Internal divisions make it a bad time for Israeli-Palestinian talks

October 24, 2007|By Suheir Abu Oksa Daoud

While Israeli and Palestinian teams seek to iron out conditions for renewed peace talks in Annapolis this fall, deep divisions among the Palestinian and Israeli political leaderships doom any Middle East peace summit to failure.

Peace talks are usually a good thing. However, now is not the right time for such a summit, because - with a divided Palestinian polity and Israel's leadership in trouble - no progress would be made. It is possible, even likely, that another failure would lead to more frustration and violence, and could serve to embolden extremists on both sides who are opposed to peace.

The Palestinian Authority has expressed confusion about whether it would participate in the talks. At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has attempted to coin a new vocabulary for the meeting that absolves him of any obligations, and the Bush administration has engaged in delaying tactics - supporting peace talks and calling for a Palestinian state, but failing to effectively pressure the Israeli leadership to make it happen. All of this suggests that this is the wrong time to hold an international meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Two key leaders face major internal challenges that, without resolution, render the meeting useless from the start.

The first is Mr. Olmert, who faces multiple investigations on the domestic front and lacks credibility and popularity among the Israeli public. He does not have the backing necessary to engage in serious negotiations and propose any meaningful concessions on the core issues such as a permanent settlement, definite borders, Jerusalem and refugees.

The other leader is Mahmoud Abbas, who faces one of the most critical moments in the history of the Palestinian struggle for independence. The Fatah leader and president of the Palestinian Authority ignores the fact that Hamas won democratic elections. Instead, Fatah describes Hamas' takeover of Gaza as "an illegitimate coup." Fatah's gradual loss of the Palestinian street since the first intifada has left it confused about how to contain or weaken its rival's influence.

Hamas, which sought international legitimacy after winning the Palestinian Authority elections in early 2006, seems to have forgotten about its own electoral victory. Since assuming power, Hamas has behaved like a gang of thugs and not like a government that respects the rule of law. It terrorizes Palestinians, kills them extrajudicially, violates basic democratic rights and even forcibly prevents collective prayer.

While Fatah and Hamas bicker over power, they both must still request permission from their Israeli occupier to move from place to place. It is common yet very misleading to consider the Palestinian Authority on par with the Israeli state. It is a fallacy to equate an authority subject to occupation with the occupier, which happens to be one of the more powerful military states in the world.

Despite Hamas' thuggish behavior, the Bush administration, Israel and Fatah should not exclude Hamas from any dialogue on the conflict. Boycotting Hamas and other primary parties to the conflict, such as Syria, does not make them disappear.

A peace conference would have no real value at a time when members of Hamas and Fatah are killing each other and when tensions between Syria and Israel are pushing the region to the brink of a new war. President Bush, desperate for a quick foreign policy success before his presidency ends, must not be permitted to use the conference as a cover for his failure in Iraq.

At the same time, Hamas would be delusional to think that its violent politics will prevail. But instead of pushing for new Palestinian elections, the international community must have the courage to pressure Israel to end its occupation, because all efforts for peace will ultimately fail until that occurs.

Suheir Abu Oksa Daoud, a Palestinian who holds a doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a visiting professor of politics at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. Her e-mail is suheir_daoud@hmc.edu.

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