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New Negotiations are an Important Step, but Not Enough

After eighteen months of treading water in the Middle East peace process, the Obama administration scored an important victory in re-launching direct negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week in Washington, DC. However, that victory is likely to be short-lived unless the administration begins to address two other crucial components of this conflict: the internal Palestinian division and the regional dimension of the peace process.

Even as expectations for a breakthrough remain decidedly low, the stakes are as high as ever, particularly for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and his Fateh party. While Abbas, as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), clearly retains the legal authority to negotiate on behalf of his people, as a practical matter, his room to maneuver is severely impeded by the schism. In the absence of national unity and a solid domestic mandate, Abbas has been forced to seek “political cover” from external actors, first from the Arab League and then later from the Quartet (US, EU, UN and Russia), before agreeing to enter direct negotiations with Israel.

This internal division also limits Abbas’s flexibility inside the negotiations. Although Abbas has pledged to put any agreement to a popular referendum, the outcome of such a vote (to say nothing of the likelihood of its taking place in the first place) would be far from certain. It seems clear that any agreement that is negotiated exclusively by a Fateh-dominated PLO with no input or buy-in from Hamas—regardless of its content—is far more likely to be actively opposed by it, and thus likely defeated, than one that is more inclusive. Ironically, therefore, an “imperfect” agreement that has buy-in and input from all major Palestinian factions, including Hamas, is far more likely to pass such a referendum than a theoretically “perfect” agreement that does not.

This does not mean, as some have argued, that the United States should engage directly with Hamas—which would almost certainly deal a death blow to both Abbas and Fateh, and in any case is fraught with legal and political difficulties that extend beyond the exclusive decision-making capacity of the executive branch—but rather that it simply allow Palestinians to engage with each other. In short, the administration should seek to identify a formula that enables rather than impedes Palestinian national reconciliation, without compromising its own legal and political position.

While some see risks in pursuing a formula that “legitimizes” Hamas, the risks of ignoring or isolating it—as though both Hamas and Gaza were somehow separate from the peace process—are far greater. This was demonstrated most dramatically by the recent flotilla disaster but is also evident in Hamas’s ability to engage in violence aimed at derailing the peace process.

Similarly, a genuine regional approach to the peace process could create new opportunities that enable progress on both the internal Palestinian and bilateral Israeli-Palestinian tracks. Although the region is for the moment relatively calm, recent clashes along the Israeli-Lebanese border and growing talk of an Israeli military strike on Iran serve as a reminder of the ever-present risk of war. Given Iran’s close ties with Syria, as well as its support for and influence over other key actors in the region such as Hizbollah and Hamas, it is not difficult to imagine how such a war could trigger a broader regional conflagration.

While the Israeli-Palestinian track remains the indisputable core of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the absence of any progress on the both the Syrian-Israeli and Lebanese-Israeli tracks in particular has denied both state and non-state actors of any real incentives to act in support of rather than against the process. A truly regional peace process on the other hand could dramatically alter the existing risk/incentive assessment of key actors—namely Syria, Hizbollah, Hamas and Iran—in a way that supports both Palestinian unity and an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

In announcing the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks last week, Secretary Clinton reiterated the administration’s commitment “to advance the cause of comprehensive peace in the Middle East.” For the peace process to be truly comprehensive, however, it must also address the need for a unified Palestinian polity as well as allow for progress on the regional level. Such a “grand bargain” is admittedly an ambitious undertaking—requiring not only that all key actors get something but that each has a stake in the others getting something as well—and may in fact be too difficult to achieve. The alternative on the other hand, whereby the delicate process now underway between Israelis and Palestinians is perpetually vulnerable to the “veto” of one disgruntled regional actor or another, may prove even more costly still.