Once again, it seems like there are no winners but some real losers in the Palestinian civil war that has ripped the not-yet-born state into two pieces.
Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected President of the Palestinian authority, and Hamas, which by the same voters was elected to lead the government, have in the end not been able to work together. Not just with Israel, but not even with each other. Hamas has seized complete control of the Gaza strip while Fatah has done the same in the West Bank. Because the two pieces of Palestine are separated by Israel, it seems unlikely that there will be any other resolution to this than a 'two state solution,' but not the 'two state solution' that most had evisioned.
I had written a post following Hamas' surprising victory last year, Interpreting the Hamas victory and where from here, in which I had written that there might be cause for optimism because unlike the corruption plagued and weak structure of Fatah, Hamas could, if they could be induced to sign an agreement, back it up.
Ah, but that is the sticking point. I was far too optimistic, because while there is no question that Hamas has the authority that they could enforce an agreement, they have no inclination to make one. They still have one and pretty much only one goal-- to destroy Israel. And no price-- even the partitioning of the Palestinian state itself, is too high for them to pay in order to get rid of Israel. Like the medieval crusaders, Hamas risks simply becoming a cause without a plan, other than simply to push the cause forward-- and like the crusaders it is playing a very dangerous game, likely to end up in a bloodbath of Biblical portions, including both Israeli and Palestinian blood.
Fatah is probably a bit stronger and less corrupt than it was under Arafat (mainly because of the hard realities of the situation, as well as the fact that it would be hard to match Arafat for corruption, a man who stole billions in western donations while his people starved) but I can't say that I share the optimism that western leaders have that Mahmoud Abbas will be any more effective than Arafat at preventing individuals and organizations from carrying out attacks on Israel. To be honest, Hamas was able to make their one year cease fire with Israel that they observed up until last summer hold because they have a reputation for ruthlessness that Fatah lacks. Nevertheless recent events have clarified the situation and made it clear that Abbas and Fatah will be Israel's negotiating partner.
Israel is in the most interesting position. Of course if Israel does nothing it benefits (and has been benefitting) in the short term while the two Palestinian factions do their best to destroy each other. However, in the long term Israel faces some hard choices. Presumably now that Abbas has formed a government that does not include Hamas (in other words, a government which other than himself was never elected by the people) Israel is free to negotiate (since they had refused to negotiate with a government including Hamas because of Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel).
To begin with the Palestinian authority and Israel, which recognized each other after the Oslo accords, are willing to reiterate that agreement, but what next? Israel has built settlements in the past and is willing to dismantle them as they did in Gaza-- but what happened in Gaza, which has provided a base for rocket and mortar attacks and resulted in Israel re-invading certain areas in brief forays (as well as a protracted incursion last summer) suggests that simply dismantling the settlements as good-will gestures is as likely as not to simply turn them into launching pads for rockets aimed at Israeli population centers. Israel may indeed dismantle settlements, but the price is likely to be steep-- likely including acceptance of the Israeli border wall (which I oppose incidentally-- for the same reasons I oppose a border wall on the Mexican border-- but realistically, the Israelis are unlikely to tear it down given its record of stopping suicide bombers) and possibly some concessions in other areas-- more on that later. However, it is clearly to Israel's advantage to have a secure border along the West Bank area, just as Israel presently has secure borders along two borders which were once battle zones: Israel's borders with Jordan and Egypt. So Israel does have a motivation to reach an agreement that will allow a Fatah led state to come together and develop economically and politically. However, even if an accord is reached, there is still the thorny issue of what to do about east Jerusalem. Both sides claim it as their capitol, and the one thing that Jews, Muslims and Christians agree on is that the temple mount (now adorned with the mosque of Omar, the third holiest site in Islam) is holy ground. The holiest site in Judaism is the western wall of the temple of Herod, the same temple where Jesus preached and which was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. I suspect that in the absence of other considerations, Israel would retain control over the holy sites only because of the fact of the matter, that Israel controls them now and won't give them up, and this would be part of the price Abbas would have to agree to in exchange for the dismantling of settlements elsewhere. However, the Israelis could offer to put portions under joint control, IF they had a real reason why they needed to gain goodwill, especially from West Bank Palestinians. And there is a reason they will.
The reason is quite plain. Israel will certainly be fighting a two front war in the very near future. In the past, Israel's reputation for military effectiveness saved it from actually having to fight any real wars since the end of the Lebanon invasion in 1982. But last summer, Hezbollah fought Israel to a draw. In the politics of the Middle East, that equals a victory for Hezbollah and a defeat for Israel. Hezbollah, which fired thousands of rockets all over northern and north-central Israel in last year's war has re-armed themselves and will sooner or later (with 'sooner' being more likely) go to war again with Israel. Not surprisingly, as we've seen recently, al-Qaeda also quickly has gotten into the scene, with Lebanese army units fighting to dislodge them from bases in southern Lebanon-- a place where until a few months ago al-Qaeda had no interest in.
However, with Hamas now firmly in control of the Gaza strip, we can anticipate that such a war will be a two front war. Hamas remains committed absolutely to the destruction of Israel so it is a certainty that at some point, they will use the complete control of the area which they now have to organize and conduct a concerted attack on Israel. It is hard to imagine that whether Hezbollah or Hamas attacks first, the other won't quickly join in. Or perhaps Israel, knowing this will happen, will attack both Hamas and Hezbollah directly-- hoping to gain enough militarily from a first strike to offset the political price they would pay for it.
And that is where Fatah and Abbas' opportunity comes in. They could of course mount an attack as well on Israel, but unlike Hamas and Hezbollah, Fatah's roots as a guerilla organization are long since past, and they would be quickly crushed by the Israeli army if they were so foolish. However, they could extract a high price from Israel in exchange for remaining neutral (since the last thing that Israel would want while fighting a two-front war would be for it to become a three-front war-- with the everpresent concern that Syria could also open a fourth front). In particular, that might be the card that Fatah would need to get rid of all the settlements, and possibly gain a joint control agreement over east Jerusalem. At the same time, a Palestinian authority which remained neutral (including reigning in its military arm, the al-Aqsa martyr's brigade) while Israel was fighting another major war would go a long way towards convincing Israel that the time was right for full Palestinian statehood.
It has been said of the Palestinians in the past that 'they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.' Of course that was when Yassir Arafat was leading them from disappointment to disappointment to disappointment. The next few months will tell whether Abbas will be able to seize the opportunity and create a peaceful and stable state in the West Bank or go the way of Arafat before him.