OPINIONS

Thu 20 Jun 2024 11:05 pm - Jerusalem Time

Why Palestinian Unity Matters

By Salam Fayyad

On June 10, by an overwhelming affirmative vote, the UN Security Council adopted U.S. President Joe Biden’s plan for ending the war that has been raging in the Gaza Strip. The plan calls for a pause in the fighting, hostage and prisoner exchanges between Israel and Hamas, an expansion in humanitarian assistance, and then a permanent end to the war.

But notwithstanding the calamitous loss of life and untold destruction and misery that the conflict has wrought, there is little certitude as to how Biden’s plan will fare. Even if or when the guns go silent, implementing this proposal will be riddled with difficulties. Since the war’s early days, the Israeli government has shown little interest in stopping its attacks unless it can achieve a “total victory,” a fluid concept that—although watered down from its initial definition, the full eradication and destruction of Hamas—remains beyond Israel’s reach. There is still no consensus on how to govern postwar Gaza. In fact, the goal of securing a cease-fire that could set the stage for a sustainable calm has been getting progressively more elusive.

Underlying this decidedly negative trajectory has arguably been not so much an ignorance of the facts of the situation but a reluctance to face or prioritize them. That must change. As I argued in Foreign Affairs last fall, the Palestinian national movement’s leadership must unite under the auspices of the Palestine Liberation Organization. To do so, the PLO must admit Hamas, as well as other significant outlying factions, to its membership. Doing so is key to enabling the Palestinian Authority to assume its rightful role in governing both Gaza and the West Bank—consistent with the PA’s mandate when it was created, in 1994.

In the Security Council resolution, the world’s great powers took a first step toward accepting this vision. In addition to calling for an end to the fighting, the resolution stressed “the importance of unifying the Gaza Strip with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority.” But acknowledgment is just the first step. These powers should now realize their resolution by supporting the PLO leadership as it tries to unify the Palestinian polity.

INCONVENIENT TRUTHS

Hamas is not going away. When the so-called day after arrives in Gaza, Hamas will still be around. In fact, having survived the full brunt of Israel’s military might in an enclave that Israel took literally only a few hours to capture in 1967, Hamas will credibly claim to be victorious. The sense that the group will win has tempered voices of dissent, particularly in Gaza. It has enabled the Islamist movement to stem and withstand second-guessing of its decision to attack Israel last October.

Israel, by contrast, will have a hard time claiming to have won. The country is failing to achieve most, if not all, of its declared war objectives. Even the mildest formulation of these objectives—namely, dislodging Hamas from government—seems unattainable. Hamas was the most dominant political force in Gaza before last October, and it remains so today. It may consent to separating itself from governing Gaza, but it cannot be forcibly removed from government. Indeed, Hamas’s institutional presence, including Gaza’s police, will likely be an integral part of the postwar reality. This is, of course, not to imply that Hamas will be able to deal with the formidable task of rebuilding Gaza—an inconvenient truth for Hamas.

Instead of triumphing, Israel has worked itself into an endless war. It cannot achieve its ends without sustaining further, perhaps irreparable, international reputational damage because of the massive and often indiscriminate destruction of life and livelihood in Gaza. Continuing to respond to credible war crimes charges by simply asserting that such charges are motivated by anti-Semitism will do little to help Israel’s standing. In fact, the retort could lead people to dangerously belittle the scourge and repugnance of real anti-Semitism.

Hamas was the most dominant force in Gaza before October, and it remains so today.

In the interim, Hamas will gain more credibility within both Gaza and the West Bank. If it has not already, the group will likely end up wrestling the mantle of Palestinian representation away from the PLO. The organization was already reeling from the failure of the Oslo paradigm to lead to self-empowerment, as well as from its failure to deliver good and effective governance, when the war broke out. The mostly passive and largely reactive posture that the organization has assumed toward the war has weakened it further.

Perhaps most consequentially, the PLO leadership has failed to expand its ranks to add all significant Palestinian political factions and movements, especially Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Both factions expressed interest in such an expansion. They also expressed support for the idea of having a consensus government, not made up of factions, administer both Gaza and the West Bank for a multiyear transitional period that ends with a national election.

Some analysts and policymakers want to ignore Hamas and simply focus on reforming the PA so it can assume its purview in Gaza. But the Palestinian polity, Hamas included, must be united in order to give the PA the political power and legitimacy it needs to govern. The body does also need to upgrade its capacity to govern. Yet first and foremost, the PA needs to secure the national Palestinian consensus necessary for it to assume its role and responsibilities in postwar Gaza.

Other experts want to bypass the PA entirely and instead come up with a different government arrangement for Gaza. But there is no realistic and credible alternative to the PA. The idea that governing in Gaza can be handled transitionally by some multinational administration, backed by an external military force, before the territory is handed over to a new, local Palestinian administration is at best naive and at worst dangerous. It is difficult to imagine that any country would be willing to deploy its troops in Gaza without a formal invitation by a united Palestinian polity that includes Hamas, or that at least has Hamas’s acquiescence. Even if a state were willing to seize such an invitation, keeping Gaza politically separated from the West Bank—something that may well end up being not so transitional—would further degrade the pathway to Palestinian statehood.

WORKAROUND

Many policymakers have spoken about the need to resurrect the peace process, with a view to delivering an independent Palestinian state on the territory Israel occupied in 1967. Officials have also spoken repeatedly about the need for that effort to be credible. Arab leaders, in particular, have used the phrase “irreversible and irrevocable path to statehood” to suggest that these efforts must be serious. But for Palestinians to get a state, the world will have to face the fact that their efforts will be rejected by the Israeli government, which is opposed to a Palestinian state of any kind. Some of its key officers are even intent on destroying what little remains of the Palestinian Authority.

Israel’s hard-line stance does not mean the wider world should avoid pivoting toward the question of Palestinian statehood once the cease-fire is secured. It shouldn’t. But doing so will probably necessitate working around Israel and finding an alternative to the approach embodied in the Oslo paradigm—one that is anchored in securing an international recognition, enshrined in a Security Council resolution, of the national rights of the Palestinian people. That includes the right to a sovereign state on all of the Palestinian territory that Israel occupied in 1967.

But none of this will be possible without first unifying Palestine. Indeed, the key to addressing all of these inconvenient truths lies in reuniting Gaza with the West Bank under the PA. It is therefore encouraging that the Security Council’s resolution stressed the need for this reunification. But it is essential for all concerned to know that the PA will not be able to govern both territories unless the Palestinian polity unifies first. The PLO must be more inclusive, and the PA has to govern through a fully empowered government, according to the provisions of its own Basic Law and backed by a broad national consensus. Failure to do so will likely lead Gaza—long dubbed “the world’s largest open-air prison”—to spend decades as the world’s largest encampment. This should be a wholly unacceptable outcome for everyone.

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