For years Israeli officials have complained that when it comes to making peace with the Palestinians, they have no one to talk to. Any potential counterparts, they argue, are either not unified, untrustworthy, or aggressive. The various Palestinian leaders have their own grievances about Israel’s intentions and its influence over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But this dysfunctional relationship could be set for a change.
In September, two Arab nations, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, normalized ties with Israel with the possibility of more to follow. Although not peace treaties like those brokered years ago with Egypt and Jordan, the so-called Abraham Accords give Israel new Arab recognition and economic ties. The Palestinian people, who have long relied on Arab support in their hope of gaining a homeland, must now wrestle with a critical question: Can their leaders work together, first in governance, and second in talks with Israel?
For years the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, have been locked in a bitter rivalry. They are divided politically, ideologically, and territorially. Fatah, the heir of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, holds the presidency of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Hamas, the Islamist faction that is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, won a parliamentary election for the Palestinian Authority in 2006 – the last time Palestinians went to the polls. Factional fighting after the election and failure to reach a power-sharing agreement resulted in a five-day war that put Gaza under Hamas control. The two sides have been stuck in a stalemate since then.
Fatah favors a negotiated peace with Israel. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Three years ago, it appeared to drop its longstanding call for Israel’s destruction but has waged a campaign of low-level violence against Israel across the Gaza border.
In July, the two factions began to draw closer in response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vow to annex large parts of the West Bank. Then came the UAE and Bahrain accords, which suspended Mr. Netanyahu’s annexation aims but opened new cracks in Arab-wide solidarity – hastening a Hamas-Fatah thaw. Last week the two factions agreed to hold elections within six months.
It is too soon to know if the agreement signals improved prospects for Palestinians. The historic roots of resistance against Israel run deep. Yet Arab youth across the Middle East – especially Palestinians – show growing political disinterest and disillusionment. Those who can pursue better lives elsewhere often do. Among the masses who cannot, some vent their frustrations through violence toward Israel or factional rivals. That underscores the urgency of the proposed election and an outcome that both sides will honor.
Hamas must break free of its ties to Iran while Fatah must put the social and economic welfare of Palestinians first. Their agreement is an opportunity to turn away from radical goals that have only left stalemate for decades. For its part, Israel should support the election.
Among the 2.2 million Palestinians who have the right to vote, an opportunity to express their aspirations through the ballot box is a welcome alternative to violence. And forging a united Palestinian government with a fresh mandate is an important first step in restarting a long-stalled peace process.