Whatever happens, November 2012 will go down in history as a turning point in the 60-plus year conflict between Israel and Palestine. It will be recorded as the month that Hamas eased the embargo of Gaza by using force and the month that the PLO gained UN recognition for Palestine as a non-member observer state by using diplomacy. While the immediate outcomes of the two rival Palestinian governments are clear (and of their own making), the long-term outcome for Israel, for Palestine and for the rest of us, depends, in great part, on what the United States does, in response to these events, in the coming weeks.
Barely a week after the U.S. elections and only months before the Israeli ones, Hamas chose to challenge Israel militarily. While their missiles caused regrettable deaths but little damage to Israel, Hamas won much. The United States and Egypt jumped in to negotiate a peace settlement and ultimately rewarded Hamas’ military actions with a loosening of the embargo and an ending to land and sea use restrictions that have strangled Gaza since 2005. It was a clear, empowering victory for Hamas.
This Thursday, in contrast, the PLO successfully concluded its peaceful diplomatic campaign to attain non-member observer status in the United Nations. Their goal is to end the 19-year hiatus in negotiations with Israel and, as a recognized nation, be in a better position to bring Israel back to the bargaining table.
Rather than missiles, the PLO has chosen to win its battles by the building of a vibrant economy and ensuring peaceful activity (despite great obstacles) in the West Bank that it governs. Whether the PLO will be rewarded or punished by the United States for their choice of a peaceful path remains to be seen.
The only thing that is certain is that choices that the United States makes in its reaction to the UN resolution will have far reaching consequences.
Indeed, in the run-up to the U.N. action some U.S. leaders have threatened to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority in retaliation for its pursuit of UN status. While it may seem an appealing action to some, a cut-off of aid either to the Palestinian Authority or to the PLO would be a grave mistake.
While it might meet domestic public relations needs, a cutoff of funding carries with it the danger of causing the collapse of the Palestinian Authority — a government that has both recognized Israel and kept its security and economic development promises. As serious, it would bolster of Hamas’ position of refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist and serve as an unwitting endorsement of armed conflict as the path to an independent Palestine.
The people of the West Bank have been patient. Despite the odious restrictions of movement of people and paucity of resources imposed by Israel on them they have managed to build cities like Ramallah that flourish, an economy that while hindered by the Israeli control of exports and imports continues to grow and a literacy rate of 95 percent — in the Middle East, second only to that of Israel. Yet with 60 percent of the population under 30 years of age — a population that has grown up with the indignities and lack of opportunities that occupation imposes — that patience is wearing thin. A weakening or collapse of the Palestinian Authority due to a retaliatory cut off of funding would likely drive many into the metaphorical arms of Hamas with their commitment to armed struggle — and its demonstrated effectiveness.
Sadly, this would not be the first time that shortsighted thinking led to unintended consequences. Just as the United States and many Western powers thought it wise to support the Mujahideen, the precursors of the Taliban, as a way to undermine the Soviet Union, most observers believe that the Hamas’ growth in power and influence over the past two decades would not have been possible without the tacit approval of the United States and Israel. While the original intent was likely to weaken both Fatah and Yasser Arafat and therefore strengthen Israel’s hand, the election of Hamas to the helm in Gaza through democratic elections and the ever-stronger alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, Hamas and Iran show the folly of such “magical thinking.”
Neither the missiles of Hamas nor the UN resolution will bring peace to the Middle East; that can only be secured by bi-lateral negotiations between Israel and the leaders of the Palestinian people. Both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority say that they are committed to a two-state solution, a solution that guarantees sovereignty and security for both peoples with claims to the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.
November 2012 presents us with clear and long-ranging consequences. If the United States foregoes its promised punitive actions and instead uses the moment to call on the now-more-equal parties to negotiate the settlement of which they have spoken for two decades, the events of November will be remembered as a bold move that brought peace to the Middle East. If not, if Congress imposes its promised sanctions, not only the Palestinian Authority but Israel and the rest of us will lose. Hamas and its radical fundamentalist allies throughout the region will gain stature, respect and the likely adherence of the millions whose patience has run out.
In this crisis there is opportunity and danger. The decisions made by President Barack Obama and by Congress in the next days will determine whether November produces peace or another bitter harvest.