But the previous two rounds of the conflict suggest that we’ll arrive back at the status quo before long. The status quo is certainly unpleasant and, in a certain sense, unsustainable. But I think the best strategy for Israel is simply to wait and see if conditions change in a manner favorable to peace.
Like many analysts, Ignatius believes in the “extreme weakness” of Hamas, the result of a hostile government coming to power in Cairo and the distraction of old friends in Damascus and Tehran. That weakness may be why Hamas entered a unity government with Fatah. While this war will almost certainly give Hamas a temporary boost, the best hope may be for time to work against it.
This may mean that Israel will have to “mow the grass” again in a year or two, perhaps more than once. It has thrived for almost 70 years despite the imperative of being constantly prepared for war. It can wait a little longer. So can Fatah, which needs to resolve the question of who will lead the organization after the departure of Mahmoud Abbas.
As my colleague Michael Rubin points out, diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake is not wise. If you enter negotiations without leverage, you are likely to get a deal that damages your interests. Or you may get captured by the negotiating process itself, being forced to make concessions just to avoid the humiliation of the process falling apart.
For now, pursuing a chimerical “peace” will only get in the way of actually ending the war in Gaza.
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