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Fatah-Hamas Deal Highlights Regional 'Third Way'

Friday, April 29, 2011

Predictably, Israel and the U.S. have reacted to the news of a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal using an outdated lens, whereby the inclusion of Hamas in any Palestinian government rules out the possibility of a negotiated two-state solution. That is most likely true, but it is also irrelevant. The real impact for Israel of the Hamas-Fatah deal, assuming it holds up, is not in its effect on the short-term possibilities, where no peace deal was forthcoming regardless. The impact is on the long-term choices Israel faces. Before the deal, the alternative to a two-state solution was a one-state apartheid system that signaled the end of an Israeli democracy. Now the alternative to a two-state solution, if one exists, is Fortress Israel, which signals the end of any hope that Israel might integrate into its neighborhood.

If this sounds familiar, that's because it is: It's the way things looked before the 1967 War forced the region's leaders, if not its people, to accept the reality of Israel's continued existence. The height of that acceptance was the Arab Peace Plan, but rather than use that offer of a regional accommodation to create a broad set of strategic facts on the ground, Israel pursued a short-sighted strategy of creating a narrow set of geographical facts on the ground, in the form of its West Bank settlement policy. The Hamas-Fatah deal illustrates the degree to which that opportunity has been squandered.

Israel might have been able to impose an apartheid system on a West Bank governed by a U.S.-leaning Fatah, while benefiting from Egypt's help to smother any resistance in Gaza. But the reconciliation deal suggests that both of those pillars of the status quo are now in question. Fatah has apparently internalized the lesson that relying on Washington for a peace deal with Israel is a mug's game. And Egypt is reorienting its regional posture to more effectively pursue its interests.

That reflects the changed dynamics of the region, not just post-Arab Spring, but also post-U.S. decline. It's tempting to argue, in retrospect, that Hosni Mubarak was mistaken to hitch his wagon to the U.S for the past 30 years, and the Palestinians for the past 10. But that would be to discount the strategic landscape of the past 30 years, which made U.S. patronage not only a pretty safe bet, but also just about the only game in town.

That's no longer the case, and Egypt, as well as the Palestinians, need only look to Turkey for an example of the value of complementing a close, if not untroubled, relationship with the U.S. with a large measure of autonomy in regional policy. Whereas before, the choice was between U.S. patronage and the Arab rejectionists, now a third way has opened up that resists binary alignments, allowing for a greater amount of policy improvisation. It is not that Egypt's interests have suddenly changed with Mubarak's fall, but rather that the means available for pursuing them have been enhanced in the past five years in ways that Mubarak's regime was too stultified to take advantage of. The same holds for Hamas, which has a greater incentive to reduce its emphasis on armed conflict with Israel -- and reliance on Iran and Syria -- in an environment where it has greater political options at its disposal. Many have pointed to the Turkey Model as one possible domestic pathway for a post-Mubarak Egypt. But Turkey is also a useful model for a post-Mubarak foreign policy.

This same logic also applies to Israel, for that matter. Israel has always maintained its autonomy vis-à-vis its U.S. patron. But it has been the autonomy of the bunker mentality. Now, Israel risks becoming, once again, the nation-state equivalent of the enclave settlements it still clings to in the West Bank. It would do well to consider the ways in which a diversified regional portfolio, one based on contact and not isolation, is likely to become the new currency of the region, once the current period of renewal has been accomplished.

By every measure, Israel possesses all the necessary elements for successfully diversifying its regional portfolio -- if it could just bring itself to sign off on a two-state settlement. In framing the Hamas-Fatah deal as a barrier to a two-state solution, the Israelis are putting the cart before the horse. Moving forward, the challenge will be to address the logic of the region's strategic landscape as it exists, rather than trying to impose the logic of one's choosing on the strategic landscape, as has been the case for the past 15-odd years.