'West Bank first' approach has failed

'West Bank first' approach has failed

Opinion piece (European Voice)
Clara Marina O'Donnell
04 February 2010

The EU must convince the US to abandon a policy whose flawed logic condemns it to failure.

Legislative and presidential elections were due to take place in January across the Palestinian territories. But they have been postponed until June – and there is no guarantee they will take place then either, since there is no sign of an end to the divisions in Palestinian politics that prompted President Mahmoud Abbas to call off the elections.

These same divisions – Abbas controls only the West Bank, while Hamas rules the Gaza Strip – prevent the Palestinians from speaking with one voice in peace talks with Israel. And their persistence underlines that the international community's strategy – to try to negotiate a peace deal with only one of the Palestinian factions, Abbas's Fatah – will fail. The EU now knows this, and it should encourage the US to change its approach. During its last years, the US administration of George W. Bush tried and failed to secure a peace settlement through a ‘West Bank first' approach. It sponsored negotiations between Abbas and Israel's then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, in the hope that the prospect of peace and better living conditions in the West Bank would undermine Hamas's support base. But Abbas's power base was so weak that he could barely speak on behalf of the West Bank, let alone on behalf of all Palestinians. So Israelis had no incentives to make costly concessions.

The corollary of that approach – a refusal by the EU, the US and other international donors, to engage with Hamas, which they view as a terrorist organisation – has been costly for the Palestinian territories, a cost that Israel has compounded by imposing additional sanctions. The nascent Palestinian democratic system has been consigned to limbo. The emergence of government institutions has been handicapped. Development efforts in Gaza have been undermined. And alienation and radicalisation in the Gaza Strip have increased substantially.

Yet Barack Obama's administration remains wedded to the same approach, trying to restart talks between Abbas and the Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu. So far talks have stalled because of disputes over settlements. But even if those obstacles are overcome, the peace effort will fail as long as the Palestinians remain divided. Hamas, with its track record of violent tactics and intemperate rhetoric toward Israel, is an unattractive partner. But progress towards a lasting peace can only be achieved with a united Palestinian government capable of speaking on behalf of all the territories and of delivering on its commitments, not least by ensuring that the chaotic Palestinian factions stop their attacks against Israel.

EU member states have slowly been acknowledging that a Palestinian unity government is necessary. In recent months, even the convictions of Germany, the Netherlands and some new member states – traditionally champions of the policy of isolating Hamas – have shown signs of erosion. In December, the EU came out firmly in support of Palestinian reconciliation and elections across the Palestinian territories. And, significantly, the conclusions of the European Council dropped any allusions to the Quartet conditions – the conditions set by the EU and the US for engagement with Hamas.

But as a junior partner in Middle East negotiations, the EU cannot succeed in influencing events alone. The US must be on board. Some US officials privately recognise that isolating Hamas is not effective. But the administration is constrained by the US Congress, which has threatened to cut off aid to a national unity government involving Hamas. The EU must strengthen its message to the US, including the Congress, to change the current approach. If Hamas stops resorting to violence, the EU and the US should support a national unity government, if it has Abbas's endorsement. New EU firmness may carry the risk of a rift with Washington, but that must be weighed against the even greater risk of countenancing another four years of paralysis – or worse – in the region.