(JTA) – The Trump administration is encouraging the Palestinian Authority (PA) to assume control of the Gaza Strip and leaving the door open for a role by Hamas in the subsequent Palestinian government.
But if such a move was once seen as a traditional predicate to a two-state solution, top Palestinian leaders are hedging their bets, saying they would not rule out a “one-state” solution in which Palestinians have the same one-person, one-vote rights as Israelis. Israeli leaders have long said that would mean the end of the Jewish state.
Palestinian Authority government officials returned this week to the Gaza Strip, the first en masse visit – by cabinet and security officials along with top bureaucrats – since Hamas’ bloody ouster of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement a decade ago.
It was a visit twice blessed by the Trump administration, first through a statement last week by the Quartet, the grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and Russia that guides the peace process, and again Monday with a statement from Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s top international negotiator.
“The United States welcomes efforts to create the conditions for the Palestinian Authority to fully assume its responsibilities in Gaza, as noted in the September 28 Quartet statement,” Greenblatt said in a statement he posted on Twitter.
The Quartet statement, while itself also abjuring mention of “two states,” made it clear that it foresaw a single Palestinian entity under PA rule. It urged “the parties” – the Palestinian Authority and Hamas – “to take concrete steps to reunite Gaza and the West Bank under the legitimate Palestinian Authority.”
This week’s PA visit to Gaza, brokered by Egypt, a key ally to the United States and Israel, is only for several days, but Husam Zomlot, the PLO envoy to Washington and a top Abbas adviser, anticipated a consolidation of the Palestinian Authority presence there.
Zomlot, speaking Monday to reporters here, noted that Hamas dissolved its governing body last week and said the Palestinian Authority expected this week that Hamas would formally hand over governance of the strip. The final stage, he said, would be elections.
“The return of the Palestinian Authority” to Gaza “is a milestone for the Palestinian Authority and of President Trump’s deal of the century,” Zomlot said, using a phrase Abbas used in a meeting with Trump on Sept. 20.
A signal of the White House’s seriousness is the likelihood that Hamas will continue to play a role in governing the strip. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, heeding Israeli concerns, rejected any role for Hamas in Palestinian governance, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said repeatedly it would be a deal breaker.
Now, however, careful phrasing by U.S. and Palestinian officials strongly suggests that Hamas will not fade into the night. Zomlot called the changes in Gaza “the return of the consensus government,” the joint Hamas-PA venture that existed uneasily in 2006-07 and infuriated the administration of George W. Bush.
Greenblatt in his statement nodded to concerns about Hamas, a U.S. State Department-designated terrorist group, but in language vague enough to accommodate a Hamas role.
“Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel, acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties, and peaceful negotiations,” Greenblatt said.
That elides over earlier Israeli demands that not just a Palestinian government, but all of its components, must renounce violence and recognize Israel.
Netanyahu, speaking Wednesday to a Likud party meeting in the West Bank, maintained – at least in part – a tough line on the terms of a reconciliation acceptable to Israel. He said Hamas must be disarmed, but did not count out explicitly keeping Hamas figures within the Palestinian Authority bureaucracy.
“We expect everyone who talks about a peace process to recognize the State of Israel and, of course, to recognize a Jewish state, and we are not prepared to accept bogus reconciliations in which the Palestinian side apparently reconciles at the expense of our existence,” Netanyahu said in Maale Adumim, a settlement of 40,000 located just east of Jerusalem.
“Whoever wants to make such a reconciliation, our understanding is very clear: Recognize the State of Israel, disband the Hamas military arm, sever the connection with Iran, which calls for our destruction, and so on and so forth. Even these very clear things must be clearly stated,” he said.
Without mentioning the two-state goal, Greenblatt’s statement nevertheless called on the Palestinian government to abide by “previous agreements.” These would presumably include the 2003 “road map” that was to have culminated in Palestinian statehood.
Still, Zomlot said the Palestinians wanted more clarity from the Trump administration.
“We cannot travel a journey without knowing a final destination,” he said. Zomlot referred to Trump’s news conference with Netanyahu in February, when the president said, “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like.”
From the launch of the Oslo process in 1993 until now, Palestinian Authority officials have spoken of a one-state outcome only in pessimistic terms, casting it as a dystopia engendered by a failed process. Last month, addressing the United Nations General Assembly, Abbas in a first for a Palestinian leader said that if the two-state option collapses, Palestinians could embrace one state. It would not be a predominantly Jewish state covering Israel and most of the West Bank, an outcome popular among the Israeli right, but a binational state in which West Bank and Gaza Palestinians have full rights as citizens.
Abbas warned in his UN address that in the failure of a two-state solution, “neither you nor we will have any other choice but to continue the struggle and demand full, equal rights for all inhabitants of historic Palestine. This is not a threat, but a warning of the realities before us as a result of ongoing Israeli policies that are gravely undermining the two-state solution.”
Zomlot expanded on that possibility at his news briefing Monday.
“As long as we mean one man and one woman, one vote, we are fine with this,” he said, adding however that the two-state solution “remains absolutely the best option.”
Zomlot also addressed the Taylor Force Act, legislation named for an American stabbed to death last year by a Palestinian terrorist that would slash funding to the Palestinian Authority as long as it continued to subsidize the families of Palestinians jailed for or killed attacking Israelis.
Palestinians say the payments mostly go to the families of the wrongfully imprisoned. Zomlot said the Palestinians proposed a tripartite commission, to include the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, that would consider whether to remove some families from the payrolls.
“We have engaged with the administration, we have a trilateral commission,” he said. “We would offer to the United States to be the sole arbitrator and we will accept [the decision]. Guess who rejected it? Israel.”
A senior Trump administration official suggested that Zomlot was overstating the offer.
“We only received a brief general outline about this proposal which did not answer key questions or present a viable solution to the real problem, which is the official policy of paying terrorists and their families,” the official told JTA.
A senior Israeli official told JTA that the offer missed the point – the Palestinians can stop the payments on their own.
“The Palestinians don’t need Israel, the U.S. or anyone else, they just need to do it,” the official said. “Unfortunately they won’t.”