American foreign policy in the Middle East experienced yet another major setback this month, when Hamas, whose Palestinian government the United States had tried to isolate, routed the rival Fatah movement in Gaza. In response, Israel sealed Gaza’s borders, making life even more unbearable in a place wracked by violence, poverty, and despair.
It is important that we recognize the source of America’s failure, because it keeps recurring, making peace between Israel and Palestine more difficult. The roots of failure lie in the US and Israeli governments’ belief that military force and financial repression can lead to peace on their terms, rather than accepting a compromise on terms that the Middle East, the rest of the world, and, crucially, most Israelis and Palestinians, accepted long ago.
For 40 years, since the Six-Day War of 1967, there has been one realistic possibility for peace: Israel’s return to its pre-1967 borders, combined with viable economic conditions for a Palestinian state, including access to trade routes, water supplies, and other essential needs. With small and mutually acceptable adjustments to those borders, these terms would enable peaceful co-existence of two states side by side. Perhaps three-fourths of both Israelis and Palestinians support this “land for peace” compromise, while one-fourth holds out for complete victory over the other side.
Rejectionists on both sides repeatedly undermined efforts to realize that compromise. Starting in the early 1970’s, religious Israeli settlers and hard-line Israeli nationalists pushed Israel into a disastrous policy of creating and expanding settlements on Arab lands in the West Bank, in violation of common sense and international diplomacy. That policy blocked peace ever since, setting the stage for decades of bloodshed.
Nor have extremists on either side shrunk from political murder. Islamic militants killed Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian peacemaker, while a Jewish militant killed Yitzhak Rabin, the would-be Israeli peacemaker. Violent extremists on both sides have ratcheted up their actions whenever the majority succeeded in getting closer to peace.
For the past ten years, the greatest practical barrier to peace has been Israel’s failure to carry out any true withdrawal to its 1967 borders, owing to the political weight of hundreds of thousands of settlers in the West Bank and the religious and secular communities that support them. This remains the crucial truth; the rest follows as tragedy. Even when the US or Israel have tabled peace offers, such as at Camp David in 2000, they have included convoluted ways to sustain the West Bank settlements and large settler populations, while denying an economically viable and contiguous Palestinian state.
The most recent debacle began when President George W. Bush called for Palestinian democracy in 2004, but then refused to honor the democratic process. Hamas, a radical movement, won the Palestinian election in January 2006, but not before blatant pre-election meddling by the US in favor of Fatah, which merely helped to boost Hamas’s legitimacy.
Then, after Hamas won, the US and Israel immediately orchestrated a cutoff of finances to the newly elected government, including even Israel’s transfer of Palestine’s own customs revenues, which Israel collects as the occupying authority in control of the borders. Rather than act pragmatically, and deal with Hamas in government on the basis of its actions vis-à-vis Israel, the US and Israel demanded from the outset that Hamas recognize Israel's right to exist as a precondition for continued financial flows.
The US and Israel believed that they could force Hamas into submission even before negotiations with the new government began. This is the hubris of believing that brute force and threats, rather than actual negotiation, can yield solutions.
The result was predictable, despite US and Israel expressions of shock at recent developments. US and Israeli pressure deeply compromised Palestinians’ access to water, food, medicines, and physical safety, especially in overcrowded Gaza. Although Israel formally withdrew from Gaza, its complete control over the borders, infrastructure, transport, and taxation, together with its regular military incursions in response to shelling from Gaza and its killings and capture of senior Hamas officials, left Palestinians there desperate.
In this mix, violence escalated. Hamas did not fold in negotiations. Instead, conflict broke out between Hamas and Fatah, leading to Fatah’s collapse and desperate flight from Gaza. In a near-parody of external interventions, the US and Israel encouraged President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah to dismiss the Hamas-led government, and to declare a new Fatah-led government in the West Bank.
Gaza is now under Hamas control, and the West Bank is perhaps under nobody’s control. Israel has said that it will squeeze Gaza still further, as if the population can be crushed into submission. But there are far too many weapons and young men prepared to die for that to occur.
There is, alas, still only one settlement possible, based on true compromise, not unilateral imposition. No amount of machinations by outside powers or internal forces will impose a settlement. Israel and Palestine will have to reach an agreement based on the fact that they share a small and contested space.