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Op-ed: Palestinian Civil War Casts Shadow over Peace Talks

President-elect Barack Obama’s refrain of “change” has become a source of inspiration to many American Jews who wish to see Palestinian-Israeli peace talks assume greater importance as compared to the last eight years under President Bush. They have been further buoyed by the fact that Dennis Ross, the former Clinton administration Middle East negotiator and now Obama adviser, recently launched a media offensive to lay the groundwork for regional diplomacy.

While peace is in everyone’s interest, American Jewry should be warned that it will be more difficult to achieve than ever. As if things weren’t complicated enough, new challenges stem from the lack of a Palestinian interlocutor. Indeed, Hamas and Fatah — the two largest Palestinian factions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — are now engaged in a bitter civil war. As long as Hamas and Fatah remain two non-governments ruling two non-states, Middle East diplomacy simply cannot succeed.

As I note in my new book, “Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle For Palestine,” the Hamas-Fatah conflict dates back to the outbreak of the first intifada of 1987. Amid the violence Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, challenged Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction with competing leaflets and guidance on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza.

By 1993, the political rivalry gave way to sharp disagreements and occasional violence over Fatah’s engagement in peace talks with Israel. During the subsequent Oslo years, prompted and armed by Washington and Jerusalem, Fatah cracked down on the suicide-bombing Hamas organization. Quietly, a Palestinian civil war was brewing.

After the peace process collapsed in 2000, Arafat launched the ill-fated second intifada in which both Hamas and Fatah temporarily joined forces against Israel. While Israel responded with force against both factions, its strikes against Arafat’s power structure — the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority — led to the effective dissolution of the quasi-government created by the Oslo process. The territories became lawless. Clans, families and tribes assumed the role of government.

When Arafat died in November 2004, Mahmoud Abbas succeeded him. While Abbas had long been Arafat’s deputy, he lacked Arafat’s charisma. He, too, failed to gain control of the territories.

Chaos and confusion worsened after the Palestinians held elections in January 2006. The Palestinians overwhelmingly supported Hamas, respected for its steadfast resistance to Israel and appreciated by the majority of Palestinians for the suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. The outcome surprised decision-makers in Washington and Jerusalem, who in turn backed Fatah’s efforts to block Hamas from assuming control of the territories.

After more than a year of sporadic firefights and spiteful public exchanges, Hamas launched a military offensive in June 2007 that crushed Fatah’s political and military positions throughout the Gaza Strip. Human rights groups reported that Palestinians were pushing rival faction members off tall buildings to their death, while others were shot point blank in the limbs to ensure permanent damage. Members of both factions were kidnapped off the streets and held without cause.

Since then, two illegitimate governments have separately ruled the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The civil war has continued unabated, despite the best efforts of Arab states seeking to reconcile the conflict, including Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and even Mauritania.

When President-elect Obama moves into the White House in January and sets out to rekindle Palestinian-Israeli peace, he will be faced with a vexing problem: Which Palestinian faction/non-state represents the Palestinians? With whom should Washington negotiate?

If it is Abbas’ Fatah West Bank faction, Obama will be working with an unelected government while effectively ignoring the Hamas regime in Gaza, where an estimated 1.5 million Palestinians reside. If the president negotiates with Hamas, he would be negotiating with terrorists — something that would fly in the face of U.S. policy dating back to the Nixon administration.

It is also worthy to note that amid their clashing, Hamas and Fatah have failed to articulate a vision for the state they insist they deserve. As one Al-Jazeera analyst noted, “The rivalry between Fatah and Hamas had eclipsed demands for putting forward a Palestinian negotiating strategy.”

Until now it is unclear whether Obama and his advisers will address the internecine Palestinian conflict as a key component in their Middle East foreign policy. If they fail to confront this critical issue, we risk engaging in yet another failed round of diplomacy. And as we have seen in the past, failure at the negotiating table can often lead to renewed conflict.

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism analyst for the U.S. Treasury Department, is the director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center and author of “Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine” (Palgrave Macmillan).

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