While Prime Minister Netanyahu was received warmly on his recent visit to Washington, progress on the peace process remains in doubt. If direct negotiations are to resume, the split among Palestinians will hamper—and arguably prevent—the ability of President Abbas to negotiate on behalf of the divided people. What can be done to overcome Palestine’s internal troubles?

Following his recent trip to the area, Nathan Brown discussed his recent paper on Prime Minister Fayyad’s efforts in the West Bank. Taghreed El-Khodary, formerly the Gaza-based correspondent for the New York Times, looked at the current situation in Gaza. Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress addressed the policy implications for the Obama administration and Scott Lasensky of the United States Institute of Peace moderated.

“West Bank First”

The United States and the international community have maintained a policy of supporting institutional development in the West Bank. Yet despite high levels of international assistance given to the West Bank Palestinian Authority (PA), real institutional development and democratic progression are lagging far behind. 

  • Undermining Hamas: The chief aim of this policy from both the Israeli and the U.S. perspective is to undermine Hamas in Gaza and demonstrate that under the West Bank PA, Palestinians can live more prosperous, secure lives. However, the situation in the West Bank “is not moving in the right direction,” Brown stated. 
  • Key Problems: Brown pointed out several fallacies in the U.S.  policy of propping up the West Bank: 

    • Gaza: It seems as if the United States is simply waiting for Hamas to change or go away, Brown argued. Furthermore, by supporting the West Bank while also endorsing sanctions (admittedly lessened but still punishing) on Gaza, the United States is seen in the region as implicated in Palestinian suffering.
    • A viable peace process: Efforts at institutional and economic development will succeed over the long term only if connected to a peace process that is nowhere in sight at the moment

  • Fayyad: Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is at the center of U.S. development policy for the West Bank. He has been widely credited with reforming Palestinian institutions and increasing bureaucratic efficiency and economic growth. However, in spite of the strides made under Fayyad’s leadership, the Palestinian Authority is still heavily dependent on assistance from the United States and the European Union and the record on institutional development is not what international backers claim it is, Brown stated. 

While the West Bank has seen significant improvement in several areas, particularly security and administrative efficiency with regards to fiscal matters, other institutions in Palestinian society have seen rapid deterioration.  

  • Security: The abundant praise Fayyad has received from many Israeli government officials and commentators has largely focused on his efforts to improve security, Brown suggested. 
  • Economy: The West Bank economy’s great improvement over the last several years has more to do with improved movement and access, allowing a recovery to economic levels of the Oslo years. This recovery is due in large part to the copious amount of international assistance the PA receives and the improved security situation in the West Bank. 
  • Deterioration: Palestinian civil society, political parties, and the education and legal systems are all in a state of decay, Brown said. 
  • Democracy: Palestinian democracy has collapsed. President Abbas’ term formally ended in January 2010, Prime Minister Fayyad has no democratic legitimacy, and the Palestinian Legislative Council is so enfeebled by the West Bank/Gaza divide that it is unable to pass laws. In the 1990s, the PA had a certain level of legitimacy stemming from its democratic roots. Today, both halves of the PA rule by decree and ad hoc procedures,” Brown argued. 

Ultimately, Brown concluded, the “West Bank first” policy is fundamentally failing to create the kind of stability and growth envisioned by Fayyad and his international supporters. 

Gaza’s Isolation

The sustained failure of the peace process has empowered Hamas, and the policies implemented by the United States have made it difficult to alter the divided status quo. 

  • Blockade: Following the flotilla crisis and the attendant pressure on the Israelis, the blockade on Gaza has been significantly eased. Nonetheless, life in Gaza has not dramatically changed. While basic foodstuffs and other commodities that were previously prohibited are now being allowed into Gaza, there is still no end to the political, economic, and social isolation in sight.
  • Economy: Even given the changes in the blockade policy, Gaza’s economy remains moribund. Construction materials are still not making their way through Israeli crossings, which continues to hurt the already struggling Gazan economy. “The only way to get the Gazan economy moving is to allow these raw materials into Gaza,” noted El-Khodary. 
  • Isolation: The people of Gaza feel completely isolated from the experience of those in the West Bank. They cannot relate to the policies of Fayyad and they feel left behind by the international community’s myopic focus on the West Bank and Fayyad. El-Khodary suggested that the younger population of Gaza wonders how the state institutions could be built without their participation.

 The Obama Administration’s Policy 

A year and a half into the Obama administration, Katulis explained that its policy vis-à-vis the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has been marked by four key pillars: 

  1. An emphasis on a two-state solution that is in the national security interest of the United States and a corresponding belief that U.S. leadership is essential to midwife a viable peace process.
  2. The essential nature of a sustained, patient engagement aiming for compromise.
  3. The belief that institutional and economic development in the West Bank and an easing Israeli security concern are fundamental prerequisites to peace.
  4. Linking the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to a larger multilateral track involving the Israelis and neighboring countries.

The Obama administration still seems to be in the early phases of its efforts to move the peace process forward. According to Katulis, “The U.S. effort to this point has been more about conflict management than conflict resolution.” He cited three key problems impeding the administration as it tries to make a significant, sustained effort at engaging both sides: 

  1. Security: The U.S. administration appears to see a commitment to security as a mechanism to improve the political environment. Yet while security, particularly from the Israeli perspective, is crucial, it does not necessarily ensure political legitimacy.
  2. Communication: There is a tension between the quiet and essential work of diplomacy, which is necessary to build trust, and the perceptions of those in the region who see little tangible benefit from the peace process.
  3. Regional challenges: There has also been a failure to adequately integrate all regional challenges. The administration faces several intractable situations in the region, including security concerns in Yemen and Iran’s nuclear program, and is having a difficult time managing all of them simultaneously.

Moving forward

In the near term, it appears that financial assistance to the West Bank PA will continue, in order to ensure its viability. Fayyad’s “institutional maintenance” program will continue as long as people continued to be paid salaries. However, this assistance and the overall policy are unsustainable in the long term, the panelists concluded. Such policies only exacerbate the division between the West Bank and Gaza. 

In contrast, the blockade policy in Gaza is not only unsustainable but immoral, and continues to empower Hamas, the panelists argued. Hamas continues to demonstrate that it is willing, within certain limits, to engage both Fatah and the Israelis. Such engagement must be encouraged and broadened, the panelists agreed. Ultimately, without a credible reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas, there is no hope for a two-state solution.