Imagined Partners

Gloria Center- 25/03/2008

The Middle East is currently divided between an alliance of radical Islamist and associated states and organizations, which take support and inspiration from Iran, on the one hand, and a coalition of pro-Western states, on the other. The “Annapolis process” is based on the expectation that Fatah will play the role of the pro-Western, pro-stability element among the Palestinians. The facts indicate, however, that for both structural and ideological reasons, it is neither able nor willing to play this role.

In a curious reversal of normal scientific practice, the failed experiment of the 1990s peace process is now being performed again. Its architects tell us, contrary to all available evidence, that this time the results will be different. They won’t be. Instead, de facto cooperation between the region’s moderate states will serve to contain the local pro-Iranian forces. The “peace process” meanwhile, is likely to continue in virtual reality alongside this; never reaching a successful conclusion, and still not quite being pronounced dead.

The problem is not simply the internal disarray of Fatah, which did not undergo any major reform after its election defeat to Hamas two years ago. More significant is the set of core ideas upon which this movement is based, and to which it remains committed.

When Israel commenced a negotiating process with Fatah in the 1990s, it assumed that the latter had accepted that its goal of the destruction of Israel – while still in its view just and morally laudable – was for the moment impracticable. The hope was that, as the movement was drawn into the practical, day-to-day affairs of governing, its adherence to the politics of symbolism – best represented by the “right of return” – would be replaced by a sober, practical outlook. When that didn’t happen, the consequence was the collapse of the process, and the bloody years of 2000-2004.

In the interim period, change has been mainly in a negative direction – with those elements in Fatah opposed to political realism being strengthened. Today, influential elements within the movement openly reject the possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict. These include both powerful figures within the old Tunis leadership – such as Farouk Kaddoumi – and up-and-coming leaders in the West Bank – such as Ziad Abu Ein. Analysts are also noting the increasing prevalence of Islamic theological motifs in the symbols used by armed Fatah factions. Such Fatah-associated forces as the Abu Rish Brigades in Gaza, and the Brigades of the Return now openly speak the language of political Islam.

Nor is Mahmoud Abbas accepted as the single, final voice of authority in the movement. Rather, different elements of Fatah appear to be pulling in precisely opposite directions. Thus, while the PA leadership continues to hold regular meetings with Israeli officials, last October several Tanzim men plotted the assassination of Ehud Olmert in Jericho. And while the PA issues its official condemnation of the terror attack at Mercaz Harav, Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade hailed the attack as a “heroic operation” in response to “Israeli atrocities.”

Thus the question logically arises: What is an alternate strategy for stability in the West Bank?

Since the death of Yasser Arafat, in 2004, the fragmenting of Palestinian nationalism has led to the gradual revival of the concept of Jordanian re-engagement in the area. There are various ideas for the form this would take – from an eventual Jordanian-Palestinian confederation to the idea of a temporary Jordanian military presence to aid or replace the PA security forces (and augment the de facto IDF presence in the West Bank, which currently prevents it from falling into Hamas’ hands).

In all these notions, the implicit idea is that Jordan, as a senior partner, could offset the dysfunctional structural and ideological elements weakening Fatah. As the current process continues to travel in circles, such ideas are gaining ground behind the scenes. Jordan’s recent decision to connect the town of Jericho to the Jordanian electricity grid is an example of the incremental, growing involvement of Amman on the ground. Jordan’s regaining control last year of the Waqf on the Temple Mount offers a further example.

The motivation for increased Jordanian de facto involvement is simple. The Jordanians have at least as much to fear from a Hamas-dominated West Bank as Israel does. Again – what is on offer here is not a political solution. Because of the nature of Palestinian politics, this is not currently a possibility. So what is happening instead is the quiet emergence of cooperation between the responsible forces in the area – Israel and Jordan – to contain the growing influence of the local representatives of the Iran-led alliance.

There are at least initial indications that a similar process of joint containment of the Hamas enclave in Gaza by Israel and Egypt is beginning. In Gaza, however, because of the reality of existing Hamas rule, it is less likely that stability and containment will hold, and large-scale military action at some point in the future remains the most likely prognosis.

In the meantime, the coalition of political interests that gave birth to Annapolis will continue on its merry way. But the emergent reality of regional cold war necessitates sober strategic thinking. One of the results of this – in reality if not immediately on paper – is likely to be the reversal of the 16-year-old Israeli wrong turn of seeking peace with an opponent that neither sought nor was able to accept coexistence with the Jewish state.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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