The de facto division of Palestine over the last week into a Hamas-led enclave in Gaza and a Fatah-dominated West Bank marks a new low in the sorry annals of Palestinian affairs. Part of the blame lies with President Mahmoud Abbas, who has proved utterly unable to cope with the challenges of leadership, a fact only underscored by his “firing” of the elected Hamas government that had already in effect fired him. Israel’s wildly unpopular prime minister, Ehud Olmert (a man whose approval rating recently hit 2 percent), played a contributing role by bombing Gaza last summer (in retaliation for the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers), a move that further weakened Abbas and his Fatah party. The Bush administration, too, deserves its share of the blame for openly neglecting the Middle East conflict for its first four years in office. As it turned out, feeling abandoned made ordinary Palestinians despondent about the prospects for peace — which enabled them to cast protest votes for Hamas without worrying that its election would effectively scuttle an already moribund peace process.
So what now? There will be no meaningful progress in the direction of peace until Abbas and Olmert are replaced by stronger leaders who can unify their constituencies enough to make negotiations seem credible. It will certainly take years for Israelis to once again see a partner for peace and for Palestinians to acknowledge that without a deal they are doomed to misery. In the classic Middle Eastern paradox, the mutual confidence that is the precondition of real compromise cannot emerge as long as each side sees the other as incapable of actually delivering on its promises.
For the last year Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been trying to get the United States back in the peace-process business that we all but abandoned in 2000. Under the difficult circumstances of a Palestinian government that included Hamas and an Israeli government headed by Olmert, the accidental prime minister, she has had to focus on “confidence-building measures” — minimal gestures like insisting in March that Abbas and Olmert meet biweekly. Yet as recent events in Gaza so graphically demonstrate, such involvement can backfire. If things continue to deteriorate despite our attention, our diplomatic credibility — already in short supply — is reduced still further. At the same time, if we don’t deal with the conflict, we can say with confidence that the situation will get even worse. Abandoning Gaza and treating Abbas’s runt West Bank government as the whole Palestinian show risks allowing Gaza to pass the point of no return. Although our involvement obviously cannot guarantee improvement, there is a modest payoff at which we can aim: to stop the slide into anarchy before it really is too late.
If this goal of avoiding the worst in an already bad situation sounds familiar, it should: staving off disaster without much hope of short-term progress is also our current goal in Iraq. We are far enough into the Baghdad surge to know that the most it will accomplish is to slow down the internecine conflict and perhaps contain the intercommunal violence so as to avoid all-out genocidal war.
If that happens, Iraq’s political classes might reach the sort of power-sharing agreement that would satisfy the U.S. Congress’s benchmarks for progress. After all, many of these same politicians had a role in the earlier consensus agreements that created the interim and final constitutions and formed the current government. But like Olmert and Abbas, most of the leaders at the heads of Iraq’s various political parties — the Kurds are the main exception — do not seem strong enough to make credible promises that their constituents would be prepared to keep.
In Iraq as in Israel and Palestine, three outcomes remain possible. In the first, our patience pays off, as ordinary people come to realize that continuing violence solves nothing and as new, realistic leaders emerge who reflect and encourage this sentiment. From prison, the Palestinian activist Marwan Barghouti has already tried to broker a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and he might seek to do it again. If he succeeds and Israel releases him, he could negotiate a serious deal with a coalition government led by Ehud Barak, newly returned as Labor Party leader, or Ami Ayalon, the dovish ex-admiral waiting in the wings. It is certainly worth expending our diplomatic capital to encourage such a result — even if it takes time. The cost of such patience is of course much higher in the case of Iraq, where the resources expended include not just American credibility but also American lives. But our responsibility is correspondingly greater as well.
A second prospect is that violence remains at a low or medium level for years, waxing or waning as it has for two decades in Israel and Palestine and for a shorter time in Iraq. Such violence gradually saps hopes for peace by confirming the parties’ worst fears about each other. Leaders who seek peace are discredited one by one. U.S. involvement may limit the scope of Israeli retaliation to Palestinian attacks, but it can also dilute the chances for progress by teaching the Palestinians that they can fall back on U.S. cover and the Israelis that we will not press them too hard to the table. We are past masters at this sort of crisis management in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; in Iraq, however, we cannot sustain such a role indefinitely.
The third possibility is that our impatience with the failure to make progress leads us to disengage. We know from recent experience what that means for the Middle East: declining hope and growing radicalism are making Gaza look like a smaller, poorer Baghdad, to the detriment of Palestinians, Israelis and our national interest. If we disengage in Iraq too, we will probably save American lives — and risk chaos that could make the present troubles there seem minor by comparison.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.