On May 21 a Qassam rocket fired from Gaza killed a 35-year old Israeli woman in Sderot. No doubt, this will mean a further escalation in Israeli fire into the Gaza Strip, despite the fact that this seems unlikely to stop or deter the Qassam fire.
These events are exposing the yawning gulf of leadership on all sides. Israel, rudderless under Ehud Olmert, vacillates between a silent response to Qassam fire while maintaining the economic blockade that fuels misery and rage in Gaza, and military responses that are targeting areas far from where the rockets are being fired. Meanwhile, Olmert speaks vaguely of “political horizons” and the preconditions the Palestinians must meet before he would even engage in talks (preconditions such as forgoing the issues of the refugees, the Temple Mount and the 1967 borders).
But the leadership vacuum among the Palestinians has been demonstrated even more starkly. Commentators often used to say that it was crucial to strike a deal with Yasir Arafat because, like him or not, he was the only one that could possibly make a deal stick. Indeed, since his death what little organization there was to both the PLO and the Palestinian Authority has frayed or even shattered. This has been due in significant measure to the occupation, yes, but also to Fatah’s mismanagement and corruption, increasing sectarianism both within and between Palestinian factions and the submergence of government behind family and local affiliation in importance.
Ironically, it has been the fact that Israel has resumed its shelling of Gaza that has diminished the infighting there, something both the Hamas political leadership and PA President Mahmoud Abbas had tried and failed to do. Despite the Mecca Agreement brokered by Saudi Arabia in March, the Palestinian government has been anything but unified.
Hamas continues to defend its turf as the legitimately elected governing party. They’re quite right, of course, in that they have had to defend what was rightfully won by a clean election. Nonetheless, their own rigidity and inexperience have made governance difficult. Their refusal to recognize Israel leaves them with no plan or vision as to how improve conditions for the Palestinian people, much less end the occupation. In this, they have abdicated their authority to Abbas, with the sole caveat being a referendum on any agreement struck. The divisions in Hamas’ own leadership between factions in Gaza, the West Bank and outside the Palestinian Territories entirely confuse decision-making and lead to, if not contradictory statements then certainly a wide variety of tones and implications.
Hamas has fallen prey to many different conditions. One is surely their own lack of experience in leadership and governance. Another (and in fairness, this is certainly the biggest factor) is the global boycott that has clamped down on the Occupied Territories since their election. But yet another is Hamas’ inability to transition from a revolutionary fighting force to a governing political one.
This is terribly evidenced in the cease-fire brokered with Israel in November. Since that time, Qassam fire has been quite steady from Gaza. True, the Israeli economic blockade in Gaza as well as ongoing operations in the West Bank have aggravated the situation. But the terms of the cease-fire didn’t include those things. One might argue that the PA should not have agreed to those terms. I certainly think they should not have. But the fact is, they did. And Qassams continued despite it, and despite the fact that Israel, for the most part, held up its end.
Hamas didn’t directly violate the cease-fire, at least not at the level of the political leadership; other groups did. But Hamas made no attempt to enforce the cease-fire and stop the Qassams. This is where the dearth of leadership comes in, and it undermines any further attempts at diplomacy.
For example, we now hear from the PA leadership that they can stop the Qassams if Israel agrees to a “quiet” in the West Bank as well as Gaza. The logic does make sense–a general cessation of Israeli operations would be something the various Palestinian factions would see as sufficient victory to suspend the rocket attacks. But from the Israeli point of view, why would they believe the Palestinians now, when the same promise offered for a quiet in Gaza was broken immediately and consistently? Even if Israel’s leadership was willing to give it a go, the populace, enflamed by the constant shelling of the Western Negev and even more angry in the wake of this week’s fatality there, would be up in arms. The Olmert government is enjoying a respite from the unrelenting criticism in the wake of the Winograd report, condemning the leadership’s failures last summer in Lebanon. Any hint of agreeing to a cease-fire offer like this one would reverse that respite immediately.
Fatah’s failure to govern, which grew much worse after the death of Arafat, cost them control of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas’ failure to govern is becoming more and more apparent. The inability of the two factions to work together, greatly aggravated by the United States’ active and visible military support for Fatah, has produced a deadlock which renders any possibility of substantive negotiations toward a resolution of this conflict hopeless.
The Arab League recognized this when they resuscitated the dormant 2002 Beirut Peace Plan. That plan makes a clear statement of Palestinian demands and offers the basis to begin negotiations–it juxtaposes what Palestinians want with what Israel has, frames the conversation and gives Israel a basis for a counter-offer. The Arab League never intended, nor will it allow the offer to become, a means to allow Israel to negotiate these issues with anyone other than the Palestinians. What it did was to offer what would be an Arab consensus which could allow for brokered talks, whether bi-lateral or involving multiple parties, to take place between Israel and the Palestinians.
That needs to be followed up on. More than that, it needs to be replicated on the other side. Although things are very different on the Israeli side, the nature of Israeli coalition politics has always dictated that small group, including fanatical ones, have disproportionate power. The strangest bedfellows are made in Israeli coalitions. One need only recall the deep dependence the elitist, Ashkenazi Labor party under Ehud Barak had on the religious, working class, Sephardi Shas party only a few years ago to see this. There are legions of such examples in Israeli political history.
Very powerful leaders can sometimes take the reins of government and steer it in spite of the political pressures. Yitzhak Rabin was one example of this. Yet even Rabin, who led an Israel still smarting from being hit by Iraqi missiles and angry over the first Palestinian intifada to the Oslo accords and, from all accounts, very close to peace with Syria, had to mollify the right with the massive increase in settlements which would eventually undermine the very process Rabin sought to pursue.
In a different way, Ariel Sharon was also such a powerful leader, yet even he had to bolt the party that he defined as much as any Israeli figure in history to do so. This is simply the reality of the Israeli political system. It works against the Right at times as well–Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to escape the Oslo Accords as he had promised on his campaign trail. In general, major turning points in Israeli history have been the result of outside actors in wars or of a dynamic process where Israel worked in concert with the US and its interlocutors (such as at Camp David I and the completion of the Jordanian peace treaty).
There is no hope that the failed Olmert government could possibly be capable of the leadership required to act substantively on the Arab League overtures. As a sovereign state, and given its own fierce sense of independence, Israel would never, of course, be willing to see any country, even the US, speak for it in any way. Still, direct US involvement, in conjunction with the European Union, is needed. This would need to take a similar form as it did with Carter at Camp David, with Clinton when he came up with the Clinton Parameters to bridge the two sides and bring them “closer than ever to an agreement” at Taba, or the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991.
That configuration both pushes Israel into a diplomatic posture and gives its political leadership more leeway domestically. Israelis understand very well that Israel must cooperate with a broad international consensus when that consensus is exerting real pressure, and this allows an Israeli leader, even one as weak as Olmert, to act in pursuit of peace when he could not do so on his own.
The days of waiting for Israelis and Palestinians to find solutions themselves are over. That kind of bilateralism is simply not realistic under today’s conditions. Some day, should truly capable leaders emerge on both sides who could accomplish something significant, the idea might be revisited. But in the here and now, people are dying and despair is the overarching mood of the day. Meanwhile, neither Israel nor the Palestinians have the kind of leaders needed for progress, nor are any on the horizon. The US doesn’t either, obviously, but the opportunity for progress is here nonetheless. The consequences of missing it will include a third intifada, likely to be bloodier than the last, as well as the real potential for more war beyond the borders of Israel and the Occupied Territories. If that comes, let no one say it was unavoidable.