Changes in the Palestinian Authority’s Approach
During the months preceding the recent round of violence, Hamas’ strategic impasse had already led it to accept Fatah’s terms for national reconciliation. However, President Abbas proved unable or unwilling to leverage this advantage to reestablish a footing in Gaza. First, he failed to utilize the newly created national reconciliation government to reestablish patronage by persuading Israel and the U.S. that it is in their interest that civil servants in Gaza be paid through funds provided by the PA and that they should allow if not encourage the utilization of the PA-centered banking system to execute such payments.
Second, President Abbas, the Fatah movement and the PA were slow to recognize that regional circumstances and the outcome of the recent round of Hamas-Israel violence provide them an unprecedented opportunity to reestablish a footing in Gaza. This is because irrespective of its impressive performance and the likely rise in its popularity, Hamas will ultimately emerge from the present confrontation weakened on two counts: First, within Gaza, coupled with pride at Hamas’ successful “resistance” there is likely to be a gradual reduction in public support as the emotional reaction to the war cools off. And second, regional forces are now uniquely arrayed to weaken Hamas. With different motivations Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates are all willing to contribute—overtly or covertly—to the weakening of Hamas.
To move Gaza-Israeli relations from repeated violent confrontations toward greater stability, President Abbas must be willing to leverage Hamas’ weakness and the unique array of regional forces by taking the following steps to gradually reestablish a footing in Gaza: First, Abbas needs to encourage his reconciliation government to take far reaching steps as needed in order to unify the West Bank and Gaza institutions and thereby take control away from Hamas. Hamas’ ability to resist change will be weakened if the reconciliation government will come to be seen as calling the shots. Conversely, Hamas will risk losing the upcoming Palestinian elections if it would come to be seen as preventing national unity.
Second, Abbas needs to consolidate relations with Egypt’s President Sisi. Only if Sisi sees Abbas as a trusted ally will he be willing to open the Rafah crossing in the immediate aftermath of the war. This step is now critical for improving Abbas’ standing among Palestinians.
Finally, Abbas must prepare Fatah for the elections stipulated in the reconciliation agreement. This is particularly important in the Gaza Strip where Fatah is currently fragmented. To this end, he must address in some fashion the challenge he faces from his principle rival, Muhammad Dahlan, whose support among Fatah ranks is Gaza remains considerable.
Transforming the cease-fire reached between Israel and Hamas following their twenty-nine days of intense fighting into more stable relations between Gaza and Israel will require all three principle parties—Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority—to radically change their approach toward one another. Then, each side would need to translate this paradigmatic change to specific policies aimed at facilitating the movement away from violence and destruction and toward greater accommodation. Together with Egypt, the U.S. remains indispensable in facilitating the required changes. Despite the setbacks its standing in the region has suffered and its recent diplomatic efforts have experienced there in recent years, no external actor is better positioned than the U.S. to orchestrate the complex change suggested here. Without such change, Israel and Hamas are bound to find themselves sooner or later in another round of deadly violence, to the detriment of innocent civilians on both sides.
Shai Feldman is the Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University and is a Senior Fellow and a member of the Board of Directors of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Khalil Shikaki is the Director of the Palestinian Center for Political and Survey Research in Ramallah and is a Senior Fellow at the Crown Center. Feldman and Shikaki’s most recent book (with Abdel Monem Said Aly) is Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
Image: IDF. CC BY-NC 2.0.