Analysis: Can Gaza be part of a peace deal?

By Nathan Jeffay, September 28, 2010

Say the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian talks suddenly came good. All issues are resolved, borders are set, and leaders from both sides sign on the dotted line. What then?

More specifically with whom, exactly, will Israel have reached an agreement? Binyamin Netanyahu's negotiating partner is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He is negotiating for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, where 2.5 million Palestinians live, and Gaza, where there are 1.5 million - but there's a problem.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas is more familiar with the inside of Binyamin Netanyahu's home than with the Gaza Strip. While he was recently hosted at Binyamin and Sarah's place, he has not set foot inside Gaza since Hamas took control there in 2006.

In Gaza, he is persona non grata and Hamas leaders - whose rule over the Strip he deems illegitimate - decry his presidency as illegitimate. But if Mr Abbas doesn't control Gaza, does he still have a mandate to negotiate for it?

The answer to this question, at least technically speaking, is clear. Mr Abbas is not negotiating in his capacity of PA President, but as chairman of the PLO. This body is the "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people, according to the Arab states, the UN, the United States and Israel. But a formal mandate is one thing while the ability to implement an agreement that includes Gaza is another.

One school of thought is that there's a circle here that cannot be squared - this is yet another indicator that talks with Mr Abbas will prove fruitless, as he cannot implement an agreement.

Others say that, after 60 years of conflict, it is worth trying the "West Bank first" model. This refers to the possibility that negotiators are quietly thrashing out an agreement for the West Bank while ignoring Gaza. This is a way of moving forward without holding peace hostage to Hamas and, the thinking goes, if the West Bank looks good post-agreement, it will tempt Gazans to demand a similar arrangement.

On the downside, Mr Abbas will not want to drop claims over Gaza, and Israel is looking for a final status agreement and the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - you don't get this if you exclude 1.5 million Palestinians.

As Mr Abbas negotiates with Israel, talks aimed at "national reconciliation" continue between Fatah and Hamas. Some see these as the key to progress on peace, believing that there are figures in Hamas that are willing, within a unity government, to be part of a peace agreement. Others see this as wishful thinking in two respects - the Hamas-Fatah split is too deep to heal, and hatred of Israel is too deep in Hamas for them to sign an agreement.

Perhaps the most optimistic scenario is that the Palestinian constitutional wrangling will be solved by ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not vice-versa. Mr Abbas could reach an agreement covering the West Bank and Gaza and put it to referendum. Glimpsing a real possibility of peace, Palestinians in both territories would give him a resounding endorsement. The agreement would be implemented with a strong mandate and Hamas would be sidelined.

But this scenario, favoured by many in the PLO, has its problems. It hinges on Hamas, which has prevented elections from taking place in Gaza, permitting the referendum which could lead to its demise.

Last updated: 2:14pm, September 28 2010