When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits down with U.S. President Barack Obama tomorrow, the economic plight of the Palestinian citizens of Gaza will be near the top of the agenda. The United States hopes to follow up on Israel's decision to ease its blockade of Gaza, working with the Israeli leadership on further steps that could be taken to allow more goods into the area. Netanyahu, for his part, will no doubt remind the president of the security threat posed by the militant group Hamas, and Israel's need to restrict the flow of any goods that could be used for military purposes.
Although the situation in Gaza is dire, we should not view this dispute solely or even primarily through the prism of economics. The flawed policies of the United States, Israel, and the international community toward Gaza -- and indeed toward the entire Israeli-Palestinian issue -- go far beyond the failure to allow cement and other construction materials into the strip. Without reconciliation between Palestinian factions and the political reunification of the West Bank and Gaza, not only a better future for Gaza but the two-state solution itself will remain out of reach.
Gaza's economic plight is a symptom of a larger failure of U.S. policy. The U.S. approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue -- which sets the tone for policies by Europe and other interested parties -- is based in part on two assumptions that are almost certainly false.
First, the United States assumes that indirect talks between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can lead to direct negotiations, which can then lead to a comprehensive peace agreement that would allow Abbas to outmaneuver Hamas and regain control of Gaza. Secondly, U.S. policymakers believe that a process of internationally funded reform, led by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, can create the strong, efficient institutions needed for a future Palestinian state.
The problem with both of these assumptions is that Palestinian leaders such as Abbas and Fayyad are deplorably weak, due to the deep political, social, and territorial rift between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank enclaves. Without a unified Palestinian community behind him or even a valid electoral mandate, Abbas cannot take risks in negotiations with Israel, one of the many factors -- which also include the lack of will within the Israeli government -- making progress extremely unlikely. And Fayyad's hands are tied in building durable, democratic institutions for many reasons, among them the fact that the Palestinian Authority's legislative branch has been unable to meet in three years, preventing it from making laws and developing political consensus.
Although there is plenty of blame to go around, Washington must evaluate where its policies have gone wrong and stop making the same painful mistakes.
The U.S. inclination to delay, ignore, or manipulate internal Palestinian politics in the service of short-term goals related to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has been a fundamental error in Washington's policies in the region. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton's administration ignored the authoritarian tendencies of then-President Yasir Arafat, allowing him to undermine the elected legislature and develop a corrupt, ineffective Palestinian Authority, which eventually lost popular support. Then, after the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, George W. Bush's administration tried to manipulate internal Palestinian politics to deprive Arafat of power -- only to have Hamas emerge victorious in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections and gain the premiership that had been "empowered" at U.S. behest.