Palestinians need new options for peace

At least three scenarios peer through the internecine fog of the Palestinian imbroglio, which last week edged dangerously close to a civil war: reconciliation, co-existence and conflict.

First – and least probable – is the possibility that the major forces, Fatah and Hamas, will make nice. After all, Hamas burst onto the scene, cloaked in Islamic extremism, two decades ago not to work with Fatah but to challenge it.

When I visited the Gaza Strip and the West Bank during the first intifada in 1989, Hamas’ popularity was already evident. Credit good organization, including the orchestrated community service of the group’s nonmilitary wing, which is crucial to its strategy of winning hearts and minds. In contrast, Fatah – controlled at the time by its most prominent founder and former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat – suffered from fragmentation, squabbling and corruption.

It appeared that nothing could slow Hamas’ rise – that is, until a key period of peacemaking provided a surprise opportunity for Palestinian statehood in 1993. With a five-year timetable to move in that direction, the leadership of Arafat and Fatah assumed new legitimacy, and Hamas’ influence receded.

I truly thought that a Palestinian state was imminent. And I remain convinced to this day that it would have happened, if not for the 1995 assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. His death substantially deprived an emerging regional peace plan of its momentum.

There are those who persuasively argue that Arafat himself further undermined Palestinian chances of securing a homeland some years later, during the closing days of the Clinton administration, when he rejected the best settlement proposal since the United Nations’ partition plan of 1947.

Unfortunately, Hamas was the main beneficiary. Its popularity surged in the increasingly uncertain political environment, eventually leading to the group’s winning a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament last year. That victory – which brought no willingness on Hamas’ part to live up to the obligations of the Palestinian Authority toward Israel – merely exacerbated tensions.

Now, Hamas has further complicated matters by seizing control of the Gaza Strip, leaving the West Bank to President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah.

This brings us to a second scenario, the possibility of co-existence between the Palestinian territorial parts. To me, this option would lead nowhere. Unnatural divisions are difficult enough for states. Besides, what would co-existence accomplish?

It is absurd to think that the two entities could be viable or seriously advance Palestinian interests. Such circumstances would effectively end the dream of a Palestinian state.

More likely, the current situation will lead to greater acrimony and a hardening of positions, pushing events toward a third scenario: an all-out confrontation. Those who advocate allowing civil conflicts to burn themselves out would probably welcome that development. My concern is that it would merely contribute to regional instability, and there is no guarantee that Fatah would win.

Still, Abbas might be tempted to consider a military solution, given the boost he has received from swearing in a new Cabinet in the West Bank devoid of Hamas militants. Already, the European Union has promised to restore millions of dollars in aid that had been withheld. The United States and others have talked of similar steps. Hamas’ own Cabinet in the Gaza Strip, unless it tempers its belligerence, cannot hope for similar treatment.

In light of these prospects – the first unrealistic, the second pointless and the third recklessly dangerous – what to do?

For starters, a comprehensive peace conference such as the Madrid gathering of 1991. That process launched one of the most productive peacemaking periods in Middle East history. A robust peace effort today just might produce some answers to vexing regional issues, including the Palestinian problem.