When President Obama said last month that "Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist," he was referring to Hamas. In its charter, Hamas calls Palestine an "Islamic endowment" and specifically rules out a peaceful solution to the conflict with Israel. Hamas describes itself as "one of the links in the Chain of Jihad." It uses terrorism to achieve its goals — which include the advance of Muslim power and the expansion of Muslim territory — and its spokesmen openly mourned the death of Osama bin Laden, calling him an "Arab holy warrior" who deserves to spend eternity with the "true believers and the martyrs."
Nevertheless, Obama also made clear that he believes the "peace process" can and must move forward. If the Israelis cannot be expected to negotiate with Hamas, surely they can negotiate with Fatah, the other main Palestinian faction. Though now in the process of forming a coalition with Hamas, Fatah does recognize Israel's right to exist.
Or does it? Azzam al-Ahmed is a member of the Fatah Central Committee. He is closely associated with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. And last week he was pretty clear in an interview with the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. "Fatah has never recognized Israel's right to exist and will never do so," he said.
So by Obama's own reasoning, there are now no Palestinian leaders with whom the Israelis can "be expected to negotiate." And that, in turn, implies that what we call the "peace process," which began with talks in Madrid 20 years ago, is now as dead as Monty Python's parrot. That's big news — though few news outlets are treating it as such.
What they are reporting instead is that Israeli troops have been firing on Palestinian refugees along Israel's border with Syria. The reality: Mobs from Syria — probably not including anyone who actually left his home during a war waged against Israel more than 60 years ago — have been violating Israel's borders, in some cases throwing firebombs. Israeli troops, following numerous warnings to the mobs to turn around, have used force to push them back. If there is a good alternative available, it doesn't occur to me.
It should by now be apparent that both Hamas and Fatah are pursuing the dream not of a Palestinian state that would take its place next to Israel but of a Palestinian state that would replace Israel. Abbas wants not a two-state solution, but a two-stage execution. His approach is essentially the same as that of his predecessor, Yasir Arafat, who spoke — in Arabic, not in English — of a "phased strategy," implying that Palestinians should take any land Israel will surrender and use it as a springboard for the "complete liberation of Palestine."
In the first stage, Abbas will issue a declaration of Palestinian statehood coupled with a demand that Israel retreat to what are misleadingly called the 1967 borders. In fact, these are the lines at which five Arab armies were stopped in 1949 as they were trying to drive Palestinian Jews into the sea. They had already rejected the first offer of a two-state solution.
One result of that war: About 600,000 Palestinian Arabs fled Israel, creating a refugee crisis that, quite purposefully, has never been solved. Palestinian Arabs who remained in Israel, however, became Israeli citizens and now constitute 20 percent of Israel's population, enjoying rights that ethnic and religious minorities are denied throughout what we have come to call the Muslim world.
The 1949 armistice lines remained in place until 1967 when another war was waged by the same armies from the same Arab nations for the same purpose. If at first you don't succeed . . .
In the second stage, Abbas will seek approval for his state at the U.N. He will get it from an automatic majority in the General Assembly: more than 20 Arab members and more than 50 self-described Islamic states. Many Third World and European nations will join the chorus as well, perhaps backing Palestinian claims against Israel with weapons of economic warfare such as boycotts, divestment, and sanctions.
What will happen after that is anyone's guess. With Hamas in its government, the newly declared Palestinian state will be, by definition, yet one more terrorist state in the Middle East. Since terrorist states generally attract few tourists and little foreign investment, Palestine will rely on the "international community" to pay its bills. Its leaders could offer to negotiate with Israel — but they are refusing to do that now, so why would they do that then? Nor is Israel likely to sit down with Hamas — any more than we'd sit down with al-Qaeda. The most likely outcome: another war, sooner or later.
Is there any way off this dead-end road? Palestinian leaders, both those from Hamas and from Fatah, say they now plan to hold elections in 2012. Obama and European leaders have the clout to ensure that Palestinian voters are given a clear choice. Do they want peace with Israel and, if so, are they willing to make concessions and accept sacrifices to achieve it? Or would they prefer to continue the conflict, to fight as long as it takes to defeat and destroy Israel, no matter the cost?
The data — including numerous polls as well as a Foundation for Defense of Democracies study of Palestinian sentiment as expressed through social media — indicate that most Palestinians are likely to choose war over peace. Better to wage an exterminationist jihad than tolerate an infidel nation — the only one left in the broader Middle East from Morocco to Pakistan — as a neighbor. But a free and fair campaign, one that includes a real debate about the choices facing Palestinians might focus minds. It might even change minds.
The last time there was a Palestinian election, in 2006, it was neither free nor fair. No candidate could make an argument in favor of peaceful coexistence with Jews and live to tell the tale. The Bush administration deserves some of the blame for that. The Obama administration has a chance to do better. I'm not betting my paycheck that it will, but you never know.