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After Annapolis’ failure: The chances of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process

The Annapolis conference: big expectations, few outcomes
A superficial review of the conditions in which the Annapolis conference took place may bring us to ask the question, ‘What went wrong?’

At the time of the conference, which was held on 27 November 2007,[1] there seemed to be all the necessary elements for starting successful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to be concluded with a peace agreement by the end of 2008.

The first element was the unprecedented commitment of the US President, George W. Bush to achieve a peace agreement no later than December 2008:[2] A commitment publicly declared in the Annapolis’ Joint Understanding.[3]

The second element was the declared willingness of the Israeli government led by Ehud Olmert to engage in serious negotiations on all the final status issues with the aim to reach the agreement by the end of 2008.[4]

The third element was that those negotiations were to be held by the most collaborative Palestinian leadership ever seen in history by both the United States and Israel.[5]

Finally, there was the massive high-level attendance of the Arab world to the Annapolis conference including the PNA, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria and the representatives of 9 more Arab countries.[6]

So again, ‘Why was a peace agreement in 2008 beyond reach? Why did the Annapolis peace process end with an Israeli military intervention in the Gaza Strip instead of a peace accord? What will be the consequences of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead on the peace process?’

The provisions of the Annapolis’ Joint Understanding

According to the commitments taken with the Annapolis’ Joint Understanding, The Israelis and the Palestinians agreed ‘to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations’ and to make every effort to conclude a peace accord before the end of 2008.[7] In this respect it seems that vigorous negotiations among the teams led by Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei actually took place during the last year, even if there are few details about their content.[8]

Problems arouse with the commitments required as preconditions to the signing of the final status agreement, i.e. the immediate implementation of the parties’ obligations under the 2003 Road Map sponsored by the Quartet, which aims to a permanent two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[9]

The Israelis were required to freeze all settlement activities beyond the 1967 borders but the Palestinians as well as Israeli NGOs[10] contends that between December 2007 and November 2008 ‘settlement construction including both housing and infrastructures, continued at an accelerated pace throughout the West Bank, particularly in and around Jerusalem’. [11] Moreover, the Palestinians argue that since the Annapolis conference, ‘Israel has failed to implement any of its Road Map obligations thus far […] with respect to: (1) settlement activity, (2) attacks against Palestinians and their property, (3) internal closures, (4) Jerusalem institutions, and (5) other Road Map obligations’.[12]

The Palestinians were required to immediately cease all violent activities against Israelis and to dismantle all militia infrastructures present in the Palestinian territories and not belonging to the Palestinian Security Services (PSS). Again, between 2007 and 2008 several Palestinian groups inside the Gaza Strip have been striking inside the Israeli territory with rockets and mortar shells[13] and they also carried out a suicide bombing attack in Dimona on 4 February 2008.[14] Even the short-term lull arrangement (tahdi’a) reached with Hamas on 17 June 2008[15] and enacted on June 19th [16] collapsed after the resumption of hostilities on 4 November 2008.[17]

All this occurred regardless of the efforts spent by both sides during the peace talks. In August 2008, roughly one month before its resignations, Israel’s premier Ehud Olmert proposed an agreement under which Israel was to return up to 93% of the occupied territories and which entailed a withdrawal from some settlements in the West Bank – a proposal promptly rejected by President Abu Mazen.[18] On the Palestinian side President Abu Mazen has started reforming the PSS[19] in order to both reduce the number of the security agencies and favour the replacement of the security commanders by younger officers. He also has launched a campaign aimed at strengthening Fatah’s control over security in the West Bank through successive deployments of the PSS in Nablus,[20] Jenin[21] and Hebron[22].

The answer requires a deeper analysis of the facts on the ground which will led us to conclude that – perhaps – the Annapolis peace process was flawed from the beginning.

The Bush Administration’s engagement

A first flaw was the low effectiveness of the Bush Administration’s effort regardless of the declarations made after the Annapolis conference.

In 2002 whilst the Second Intifada was still going on, President Bush took a tough stance by refusing to talk with the late Yasser Arafat and called for the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership.[23] One year later Bush’s approach was enshrined into the Road Map which required – among other things – the cessation of all violent activities against Israel and the dismantlement of the Palestinian militia infrastructures as preconditions for starting final status negotiations.[24] Nonetheless, it seems that already in 2002 Arafat’s power was waning.[25] After the death of Arafat,[26] The Palestinian leadership of Abu Mazen was left with weakened security services which will subsequently prove unable to guarantee the monopoly on the use of force to the PNA government. In this contest a new and more radical Islamist leadership was slowly emerging both from a political and military point of view – the Hamas leadership. Indeed, since 2002 the Bush Administration had been refusing to talk with President Arafat on the ground that the latter was responsible for the terrorist activities carried out against Israel. The result was a ‘hands-off’ policy[27] towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that contributed to its paralysis and rendered possible or necessary – according to the points of view – the adoption of unilateral solutions by Israel. An example was the 2005 Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip,[28] which left the camp free for the subsequent Hamas’ military takeover.[29]

According to media accounts, it seems that the Bush Administration was taken by surprise by Hamas’ victory of the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. The US and the other countries of the Quartet reacted quickly by applying a tough approach. On 30 January 2006, the Quartet declared that any future assistance to the new government would be conditioned to its acceptance of three principles: renounce to violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations.[30] As a consequence; When the Hamas’ government was sworn in on 17 March 2006 and refused to recognize Israel, the international community immediately adopted political and economic sanctions against it.[31]

If this assessment is correct the decision to hold the Annapolis conference and to promote a peace agreement by the end of 2008 was a big switch in US policy but the time was running against it. The facts on the ground had changed already. The Israeli government led by Kadima was not strong enough to engage in a final status agreement and Abu Mazen could not decide for the people of the Gaza Strip anymore.

Moreover, the shadow of Iran was looming large on the Annapolis conference. The concern among Sunni Arab countries for the rising Iranian power status in the Middle East[32] as well as the need to approach Syria in order to weaken the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah-Hamas alliance[33] may help to explain the large Arab participation in a summit that looked flawed from the beginning.

The weakness of Olmert’s government

A second problem was the inner weakness of Olmert’s government, due to the fragmentation and polarization of Israel’s political system. Kadima and the Labour Party engaged in the peace process but together they could count only on a majority of 48 seats out of 120 in the Knesset, which felt short of the 61 seats required for forming a government. That means that they had to form a coalition with three more parties – Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu and Gil – who were much less committed to the peace process. On January 2008, soon after the Annapolis conference Yisrael Beiteinu dealt a first blow to the peace process by withdrawing its 11 lawmakers from the ruling coalition.[34] A second blow was dealt by Gil’s split on 2 June 2008, which caused a further loss of 3 lawmakers for the ruling coalition.[35] From then on Olmert’s government was supported by only 64 lawmakers and Shas enjoyed a veto power over the peace process, thanks to its 12 lawmakers. Shas adopted an uncompromising stance over the key issue of Jerusalem,[36] but its request to not divide Jerusalem could not be accepted by the Palestinians and seriously undermined the outcome of the negotiations.[37]

The inner weakness of Israel’s current political system runs against the peace process in light of the Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip. Only a strong Israeli government can negotiate with the PLO while fighting an asymmetric war with Hamas. On the contrary, Olmert’s majority has not been cohesive at all and Hamas could potentially exploit this weakness to torpedo the peace process by strategically-timed attacks against the Israelis. Every time Hamas resumes violence it legitimates the requests for a tougher negotiating stance, or for a suspension of the negotiations coming from those parties inside and outside the ruling coalition that are hostile to the peace process. Thus, a fragmented and polarized ruling coalition gives to the forces, which are hostile to the negotiations, the power to undermine both the stability of the Israeli government and the continuation of the peace process. Without a strong ruling coalition, the next Israeli government may decide to freeze the peace talks in order to focus its efforts toward the most urgent problem, i.e. the asymmetric war against Hamas – given that the top priority will be to counter the threat of a nuclear Iran. This conclusion is based on the assumptions that as long as Hamas do not accept the Quartet preconditions, Israel’s decision-makers will absolutely refuse both to grant political recognition to Hamas government and to recognize Hamas’ leadership as a partner in negotiations. In fact, Israel currently can control both Hamas and Fatah thanks to its military supremacy as well as the ongoing political and geographical division among Palestinians – according to old rule of divide et impera. And this is true also in the absence of a peace accord.

Fitna inside the Palestinian society: The political and military rise of Hamas.

The three phases of the internecine Palestinian struggle:

The third and most important factor has undoubtedly been the rise of Hamas. Like every Islamist movement, Hamas has probably been working on the basis of a clear and long-term strategy not vulnerable to political contingencies (such as the parliamentary elections) and which risks to weaken the Palestinian cause for an independent state for the years to come.[38] Hamas’ movement seems characterized by the following traits: (1) a strong Islamist ideology, (2) a nationalist political agenda limited to the territories of Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank,[39] (3) a strong militia capable of fighting according to the principles of the asymmetric warfare, (4) a da‘wa infrastructure capable of providing assistance to the poorest members of the Palestinian population as well as to the “martyr’s” families and of winning their consensus to the movement’s Islamist ideology and agenda. This structure apparently represents the current backbone of Hamas’ de facto administration in the Gaza Strip and is in contrast to the democratic principles informing the PNA.

During an interview, the late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin allegedly described the four-stages strategy he had followed to build Hamas’ movement: Firstly: The development of the movement’s institutions, such as charities and social committees, in order to recruit the manpower of the “resistance”; Secondly: Strengthening the roots of the “resistance” in every Palestinian house through the armed confrontation against Israel (intifada); Thirdly: The improvement of Hamas’ military capabilities; Finally: The establishment of a dialogue with the Arab and Islamic world.[40]

If this account is confirmed then it is impressive in the way it fits with the history of the internecine struggle for power between Hamas and Fatah, which can be divided into three phases: (1) 1964-1987: Fatah leads the “resistance”; (2) 1987-1993: the competition between Hamas and Fatah for the leadership of the “resistance”; (3) 1993-present: Hamas leads the “resistance”, Fatah leads the peace negotiations with Israel.

The third phase can be divided in three sub-phases: the period from 1993 to 2005 is characterized by Fatah’s political monopoly of the PNA; from 2006 to 2007 there had been a Hamas-Fatah duopoly inside the PNA; finally, Since 2007 there has been a Hamas-led government in the Gaza Strip and a Fatah-led government in the West Bank so the Palestinian division has become a geographical reality.

Phase 1 (1964-1987): Fatah leads the “resistance”

In the 1970s whilst Israel was fighting against its future partner in negotiations, i.e. the PLO led by Yasser Arafat and the Fatah leadership, a different Palestinian leadership was sowing the seeds of division (or fitna) inside both the Palestinian society and the Palestinian national movement. It seems that between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had been involved in the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in Gaza. According to its 1989 confession in front of the Israeli interrogator he founded an Islamic society in 1976 and in 1978 he registered al-Mujama al-Islami in front of the Israeli authorities.[41] During the 1970s it seems that Yassin’s Islamist organization was focused on building its da‘wa infrastructure by providing social, medical, financial, educational and religious assistance to the needy inside the Palestinian Territories. At that time Yassin’s Islamist organization was not engaged in violence, but it was probably using its da‘wa activities in order to win the Palestinian consensus for its Islamist model of Palestinian society – which was in stark contrast with Fatah’s model of secular society.

The simmering clash between this two competing models began to emerge when Shaikh Yassin reportedly started building a militia in the 1980s[42] and became evident in 1987 after the outbreak of the first Intifada, when he announced to the world that Hamas was born[43].

Phase 2 (1987-1993): The competition between Hamas and Fatah for the leadership of the “resistance”

According to the biography released by the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades, in 1986 Salah Shehada was leading a cell called “Palestinian Fighters” (al-Mujahidoon al-Filastinioon).[44] After the outbreak of the first intifada[45] the “Palestinian fighters” started to forge their military capabilities by fighting against Israel’s forces and subsequently formed the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing. In 1994, Yahia Ayyash aka the “Engineer” apparently enabled Hamas to carry out its first suicide bombing attack inside Israel, i.e. the Afula Bus bombing.[46]

This event well express the fact that during the intifada Hamas had been gradually improving its military capabilities by developing suicide bombers in order to gain a leading role in the “resistance” to the detriment of Fatah and the PLO. During the same period, Yasser Arafat was gradually abandoning the armed struggle in order to engage in the peace process with Israel.

Indeed, it seems that since the beginning Hamas has been competing against Fatah to win the Palestinian consensus and that the two factions had been cooperating only for brief periods and for the contingent interest of fighting the common Israeli enemy.[47] This competition is symbolized by the disagreement between Hamas and Fatah over who really initiated and led the first intifada, given that each movement claim to be the sole responsible for the outbreak of the uprising. Thus, the emerging role of Hamas inside the “resistance” was alternative rather than complementary to Fatah’s role. During the 1990s, the Fatah-dominated PSS had the upper hand against Hamas and were able to control the Palestinian Territories.[48] Ten years later the power balance was going to shift to the other side.

Phase 3 (1993-present): Hamas leads the “resistance”, Fatah leads the peace process with Israel

Since the 1991 Madrid peace conference, Fatah’s leadership, including inter alia Yasser Arafat (until 2004), Abu Mazen, Ahmed Qurei and Saeb Erekat has been the only negotiating partner of Israel in the peace process.[49] Already in 1988 Yasser Arafat had de facto recognized Israel with the Algiers declaration.[50] In 1991, the Palestinian delegation officially participated at the Madrid conference and agreed to start Israeli-Palestinian bilateral negotiations. Finally, in 1993 Chairman Arafat and Israeli PM Yitzak Rabin recognized each other as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians and the Israelis respectively through an exchange of letters[51] and later signed the Oslo accords.

Nonetheless, in the same period Fatah’s has been gradually losing the leadership – and hence the control – of the Palestinian armed struggle or “resistance” against Israel in favour of Hamas. This development had a far-reaching consequence: The more Hamas was increasing its military strength vis-à-vis Fatah, the less it was willing to accept Fatah’s political leadership of the Palestinian national movement. As a result; in a context in which there are two competing leadership of the Palestinian national movement, Israel currently is negotiating with Fatah while boycotting Hamas.

1993-2005: Fatah’s political monopoly of the PNA

Between 1993 and 1995, Israel agreed to the development of the PNA infrastructures in the Palestinian Territories, which were meant to be a five-year Palestinian interim administration (the Palestinian Council).[52] Finally, Yass3er Arafat became the first President of the PNA, after winning the January 1996 Palestinian election. Between 1993 and 2004, Yasser Arafat had been dominating both the Palestinian national movement and the PNA institutions. Nonetheless, after the outbreak of the second intifada its leadership probably was weakened by several concurrent factors. Firstly: the progressive deterioration of his health condition; Secondly: Arafat’s inability to conclude a peace agreement after almost ten years of negotiations with Israel; Thirdly: the growing rejections of Fatah’s rule among the Palestinians probably motivated by the excessive length of Arafat’s supremacy and the growing perceptions of corruption inside the PNA;[53] Fourthly: the demolition of the very PNA politico-military infrastructures carried out by the IDF between 2001[54] and 2004;[55] Finally: the steady improvement of the capabilities of Hamas’ militia, which since 2001 had started launching rockets against Israel.[56]

In 2005, after the end of the second intifada and Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, President Abu Mazen inherited a partially demolished, ineffective PNA and an internally divided Fatah movement.[57] On this basis, he had to manage an electoral campaign against the far more disciplined and cohesive Hamas movement.

2006-2007: The Hamas-Fatah duopoly inside the PNA

Ten years after the first Palestinian elections, the balance of power between Hamas and Fatah was going to switch in favour of the former. In 2006, Hamas won the elections[58] by presenting candidates who had never exercised political power inside the PNA. It is telling that whilst the Fatah list obtained 28 seats against Hamas’ 29 with the proportional system, Fatah candidates were soundly defeated in face-to-face competition against Hamas’ candidates (17 to 45).[59] After the elections, Hamas was controlling the Palestinian Legislative Council and the Government[60] while Fatah was controlling the Presidency, the PSS and the PLO (currently the only recognized Palestinian representation abroad). As a consequence; Between January 2006 and June 2007 the PNA and the Palestinian Territories had been ruled by a duopoly of Fatah-Hamas. Such a duopoly would have required a great deal of cooperation between the two factions in order to successfully manage both the PNA and the peace process with Israel. In the aftermath of Hamas’ electoral victory many analysts were wondering if Hamas was able to abandon the armed struggle and adopt a pragmatic approach in view of its new governmental responsibilities.[61] The question was a legitimate one given that for the first time Hamas had the opportunity to actively participate in the Palestinian government. The first signal was not encouraging. The 12-point political programme presented by Hamas was claiming its legitimate right of resistance to end Israel’s occupation and did not recognize Israel[62], thus disregarding the three Quartet’s preconditions.[63] As a consequence; The PLO rejected it[64] and Israel,[65] the United States and the EU began a political and economical boycott against the PNA as a whole in order to weaken Hamas’ government and coerce it into changing its behaviour or , alternatively, into resignation[66]. Inside the PNA, the cooperation between Hamas and Fatah required to manage it did not materialize. It seems that many Fatah leaders were wary to yield their power to Hamas after ruling for so many years and acted has they had never lost the elections. On the contrary, Hamas was unable to abandon its militant status and acted as it never won the elections.

There is no agreement about the reasons behind the failure of Hamas’ government. A first question is if Hamas was aware of its incoming electoral victory: Some contend that Hamas was not expecting it.[67] Others suggest that Hamas’ leadership knew about it but thanks to the discipline of its members, was able to conduct an operation of deception in order to hide his intentions to the world.[68] A second question relate to the ruling ability of the Hamas leadership. A first explanation could be that Hamas was ready neither to rule the PNA nor to abandon the “resistance”. A second explanation could be that Hamas’ leadership was able to rule, but the combined effect of Fatah’s internal sabotage and the international boycott hindered the action of his government. A third explanation could be that, regardless of its awareness of the coming electoral victory or the sabotage to its action, Hamas’ leadership was simply not interested in ruling the PNA given its Islamist nature and agenda.

In the light of the often contradictory statements released by different Hamas leaders on this point, the only reasonable way to deduce Hamas’ intentions is by observing its everyday behaviour. That is to say that what matters most is the final outcome of Hamas’ internal decision-making process, regardless of the possible different opinions inside its leadership. It is a matter of fact that since 1988 Hamas’ leadership has not repealed the clause of its statute calling for the destruction of Israel. On the contrary in 2006, when it was offered the occasion to abandon the armed struggle and recognize Israel in order to rule the PNA, Hamas was not willing or able to abandon the “resistance” against Israel.[69] On the other side of the coin, it seems also true that since the beginning Hamas’ government has been targeted by both the undeclared sabotage of Fatah and the declared sabotage of Israel, the United States and the EU.

There have been periodical accounts relating to splits inside Hamas’ leadership: Some refer to a split between the allegedly hardline Damascus-based politburo and the allegedly more pragmatic Gaza-based leadership[70]. Other accounts refer to a split between the civilian leadership and the military commanders inside the Gaza Strip, where the former is said to be more flexible and the latter to be unwilling to renounce to the armed struggle.[71] It is not clear if those reports signal a mere difference in opinion or a deeper conflict among pragmatists and hardliners. What is clear is that until 2008 the hardliners were prevailing, regardless of any division that might exist inside the leadership of Hamas.

Before the 2006 elections the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas was one between the PNA and a Palestinian Islamist opposition movement. In 2006, that same rivalry was translated inside the PNA with devastating effects for the functioning of the latter.

Even an analysis of Hamas’ military capabilities seems to confirm that Hamas is not going to abandon the “resistance” soon. Since 1987 Hamas has been improving its military capabilities by adding new deadly weapons to its arsenal, such as suicide bombers in 1994 and rockets in 2001.

During the Hamas-Fatah duopoly of the PNA, which lasted from January 2006 to June 2007, Hamas had been sustaining a vigorous military build-up in the Gaza Strip. In April 2006, Hamas announced the formation of a 3000-strong “Executive Force” with internal security duties.[72] Hamas probably deemed necessary to build its own internal security force in order to avert any possible plot against its rule in Gaza; this fear may have been strengthened by the loyalty of the 12 PSS’ agencies to the rival Fatah as well as the international boycott against Hamas.[73] The emergence of an internal security force loyal to Hamas and independent from the PSS chain of command (but under the control of Hamas’ Interior Minister) threatened the most important source of Fatah’s power – the monopoly on the use of force. As a consequence; Immediately after Hamas had deployed its “Executive Force” in May 2006,[74] President Abu Mazen reacted by massively deploying the PSS in the Gaza Strip.[75] From then on the Palestinian society ruled by the Hamas-Fatah duopoly has been periodically ripped by factional clashes among Hamas and Fatah.[76] Twelve years after the 1995 Dahlan’s crackdown against Hamas, the balance of power had shifted in favour of the latter. In fact, it seems that Hamas new security force was better trained and equipped compared to the PSS in Gaza.[77]

In February 2007 Hamas finally agreed to form a national unity government with Fatah, after an outbreak of intra-Palestinian violence claimed at least 29 lives in January. But the reconciliation was only on the surface.[78] Since 2006 Hamas had been continuing its military build-up and Fatah had been refusing to fully cede power to the former: in June 2007 the seed of division sowed in the weg1970s finally sprout in the Palestinian society.

2007-present: Hamas’ government in the Gaza Strip v. Fatah’ government in the West Bank

With the June 2007 Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip the Fatah-Hamas duopoly became a geographical reality.[79]

Since June 2007 Israel has been adopting a double-track strategy based on dialogue with the Fatah/PLO leadership in the West Bank and the parallel boycott of Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.[80] On 19 September 2007, Israel declared the Gaza Strip a ‘hostile territory’[81] and further increased the pressure on Gaza’s civilian population in order to overthrow the Hamas government.[82]

Fatah’s leadership refuse