Palestinian Politics Do Matter

With President Obama’s visit to Israel and the occupied territories now behind us, attention is likely to turn to how we might restart the peace process. But if the past is any indication, one crucial element will be largely ignored in the discussion: Palestinian politics.

In contrast to the almost limitless deference shown to the pressures of Israeli domestic politics (as when Obama abandoned calls for a settlement freeze in 2010 because of the composition of Israel’s governing coalition), American officials remain remarkably tone deaf to Palestinian political needs. But there are some realities they need to understand about the deeply divided Palestinian body politic.

It has now been seven years since Hamas defeated Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction in a parliamentary election for control of the authority. That 2006 electoral victory emboldened Hamas’ forces to seize control of the Gaza Strip, ending nearly half a century of Fatah domination of Palestinian politics. Although Abbas has managed to cling to his position as president of the Palestinian Authority, he and his leadership have little to show for their rule other than a series of failed negotiations, a cash-strapped government on the verge of collapse and an unprecedented schism in the Palestinian national movement.

Meanwhile, Abbas’ term has long since expired, and the Palestinian parliament has not convened in nearly six years — both testaments to the paralysis of Palestinian politics as well as the waning legitimacy of Palestinian leaders.

Palestinians today are deeply frustrated with this divided and ineffective leadership, Israel’s ongoing repression and ever-expanding settlement enterprise, and a so-called peace process that has done little more than enable all of these.

Despite all of this, the United States continues to operate as though Abbas’ West Bank leadership has no political opposition or public opinion to answer to. For too long, American policymakers have treated Palestinian politics as something that can be avoided, suppressed or, if need be, reshaped. Indeed, if an accommodation is to be made, it is usually Palestinian politics that must bend to the perceived needs of the peace process rather than the other way around.

Even today, the United States continues to pressure Palestinian leaders to return to talks, despite their slim chance of success and the enormous costs incurred by repeated failures. And, despite the strong desire of Palestinians to see an end to the seven-year rift between Fatah and Hamas, the Obama administration continues to oppose internal Palestinian reconciliation efforts.

As convenient as it might seem, the idea that Palestinian politics don’t matter, or that they can somehow be reengineered by outside actors, is both wrongheaded and dangerous. Hamas may be a problematic actor, but it cannot simply be wished away or boycotted out of existence. Despite its record of violence, including horrific attacks against Israeli civilians, Hamas remains a major force in Palestinian politics; it has also shown a willingness to play pragmatic politics, both in terms of Israeli security and a two-state solution.

Attempting to exclude Hamas or any other political group is a recipe for perpetual internal conflict; it is also self-defeating. As the recent Gaza conflict has demonstrated, the policy of isolating Hamas while building up the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has been a spectacular failure. Hamas has more international legitimacy today than before, while the authority is on the brink of collapse.

Even thorny issues such as the fate of Palestinian refugees, another important political constituency long neglected by both the peace process and their own leaders, cannot be ignored indefinitely.

Palestinians may not have a state yet, but that doesn’t exempt their political leaders from very real domestic constituencies and political pressures that they must answer to, whether inside the occupied Palestinian territory or in the diaspora. Just as we intuitively understand the constraints imposed on the administration by Congress and by powerful domestic lobbies, or remain preoccupied with the ever-present concerns of Israel’s coalition politics, so too should the U.S. begin to acknowledge and accommodate Palestinian politics.

Although it is true that Palestinians do not enjoy anything like the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, simple logic ought to dictate that a weak and divided Palestinian leadership with questionable domestic legitimacy is in no position to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with Israel. More important, for such an agreement to hold, it must have buy-in from key Palestinian political constituencies, including both supporters and opponents of the current leadership. The same is true of Israel, or any other nation — a point President Obama alluded to in his speech to Israeli students in Jerusalem when he stressed that “peace must be made among peoples, not just governments.”

“As more governments respond to popular will,” the president said, “the days when Israel could seek peace with a handful of autocratic leaders are over.” Although the president was referring to Arab states in the throes of revolutionary change, the point applies equally to the Palestinians.

The United States does not have to like Palestinian politics or endorse its themes or outcomes — any more than it needs to embrace the appointment of pro-settlement and anti-peace figures to Israel’s Cabinet — but it does need to acknowledge them. No political leadership should have to choose between international acceptance and domestic legitimacy. Indeed, any credible peace process must allow the Palestinians to have both.