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What are the lessons of the recent Gaza conflict?
In an article in The Hill today, I argue that the two lessons President Biden has apparently drawn from the conflict are both wrong. Last week, in a press conference he said “We still need a two-state solution. It is the only answer, the only answer,” and “It's essential that the Palestinians in — on the West Bank be secure; that Abbas be recognized as the leader of the Palestinian people, which he is.”
As I noted in The Hill, “If these are his major take-aways, he’s on the wrong track. The two-state solution is further away than ever today, and Mahmoud Abbas’s claim to be the real leader of the Palestinian people has never been weaker.”
Why did Hamas decide to attack Israel?
The proximate cause of Hamas’s decision to start a war with Israel was the cancellation of Palestinian elections scheduled for May 22. While Hamas has offered various explanations for its decision, mostly involving Jerusalem, events in Jerusalem would have been grist for the Hamas electoral propaganda campaign and been used to pump up its vote had the election. Had the elections gone forward, the Hamas attacks of the last ten days would not have started. Polls suggested that Hamas would get as much as a third of the seats in the Palestinian Authority (PA) parliament and with that considerable political power and legitimacy. Moreover, Hamas would have gained a decades-long goal: admission into and real influence in the PLO. When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cancelled the election, Hamas turned back to its other way of gaining political influence: terrorism. It used the convoluted court case involving Palestinian tenants in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem, and a confrontation between Palestinians and Israeli police on the Temple Mount during Ramadan, as its excuses for violence. And this allowed Hamas to pose as defender of Jerusalem and the main actor in Palestinian politics while the Palestinian Authority seemed frozen.
It’s important to understand this point because it reveals a fundamental problem Israel faces—and that Americans who search for peace and stability for Israelis and Palestinians also face. That problem is the profound breakdown of Palestinian politics. Of course the more immediate problem is the number of Palestinians—in Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and other terrorist groups—who remain dedicated to using violence and terror to destroy Israel and are unreconciled to the very existence of the Jewish state. While they and their organizations exist and commit acts of violence, Israel will have to use force to defend itself against them. But Israel would be wrong to understand the conflict with Hamas exclusively or even primarily as a military contest. It is also a political contest and not least a political contest among Palestinians.
As the campaign for the now-cancelled parliamentary elections developed early this year, we began to see actual competition. Dozens of groups announced their intention to run candidates, and several posed a real challenge to Mahmoud Abbas—who has allowed no election since 2006. Marwan Barghouti, convicted of terrorism and serving five life terms in an Israeli prison but still widely popular in the Fatah Party, teamed up with Nasser el-Qidwa, a former PA foreign minister who is also Yasser Arafat’s nephew. Former Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan, who hails from Gaza and has been expelled from Fatah for challenging Abbas, also had a ticket. Former PA prime minister Salam Fayyad did as well. All these alternatives were bound to gain some votes and potentially humiliate Abbas and his cronies, in control of the PA and Fatah today, by denying them a majority and perhaps even a plurality in the legislature.
For decades the main struggle in Palestinian politics has been between Fatah and Hamas. In this struggle Fatah, initially led by Arafat and since his death in 2004 by Abbas, has presented a form of secular Palestinian nationalism weakened by vast corruption and (since it took on some elements of a government in the Palestinian Authority) incompetence. Hamas has been the main alternative, arguing that it stood for Islam and rectitude and an uncompromising hostility to Israel, and using terrorism to advance its goals.
After Arafat’s death it seemed briefly to the George W. Bush administration (where I served in the NSC, working on these issues) that Fatah could regenerate itself as a democratic political party and lead Palestinians toward democratic politics and successful negotiations with Israel. When in the 2006 parliamentary elections Hamas received 44 percent of the votes and Fatah only 41 percent, optimists thought Fatah would learn and adapt. It had never had to fight a campaign before, the theory went, and would adjust. Moreover, when Salam Fayyad served as finance minister and then prime minister of the PA, optimists thought Fatah was also recognizing the need to eliminate corruption and deliver good governance to Palestinians. Instead, Fayyad was eventually forced out and the reforms he introduced were squeezed out as well.
It cannot be said that Palestinian reformers had significant help from Israel, the United States, or Western donor countries. They received much good will, and assistance from Israel against Hamas’s efforts to organize for politics and for terrorism in the West Bank. But after the Hamas victory in the 2006 elections, far more energy went into protecting Fatah and the PA against Hamas than into reforming them so that they could defeat Hamas in the “hearts and minds” of Palestinians. What was unclear in the 2006 election remains unclear today: why do voters choose Hamas? Bush administration officials (I among them) wondered back then whether they were voting against Fatah corruption and incompetence, for Islam against secularism, or for killing Jews in acts of terror rather than engaging in peaceful negotiations.
Opinion polls do not suggest, and never have, that a majority of Palestinian voters would choose Hamas over the alternatives—Abbas and his team, and more recently independent voices from within and outside Fatah. What is clear is that Hamas gets a solid twenty to forty percent of the votes, for whatever reasons.
A key challenge Israel faces, and all who seek peace and stability in the Middle East face, is how to give Palestinians a better choice than Hamas or today’s Fatah leaders. As I wrote in The Hill,
What will certainly not work is the kind of incantation in which President Biden indulged on May 21 when he said Mahmoud Abbas is the leader of the Palestinian people. Having evaded elections since 2006, now in the 17th year of his four-year term, now age 86, and with a strong majority of Palestinians wishing he would leave office, Mahmoud Abbas cannot lead Palestinians anywhere and cannot defeat Hamas.