A lack of clarity is typically a defining feature of political relations. But among Palestinians at the moment, this has become amplified to an unusual degree given the extraordinary number of variables in play, and the regional developments that will affect the outcome. The defining characteristic of the present Palestinian political scene is its opacity. No one knows exactly what is going to happen next, who will do what, what effect it will have, or where the thrust of events is moving.
Every key player now faces crucial choices that will determine their strategic and tactical posture for some time. The overall thrust of recent trends, without question, has been a rise in the political fortunes of Hamas at the expense of the Ramallah-based leadership: the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Palestinian Authority.
However, even Hamas’s limited gains may prove Pyrrhic. Over 175 Palestinian deaths in the recent conflict aside, longer-term realities are starting to bite in Gaza. The damage to the infrastructure and the economy of the fragile, overpopulated area is significant. And the reported easing of the blockade, on both the Egyptian and Israeli sides, does not appear to be either tangible or sustained.
Yet ongoing intoxication at the quixotic “victory” over Israel is politically significant. Palestinians have been starved for anything that resembles proactive agency. They know lobbing rockets in the general direction of not only southern Israel, but now also Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, is almost entirely symbolic. Any damage done is random, unlike Israel’s relatively precise and highly damaging attacks. Yet Hamas has been able to spin the confrontation as some kind of open-ended “victory”.
At a recent gathering in Washington, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad stated with impressive clarity, precision and unusual honesty for a political leader, that recent events constituted a “doctrinal defeat” for the Ramallah leadership.
Recent months have, time and again, delivered serious blows to the doctrines that underlie the PA and PLO strategies: state and institution building on the ground, combined with diplomatic activities at the bilateral and multilateral efforts designed to achieve statehood for the Palestinians.
The “doctrinal defeats” Mr Fayyad was referring to are not decisive. They are merely a trend, but a profoundly dangerous one that must be countered if the Palestinian national movement is to retain practical and international viability. And Hamas has significant problems of its own, both internally and with regard to its new regional sponsors.
But Mr Fayyad’s point was clear: by kidnapping an Israeli soldier, Hamas was able to engineer the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. By “pressing a few buttons,” as he put it, and launching projectiles in the general direction of Israel, Hamas was able to gain regional and international attention. The Emir of Qatar visited Gaza, as did the prime minister of Egypt and the foreign ministers of Tunisia and Turkey. Hamas, through its aggressive tactics, was able to score clear political and diplomatic points regionally and, especially, domestically.
The outcome, however, very much remains to be determined. Israel says it is withholding Palestinian tax revenues until at least March. Arab states have pledged $100 million (Dh367 million) to the PA monthly. But the PA needs $250 million every month to meet payroll and other basic expenditure commitments. Even the pledged Arab commitments, if met, wouldn’t satisfy the PA’s requirements if Israel continues to withhold tax revenues. Such a devastating shortfall can only further undermine the credibility and viability of the PA.
Palestinian national unity is going to happen one way or the other. A permanent political split between Gaza and the West Bank is extremely unlikely, given the strength of the Palestinian national identity. One vision will win out, and one approach will dominate, most probably through the future make-up and policies of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Which vision will prevail depends almost as much on other actors as on the Palestinians themselves. This is not to say that Palestinians lack agency. But there is a very powerful set of incentives that can push them in either direction.
Palestinians by every poll and every survey, like Israelis, want a two-state solution. But, like the Israelis, they do not believe in the other side’s sincerity, and they do not believe it will happen. As long as this is the case, quixotic militarism and maximalist demands by Hamas and other militant groups will reap domestic political dividends.
Palestinian national unity is necessary for both peace and Palestinian political coherence. The question is, on whose terms will it be? The vision of PLO diplomacy and institution building on the ground in the West Bank led by Mr Fayyad? Or the rejectionism, maximalism and “armed struggle”, articulated by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in his recent “victory” speech in Gaza.
Square peg meets round hole. One of them will have to reshape itself to conform with the contours of the other. Either the Palestinian national movement will continue to seek an independent state through negotiations and by building the national institutions on the ground. Or it will be defined by an open-ended “armed struggle” against Israel under an Islamist banner.
This is not simply a Palestinian choice. Israel, above all, but also the United States, the European Union, and other international actors, will have a major role to play in influencing which of these two visions predominates in the Palestinian national movement in the years to come. Regional and international incentives will be a major, if not a decisive factor, in the outcome.
The broad outlines are clear. But with so much uncertainty and instability, and so many key factors in motion, the political challenges and immediate choices facing all Palestinian political actors are unusually opaque and exceptionally significant.