The break between Gaza and West Bank and the peace process

By Mario Sznajder (for Safe Democracy)

Mario Sznajder believes that the violent conflicts between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip demonstrate the inexistence of Palestinian institutionalism in all its magnitude. The asymmetry between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority not only derails any negotiation but it generates a conflict of low intensity in which the Israeli society suffers, but the Palestinian society suffers much more, affirms.

Mario Sznajder is a Leon Blum chair and professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is a researcher for the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. He has published hundreds of articles in scientific journals on fascism, human rights, democracy, and the Middle East.

THE OLD ARGUMENT of the institutional asymmetry creates one of the principle obstacles to the resolution of the Palestine-Israeli conflict, which has been showing itself more than ever these days.

The conflicts between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip, in which Hamas ended up controlling militarily the problematic territory-even more so since being totally dominated by a Hamas that does not negotiate with Israel–, they show in all its magnitude the fragility of the situation and at the same time signal the inexistence of Palestinian institutionalism.

The implications of all this are brought up before a possible accord between the Hamas-controlled part of Palestine and Israel -above all because of the ideological current of radical Islam that refuses to recognize the right of Israel to exist-and bringing the Palestinian society down a winding path with no end in sight.

The most moderate elements-and at the same time most political-of Hamas, headed by Prime Minister Ismael Hanya, have lost control over the armed branch-Az A Din el Kassam-which acts under the leadership of Haled Mashal who, from Damascus, who more and more seems to control not only the Gaza Strip, but the future of the Palestinian National Authority.

Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the Palestinian president, is trying at all costs to avoid civil war, so he is slow to order his troops of the presidential guard (and other armed bodies loyal to Fatah and his contemporaries in Gaza) to attack the forces of Hamas. But the opposition is growing more intense by the moment and the clear political repercussions will be the dissolution of the Palestinian government of national unity, and in the long term, the separation between Gaza (controlled by Hamas) and the West Bank (still controlled by Fatah and the sectors loyal to Mahmoud Abbas).

Israel has refrained, in great measure, from intervening in the internal Palestinian conflicts in Gaza, acting only in relation to the continuous attacks launched by Palestinians, with Qassam missiles, against Sderot and other localities in southeast Israel. Clearly the Israeli attacks, regardless of their nature or intention, are presented by Hamas, as an intervention in favor of Fatah, in his international propaganda battle against Israel, and in turn against Fatah.

However, Israel has abstained from invading or intervening on a large scale in the Gaza Strip, and is also currently going through a transition process, although this time of a different nature, one that is unraveling in time with its level of institutionalization.

The results of the internal elections en the Labor Party, as well as the election of Shimon Peres as president of Israel, are perceived as political victories for the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, who is still charged with the outcomes of the war in Lebanon 11 months ago, the aftermath, the tensions with Syria and Iran and the attacks from Gaza.

Even though Ehud Barak-who won the internal labor election-may have declared that Olmert must eventually assume responsibilities and resign, he hasn’t made that a precondition for replacing Amir Peretz as Minister of Defense. On the contrary. After his internal electoral victory, Barak began to use conciliatory tones not only toward Olmert but also toward Peretz and his contenders within the Labor Party, which puts off an eventual governmental crisis.

Barak as Minister of Defense would contribute his long and successful military history along with the respect and fear that his experience inspires throughout Israel. Without being a vaccine against military adventurism, one could think that from here on out, the Israeli government will feel more self-assured in the vital area of national security.

The election of Shimon Peres as the new president of Israel brings to close the undignified chapter that represented the presidency of Moshe Katsav, so literally impregnated with scandals. Peres-a figure who enjoys great popularity outside as well as inside of Israel-is not only freeing a seat in Parliament and another in the government, allowing Olmert a blind margin of political flexibility that helps him consolidate his authority, but rather in staying in debt with the prime minister (who supported him so much in the election), he will be able to return political favors. And he will do so using his presidential faculties of judicial pardon if Olmert should need them in the future, one of the roots of past legal scandals that continue to follow him.

At the base, what stands out is that Israel’s levels of institutionalism allow the country to resolve internal conflicts, according to the law, through elections and negotiations. The lack of institutionalization on the Palestinian side only generates internal violence.

The asymmetry between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority not only disrupts all negotiation, but rather it generates a low intensity conflict with Israel-Qassam missiles in the periphery of Israel and intents to launch terrorist attacks-in which the Israeli society suffers, but the Palestinian society suffers much more.

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