It ought to have come as no surprise that the Western-backed Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad this week offered to bring the Islamist Hamas movement into a unity government: Sure, Hamas participation in a Palestinian government has long been a red line for both Israel and the United States, but in case nobody noticed, the Palestinians made clear last Friday that what the U.S. demands may no longer hold sway in Ramallah any more than it does in Cairo, Tunis or any other capital of a rapidly-changing Middle East. They did so by pressing ahead with a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli construction of settlements on occupied territory, despite concerted pressure from the Obama Administration to stand down. That left the U.S. isolated as the Council’s only no vote (it’s nay counts as a veto, of course) on a resolution that many saw as consistent with the Administration’s own stance on Israel’s settlements. But last Friday’s vote was not simply a repudiation of Israeli policy; it was a symbolic rebuke of U.S. handling of the conflict — not only by the Palestinians, but also by all of Washington’s allies, none of which supported the Obama Administration’s position.
It will have taken profound despair in the prospect of U.S. diplomacy ever securing Palestinian statehood based on the 1967 borders to persuade President Mahmoud Abbas to buck the Administration, because his entire career has been staked on the assumption that only Washington’s good offices can get him a state. According to Palestinian accounts published in Israel, the Administration warned Abbas that it would withdraw U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority if the resolution went ahead . If so, his decision to go ahead could signal a Palestinian declaration of independence from U.S. tutelage. Abbas has been under growing pressure in recent years, not only from Hamas but also from within his own Fatah movement to dispense with the illusion that Washington is still overseeing some sort of “process” with the Israelis that will result in the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.
Having humiliated himself in the eyes of his own public by withdrawing his support for U.N. discussion of the Goldstone Commission Report that accused both Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes during the 2008/9 Gaza conflict, Abbas would have been acutely aware of the diminishing returns of his relationship with Washington when he decided to press ahead on the settlement vote.
Of course, just a few weeks earlier, President Obama would have engaged Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak to twist Abbas’ arm, but Mubarak is simply an octogenarian retiree in Sharm el-Sheikh today, and of little use to Washington. Moreover, the Palestinian leadership are acutely aware that the same democratic wave that ousted Mubarak will, sooner or later, hold the leadership in Ramallah accountable, too. Having seen the fate that befell a key Arab leader perceived to have prioritized the needs of the United States over the sentiments of his own people, President Abbas chose symbolic defiance.
The offer by his prime minister, Fayyad, to draw Hamas into a unity government is further evidence of the same trend. Although the two sides will do plenty of jockeying for advantage in carving out any such deal — if they manage to agree at all — the offer appears to be another instance of Palestinian leaders dispensing with the rules as laid down by Washington, which has insisted since Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections that Abbas employ autocratic means to keep it out of government.
Fayyad also seemed more willing to inject a note of pragmatism on dealing with the situation in Gaza that has been largely missing from Washington’s policies, which have ranged from the Bush Administration approach of actively pursuing the ouster of Hamas through economic collective punishment and other strategies to the Obama Administration’s malign neglect. “The security concept practised by Hamas in the Gaza Strip should be brought under an official framework because it is not different from what is practiced by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank,” Fayyad said, in statement that seemed to acknowledge that Hamas was largely acting to prevent attacks on Israel from territory under its control. (Of course, cynics may be tempted to suggest he could also have been referring to the authoritarian methods used by both Hamas and Fatah to maintain control on their turf.)
But Fayyad’s outreach to Hamas signals acknowledgment of the failure of the peace process as we’ve known it until now, and a casting around for alternatives. Although Western governments had placed great hope in Fayyad’s effort to prepare the institutional and economic infrastructure for statehood, Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment argued this week that the stability of the West Bank is contingent on a diplomatic process resulting in statehood — and that it’s plain to see that no such diplomatic process currently exists. “West Bank leaders placed all [their] hopes in the Obama administration until the fiasco caused by the Goldstone report—the UN investigation that the United States pressed Palestinians to drop, even though it accused Israel of war crimes during 2008-2009,” Brown writes. “They then generally cooperated less hopefully (and sometimes sullenly) with U.S. efforts until this past fall, when the pointlessness of negotiations in the current framework led Palestinian leaders to work internationally outside of U.S. efforts…
“The failure of U.S. efforts and the resignation of Mubarak, the Arab leader on which President Mahmoud Abbas relied most heavily, has left the West Bank leadership without viable options or sources of support… the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank shows a growing sense of a need to respond to its deteriorating position but does not seem to know how to do so… Virtually every conceivable idea is being aired. And all have deep, probably fatal, flaws.”
Indeed. But with their leaders now essentially admitting what most already knew — that the U.S.-led peace process is going nowhere — and a wave of largely non-violent mass action sweeping the region as citizens of the Arab world demand their rights, the era of the photo-opportunity peace process is at an end. And the Palestinian public may demand a greater say than their leaders have thus far allowed in what comes next.