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October 4, 2013 2:54 pm

Analysts: Hamas-Fatah Split ‘Elephant in the Room’ for Israel Peace Talks

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat. Photo: State Department.

As the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority resume, analysts are beginning to look further into the dynamic of Fatah, which rules the West Bank, and Hamas, in Gaza, and how their lack of co-operation is a fatal flaw for peace in Israel.

Journalist Elhanan Miller, in this month’s issue of The Tower, argues, in an article entitled “Elephant in the Room,” that the current round of peace talks is misguided and shows that the U.S. is “oblivious” to the realities on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Miller says that Western officials “are still romancing the peace process between Israel and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, shepherding Israeli and Palestinian officials through negotiations, and pushing economic and political incentives for the two sides to reach an agreement as if Hamas’ intransigence doesn’t exist.”

His refers primarily to the split over very basic issues of ideology. Fatah is secular and willing to recognize Israel–if not as a Jewish state, at least as a sovereign one. Hamas, in contrast, is an Islamic offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and refuses to recognize the Jewish state in any form.

“The truth is that, so long as the Hamas regime continues to rule Gaza, there is virtually no chance of a viable and comprehensive final-status agreement, at least anything that extends past the West Bank,” Miller writes. “Western leaders’ indifference to this fact and its origins is not only a grave mistake, but a distraction from an outcome that might actually bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Asaf Romirowsky, an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense for Democracies and the Middle East Forum, agreed with the broad strokes of Miller’s assessment, but said cultural differences, as well as differences between the two political forces, are the root of the problem.

“There’s definitely a misperception among U.S. officials that Palestinian society is a cohesive society. It’s, in fact, a very fragmented society today,” he told The Algemeiner. “For one, you have very different cultures in Gaza and the West Bank; they are two different peoples.”

Then there’s the matter of Hamas having no incentive to change, which Romirowsky argues is a major roadblock to peace.

“While the Palestinian Authority is relatively moderate, Hamas has no intention of recognizing Israel. Look at the Gilad Shalit case: they were able to gain some legitimacy and diplomatic leverage through terror. They say ‘We have popular support’ in Gaza and a strong foothold in the West Bank and it’s true. So a peace that involves a Palestinian state that consists of both the West Bank and Gaza just isn’t feasible considering the Hamas agenda. I agree with Netanyahu: mutual recognition has to be a core issue of any peace deal, and Hamas simply won’t do that.”

Miller asks, rhetorically, “Why, then, are world leaders so wary of addressing the problem? The reasons appear to be both psychological and political.”

“Psychologically, acknowledging the Palestinian rift as a significant—perhaps the most significant—obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians would involve jettisoning one of the foundations of the Oslo Accords, which recognized Gaza and the West Bank as integral parts of the same political entity. In effect, this would redefine the entire peace process by changing the debate from what the two sides can do to what the Palestinian side essentially is. In many ways, it would amount to admitting that a single, unified Palestinian state cannot be established in the near future. Politically, of course, this would undermine the rationale behind holding peace talks in the first place.”

Miller argues that this approach is a “risky one.” In particular, he says, “it makes the international community seem completely detached from political reality in the eyes of both the Israeli and Palestinian people who will ultimately have final approval over any eventual peace agreement.”

Romirowsky says that the Israelis he is in contact with tell him the very same thing: “The Israeli perspective is that the U.S. doesn’t get it, that the Palestinian issue pales in comparison to the threat of a nuclear Iran.”

“It’s a diplomatic dog and pony show,” Romirowsky says. “Obama’s foreign policy agenda has revolved around the Israeli-Palestinian issue being the issue central to all the problems in the Middle East. While the Arab Spring or Islamist Winter, whatever you want to call it, has proven that’s not the case, it’s a lot easier for Obama to remain engaged in the region with an ally like Israel.”

“Hamas eventually would need to be removed for there to be a Palestinian state that consists of both the West Bank and Gaza. But I’m not naive; they have a foothold in Palestinian society and no incentive to change their ways,” he said.

Romirowsky doesn’t believe that the toppling of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt–which ushered in a less accommodating military leadership–or the redirection of resources by Iran to Syria will cripple Hamas considerably.

“They’ll get less money and will have to work harder to sell their agenda, but will they change their tune? No,” he says.

Miller concludes: “So long as the international community continues to ignore the reality of the split between Hamas and Fatah, peace between Israel and the Palestinians is likely to remain elusive.”

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