Forty years ago this month, Israel stunned the Arab states in six days of war whose consequences are yet to be resolved. Hamas' version of its own six-day war has created new political realities that may be with us for some time to come. Negotiations, conferences and meetings of diplomats and pundits flying around the world will do very little to undo the new realities if we dither and lose the opportunity this crisis presents.
The Palestinian people have paid, yet again, an incalculable price for the decisions of their leaders. The world will stand sanctimoniously by judging the barbaric behavior of a people reduced by degradation, poverty and incarceration. We will hear, as we already have, about the Palestinians losing their moral right to a state because of the abominable acts of the combatants. A mean-spirited public debate will do nothing but fuel hatreds and diminish serious prospects for solutions.
The essence of the historic compromise for peace cannot be anything but a state of Palestine alongside Israel. Israeli and Palestinian rejectionists have consistently frustrated the realist moderates and found ways to block their efforts to bridge the gap between the two peoples in search of a compromise. The right-wing militant Israeli rejectionists have been aided greatly by the violent actions of Palestinian militants, by leftist nationalists in the past or Islamists more recently, to justify and maintain the disasters that the occupation inflicted on the Palestinian people.
Polarizing extremist forces on both sides have understood, but not discussed, the tactical coordination that served their strategies. They both believe that time is on their side, and not that of their opponents, in their exclusive claim to the whole land. The only chance that moderate realists of both sides can achieve a compromise is by having their own tactical coordination. Without hope of a political settlement, violence, in the name of religion and resistance, will polarize and pay off in political dividends. Those Israelis who wanted to maintain the occupation, and to expropriate the land, could not think of better partners than violent Palestinian militants. These militants provide the rationale for the facile argument that there is no Palestinian partner. The danger in their actions lies in the fact that Israel occupies Palestinian land.
Since there is no military solution, the occupation can only end through political means. Winning the hearts and minds of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples for compromise is a strategic tool for peace, while scaring or alienating them is a recipe for continued conflict and occupation. There will always be a constituency amongst both peoples for an exclusive claim to the land. This is the constituency for war and so far it has done well for itself.
The events that happened in the last few days in Gaza are the most significant since the Oslo Agreement. They exposed the gap over the two fault lines that divide the Palestinians: a political one between the moderate realists and the religious absolutists and a geographic and cultural one between Gaza and the West Bank.
Desperate attempts by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to the point of exposing himself to ridicule, and accusations of weakness and indecision have failed to prevent the rupture. In a brutal fratricidal battle, marred by acts of savagery that reveal deep psychological wounds, Hamas routed Fatah and the forces of Mr. Abbas. Abandoned by their military leaders, they were outgunned and outdisciplined and went down to a speedy, humiliating defeat.
Gaza and the West Bank will be governed by two different systems in the immediate future. However, in the long run their fate is one and the same. Gaza has no future by itself and has no choice but to be part of Palestine. Israel has walked away from it and Egypt does not want it. However, in the short run it will be run by Hamas. In a few months, the people of Gaza will be comparing their lives with their cousins in the West Bank: Are they safer, freer, better off? Hamas will have to provide worldly answers to the most densely populated place on the planet with one and a half million people. It has to deal with issues like food, water, electricity, security, schools, and yes — a budget with money in the bank to pay to keep these people alive. It also must deal with its neighbors and the rest of the world.
There should be no doubt that even the most heartless in the international community should not allow the Gazans to starve or suffer extreme want and need. The international economic blockade is unlikely to be lifted soon. Calls for renegotiating with Fatah and Mr. Abbas to reconstruct the unity government or any such device will go unanswered for some time. Hamas will have to fend for itself in Gaza with no other Palestinian partner to provide it cover.
In the West Bank, licking his wounds, Mr. Abbas has taken action. He asserted his constitutional responsibility and dissolved the unity government which he desperately tried to hold together for three months, fired its Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, and asked the respected Salam Fayyad to form an emergency government. By so doing he removed the cover of legitimacy from the mutineers of Gaza and freed his government from the political and economic boycott imposed on Hamas. He at last did what he vowed he would never do: He jumped without a safety net in hopes that the West, Israel and the Arab governments will shoulder their responsibilities. Now that he has confronted Hamas he can legitimately claim his role as a genuine partner with Israel and the international community and enter into serious negotiations to end the conflict about Palestine.
After suffering military defeat and the loss of Gaza, he and the Fayyad government stand to defend a secular, progressive state of Palestine against the rising militant Islamist tide that is spreading across the Middle East. His proving grounds are in the West Bank. It is up to the United States, responsible Arab states and especially Israel to decide whether they will stand with Messrs. Abbas and Fayyad, as genuine partners in establishing a secular free state, or to let them fail and live with the consequences.
The time to help is now: What is needed is a genuine partnership, where Palestinians do their own heavy lifting as their partners extend assistance and support. Israel has to face its moment of truth: no excuses. It has to decide whether it will support and partner with a moderate Palestinian state in words and in deeds or will face a religious militant movement that will drag it and the region into a holy war. Avoiding this partnership now is political malpractice. Palestinians have to declare the indivisibility of their future state in the West Bank, Gaza and Arab Jerusalem as they negotiate final-status issues based on previous agreements and discussions. Creative solutions can overcome all obstacles if a strategic partnership is forged between the Palestinians, Israelis, moderate Arabs and the United States. A political horizon is indispensable for the political transformation that must take place in Palestine and will govern its relations with its neighbors and the world.
The emergency government of Mr. Fayyad has to provide the following:
n A defined, competent security leadership that can impose its will across the land under its control. It must prevent efforts to undermine it.
n A palpable improvement in the economy and mobility that is widely spread and benefits citizens of all classes.
n A prompt and serious commitment to accountability, transparency and rule of law. An attorney general and a special tribunal should be authorized to weed out corruption from this moment forward and to impose the most stringent penalties.
n It has to inspire the people, level with them, and work with them to build a nation and a state. Let the citizens make their contributions.
The international community has to express its support for this government by specific and immediate measures:
n Israel needs to release Palestinian tax money, promptly remove all non-security roadblocks and checkpoints and put an end to the humiliating encounters between its government employees and Palestinian citizens. The carrots and sticks at Israel's disposal should now be used to empower moderation.
n The United States has to publicly and openly provide funds and systems of assistance to the Palestinian government. President Bush also has to express his commitment to the two-state solution as he reiterates and redefines his vision for a lasting peace.
n Arab governments, as they offer to negotiate on the basis of the Arab League Initiative, need to provide immediate financial contributions to the Palestinian economy.
n Egypt and Jordan need to play a special role in stabilizing the political and security needs of the new Palestinian government.
n The Quartet needs to enter into immediate negotiations with the emergency government to provide coordinated assistance to all government departments and civil society. It must resume its political role to revise and update the Road Map with the view of implementing a political program that aims at ending the conflict. Palestinians should expect political and violent opposition in the West Bank directed against the government, the people and also against Israel and they must deal with it.
Their dream of ever having a state rests on their success at this beginning. Politics, national and domestic, have consistently thwarted efforts of politicians to do what they know they must to solve this conflict. Present leaders who have everything to gain, and little to lose, in the United States, Palestine and Israel have an opportunity for a historic breakthrough by committing to solve it. The world cannot wait for them to act.
Ziad Asali is president of the American Task Force on Palestine.