From the New York Review of Books.
The Road from Mecca
By Hussein Agha, Robert Malley
The idea that negotiations conducted bilaterally between Israelis and Palestinians somehow can produce a final agreement is dead. The world, slowly, is coming to this realization. Its fate was sealed in part because neither side has the ability, on its own, to close the gaps between the positions they have taken. The two parties also lack any sense of trust, but that, too, is not an overriding explanation. If bilateral negotiations have become a fast track to a dead end it is because today neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli political system possesses the requisite degree of coherence and cohesion.
On the Palestinian side, the national movement is undergoing its most fundamental, far-reaching, and destabilizing transformation since Yasser Arafat took it over and molded it in his image over four decades ago. The transformation is more complex than a mere question of succession. It is the metamorphosis that comes with the passing of a man who gradually had become the movement and on whom all serious political deliberation depended. Arafat achieved what, before him, was the stuff of unachievable dreams and, after him, has become the object of wistful nostalgia: the identification of man and nation; the transcendence of party politics; and the expression of a tacit, unspoken consensus.
...Arafat bequeathed a system aching to fall apart; it had only a brief, transitional afterlife. After his death, Fatah continued to rule, albeit without the confidence and sense of unquestioned entitlement to which it had grown accustomed. After Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006, Fatah still clung to its former habits of domination, controlling the civil service as well as the security forces and, with only rare exceptions, monopolizing international relations and legitimacy.
...Whatever happens, the Palestinian movement will remain a fluid entity, as difficult to pin down as it will be to pressure or to deal with. The US and Israeli governments will be tempted to ignore the change, persisting in their attempts to isolate Hamas and deal only with non-Islamist members of the government. But it is only a matter of time before such fantasies come crashing down. One of the goals of the US and Israel may be to bolster Abbas, yet nothing has weakened the Palestinian president more than misplaced international attempts to strengthen him. If Hamas feels thwarted in its attempt to share power, it will do what it can—and it can do much—to torpedo Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. One cannot prevent the Islamists from ruling and then expect them to acquiesce in a political process from which they have been kept out. To negotiate with the Palestinian Authority while simultaneously excluding Hamas would be tantamount to negotiating with only one part of the political system, controlling only part of the security forces, and commanding only partial loyalty from a divided, and inherently suspicious, population.
Can Israel's current political system deliver what its Palestinian counterpart cannot? There is cause for doubt. Not so long ago, Israel acted with apparent self-assurance. Prime Minister Sharon had established himself as master of the nation's domestic politics; in the diplomatic world too, he commanded the initiative. Seeking direction, Israelis needed to look no further. He said very little, but what he said was telling: he spoke not of resolving the conflict, but of drawing Israel's borders; not of historical reconciliation with the Palestinians, but of practical separation; not of negotiated agreements, but of unilateral Israeli steps. Captivated, the Israeli people listened; converted, they followed.
How distant that time now seems...
...One can imagine a different approach, extracting the best of multilateralism, of bilateralism, and of unilateralism. One can imagine a new international effort, inspired by but not based on the Arab Initiative, that would stipulate a resumption of negotiations on all tracks and promise full Arab recognition and normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for a comprehensive peace. One can imagine Israeli-Syrian negotiations beginning in earnest. One can imagine unilateral Israel withdrawals from the West Bank — coordinated with President Abbas and with active supervision by a third party acceptable to both sides—developing into full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian negotiations once Palestinians have sorted out their domestic situation and improved their security capacities. One can imagine and hope for such an approach, but one ought not to expect it. For it would demand the kind of political creativity, boldness, and skill that have been disastrously in short supply. The time may yet come. Meanwhile, the wait, and the waste, go on.