It is hard to fault those who question the effectiveness of recent U.S. efforts to restart peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Like many previous efforts, this round is already fraught with missteps—namely, the push to drop all preconditions to talks.
However, attempting to bring the two sides together without addressing settlement expansion and Israel’s right to exist, ignores the political realities both sides face, and the demands they have each made for years.
The lack of focus on Palestinian reconciliation and democratization, a key issue for a sustainable peace settlement, is even more discouraging. While Egypt works with the Palestinians to establish a more accountable political system in the West Bank and Gaza, Western officials refuse to engage on the issue, trumpeting the need for Palestinians to come to the negotiating table unconditionally, regardless of continued Israeli settlement expansion.
But which Palestinians should negotiate? The democratic mandate of Mahmoud Abbas, the wildly unpopular 78 year-old president of the Palestinian Authority, expired years ago. The recent resignation of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah after only two weeks on the job has further contributed to the perception of weakness that haunts Abbas throughout the West Bank and elsewhere. Even if an agreement was reached with the Israelis, it risks rejection both by the Palestinian people, who question the credibility of their leadership, and various Palestinian political movements.
The key to a sustainable peace is not just an agreement between two opposing parties, but the political foundations on which it rests. In Palestine, this foundation has been broken for some time. The need for its repair and the strengthening of Palestinian democracy must no longer be seen as an afterthought, but as a key pillar of the peace process.
Peace through Palestinian Political Reconciliation
Palestinian democracy has been on the decline for some time. President Abbas has not stood for election since 2005 and has ruled since the expiration of his term in 2009 with no democratic mandate. The Palestinian Legislative Council has never recovered from a 2006 election that resulted in a Hamas win that was cynically rejected by the West. The council has also been hampered by Israel’s imprisonment of numerous legislative representatives, as well as discord that has gripped domestic politics since the 2006 elections.
For most of the past decade Palestinian politics has been characterized by division and gridlock. Palestine’s two major political forces – Hamas and Fatah – have feuded bitterly since Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004 and the elections in 2006. This tension eventually created the tragic situation that exists today: a divided Palestine, with the West Bank controlled by Fatah and the Gaza Strip by Hamas. While the parties have succeeded in consolidating their power within their respective jurisdictions, the Palestinian people have ultimately suffered from this division.
The Israelis have played their part in promoting Palestinian division. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly ruled out negotiating with a Palestinian government that in any way includes Hamas. Earlier this year, Netanyahu stated, “I’ll make peace if I am talking with someone who does not embrace Hamas and does not give credit to people who showered rockets on the State of Israel.” For Fatah, such rhetoric puts a steep price on reconciling with Hamas, a price that is compounded by American threats to reduce much needed economic assistance.
Israeli tactics, however, are certainly not the sole cause of Palestinian division. Since the events of 2007, prospects for Palestinian reconciliation and broader democratization have been bleak. While there have been hopeful moments such as the Mecca Agreement of 2007 and the Cairo Agreement of 2011, they have been ephemeral. Opportunities at reunification have consistently crumbled because of the lack of real dialogue between the two major factions, as well as an unwillingness among Western governments and Israel to engage with a wide swath of the Palestinian political arena.
At times, Palestinian reconciliation makes a peace deal with Israel seem almost easy by comparison. The two efforts, however, must be recognized as complementary pieces of the same puzzle, both by those in the West working to promote peace, and by Palestinians and Israelis who genuinely desire peace between their people.
Not only is Palestinian reconciliation necessary for any peace with Israel to be sustainable, but it is also in the best interest of Israel. Israelis do not like Palestinian rockets landing in their backyards, but Palestinian political factions will not disarm because Americans and Israelis ask nicely. Rather, this change must come from within, and will only take place if there is popular demand for a political system within Palestine based on peaceful competition, not armed confrontation.
Achieving Palestinian Political Reconciliation
Since being sworn in, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has focused considerable energy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His approach has centered on pursuing Palestinian economic development in an effort to foster peace. While his initiative is welcomed by most observers and will hopefully benefit the Palestinian people, peace will not arrive on the heels of an economic engine.
To achieve peace, the U.S. Administration must also focus on strengthening the voice of the Palestinian people, and building a sense of political accountability that is lacking in Palestine. Democracy is the key to creating this accountability, and reconciliation is the path to genuine Palestinian democracy.
Palestinians deserve better leaders, leaders who recognize that the internecine nature of their politics only plays into the hands of their enemies. Despite their own struggle with democratic transition, the Egyptians recognize this and are working to fix it; the United States should join in the effort.
Reconciliation will not be achieved easily; if Palestinians are to unite politically, they will need more than an election timetable to succeed. Hamas and Fatah must also resolve the issues that have fueled political instability in Palestine for too long. While there is undoubtedly a need for new elections that provide Palestinians the opportunity to elect the leaders they have been denied for so long, elections are not, in themselves, the savior for Palestinian democracy.
Rival political factions in Palestine must agree to a framework for competition that includes disarmament. Democracy will not succeed where a state monopoly on violence does not exist, and peace with a neighbor will certainly not be sustained in such an environment. While armed skirmishes have become less frequent in Palestine in the past few years, this is largely attributed to the division of autonomy that exists, with Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. If political reunification is to succeed, an agreement on political disarmament must be a top priority so that armed conflict does not threaten political stability in Palestine once again.
Political competition is a hallmark of democracy, but in Palestine such competition has become synonymous with armed clashes and crackdowns on political opposition. What Palestinians need is not necessarily pure political unity, which is unrealistic and not characteristic of a healthy democracy in any case. What is needed, instead, is an agreement on the rules of the political game, and broad respect for a democratic system that removes arms from politics and gives state institutions, such as the security forces in the West Bank and Gaza, autonomy from the parties they currently serve.
Jailing, intimidation, and abuse are not only acts Palestinians face at the hands of Israelis. They are also common occurrences committed by Palestinians against other Palestinians holding opposing political views.
Both Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank have used their respective government bureaucracies to repress and ostracize those who do not share their political loyalties. Palestinian professors in the West Bank who support Hamas, at best, risk their jobs and, at worst, are subject to abuse, physical attacks, or unlawful imprisonment. Those loyal to Fatah in Gaza simply need not apply for government jobs and otherwise face the same risks as their West Bank counterparts.
That Palestinians compound the injustices they already face from Israel by mistreating one another may be the most tragic aspect of the occupation. This culture of politically motivated discrimination, marginalization, and repression permeates Palestinian society and must come to an end so that Palestinians are free to express their political beliefs without fear.
Palestinians must also focus on supporting the growth of more free and open political debate in the media. News agencies and journalists should not fear backlash—whether from Fatah in the West Bank or Hamas in Gaza—for their journalistic endeavors. Media in Palestine should, instead, be a venue for the sort of Palestinian self-expression that is otherwise denied by the occupation.
Palestinians must reconcile and establish a democratic framework that will stand the test of time and create a lasting respect for democracy and human rights. Economic development alone will not create such a framework.
Long overdue elections are a start. A popularly elected and supported Palestinian president will help democracy begin to take root. A legislative body with a renewed mandate will provide the necessary means to pursue policies for the collective good and in the national interest.
But newly elected leaders will not, in their own right, repair the repressive political culture that exists in Palestine. Palestinian democracy needs more than just elections to be saved. It needs safeguards for open political expression and free media, and a broad commitment from all sectors of society that politics will be a game fought with rhetoric, not rifles.
If the United States is serious about peace between Israel and Palestine, it must stop ignoring the political realities within Palestine and focus on the goal of achieving Palestinian democracy. Failing to do so only harms prospects for peace.
The strength of peace between nations depends very much on the peace they maintain within. A strong democracy is often the key to maintaining such peace. In Palestine, the time has come to recognize the importance of this democratic commitment and work collectively toward achieving it.
*Jed Ober is the Director of Programs at Democracy International. The views expressed here are his own.