The Seven-Year Itch

The reconciliation deal between Hamas and the PLO is long overdue. And America should welcome it.

As if the Israeli-Palestinian peace process were not in enough trouble, Mahmoud Abbas's Palestine Liberation Organization has gone and signed a reconciliation deal with the militant Islamist group Hamas. This latest move comes just weeks after an earlier Palestinian decision to join various international treaties had thrown a wrench into U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to rescue the peace talks from imminent doom. Now, this round of talks seems well and truly dead: Israel officially suspended talks with Abbas in the wake of the deal, and the United States has expressed disappointment at the deal, adding that it could jeopardize Kerry's efforts to extend the negotiations.

The U.S. Congress will likely respond to the deal by considering cuts to American assistance to the Palestinians, which totals over $400 million per year. U.S. lawmakers have already reiterated their perennial threats to cut financial assistance should the Palestinians move ahead with reconciliation. Such reactions are not surprising, given Hamas's history of violence and its designation by the United States as a terrorist organization.

However, both American and Israeli hostility to Palestinian reconciliation is ultimately misguided. While this week's deal does pose some political, diplomatic, and legal challenges for U.S. policymakers, continuing to oppose Palestinian unity is far more problematic -- and ultimately self-defeating. The fact that the United States and Israel see efforts to bring about Palestinian unity as "troubling" is itself troubling.

It is important to clarify what the new Palestinian reconciliation deal does and does not do. The deal centers on the formation of an interim government to be headed by Abbas and formed on the basis of "national consensus" -- building on previous reconciliation deals in 2011 and 2012 by laying out an implementation mechanism for this process. The main task of the new government would be to prepare for legislative and presidential elections to be held after six months.

Contrary to most media characterizations, the agreement does not call for a "unity government" between Fatah and Hamas. Unlike the short-lived Palestinian national unity government of 2007, which included members of both Hamas and Fatah, the new "government of national consensus" envisioned in the deal would not include members of any political faction but would instead be made up of independents and technocrats who have been approved by all political groups. This subtle but important distinction was deliberately designed to avoid a repeat of 2006, when Hamas's participation in the government triggered an international boycott of the Palestinian Authority.

For most Palestinians, any attempt to heal the debilitating and humiliating seven-year split between Hamas and Fatah is long overdue. In addition to paralyzing Palestinian politics and weakening Palestinian institutions, the self-inflicted nature of the divide has been a source of intense collective shame. Ending the division would bring an end to one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Palestinian national movement.

In virtually any other context, attempting to overcome such a debilitating national schism would be seen as a welcome development. This is exactly the sort of development the United States hails elsewhere in the region: how striking, for instance, that Washington has explicitly and repeatedly called for political inclusion and national reconciliation in Egypt -- while actively opposing the very same for Palestinians.

The fact that no Hamas members would be included in the new government has also done nothing to diminish Israel's hostility toward the deal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence that Palestinians must choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas is cynical and self-defeating. It is completely untenable to present Palestinians with a choice of remaining at war with Israel or remaining at war with each other. Israel's distaste for Hamas is understandable, but it remains a political reality that cannot be wished away or boycotted out of existence. In any case, it is hard to see how a divided and dysfunctional Palestinian entity would be able to make peace, much less enforce the terms of any future deal.

In the end, American and Israeli objections to Palestinian unity go beyond fears of violence and terrorism. After all, Israel and Congress leveled the same threats after Abbas's recent decision to have the Palestinians join international conventions -- and before that, when the Palestinians sought statehood recognition from the United Nations. These Palestinian actions are not only compatible with a two-state solution, but in the case of Palestinian unity, the need for a coherent, unitary Palestinian polity is practically a prerequisite for the goal of achieving two states.

In fact, the only real impact such actions have -- apart from annoying Israeli and American officials -- is to enhance the Palestinian leadership's legitimacy domestically and internationally, and perhaps to strengthen its negotiating position. The fact that they are also deemed harmful to the "peace process," despite being perfectly compatible with the goal of two states, suggests that the United States and Israel believe the process's success is somehow predicated on continued Palestinian weakness.

If Palestinians engaging in international diplomacy and domestic politics are threats to the "peace process," then perhaps it is time to reconsider the process altogether. Although the new arrangement undoubtedly entails challenges for the United States, they are not insurmountable. If President Barack Obama's administration is serious about peacemaking, it should find creative ways to accommodate the Palestinians' basic need for national unity without compromising its own legal and political position.

No political leadership should be forced to choose between national cohesion and international acceptance. Indeed, any credible peace process must allow the Palestinians to have both.



Constitutional Conquest

How Putin could achieve all of his designs on Ukraine -- without sending a single tank across the border.

With the threat of a Russian invasion still heavy in the air of eastern Ukraine, it's understandable that the esoteric subject of constitutional federalism isn't plastered across the headlines. But if the Ukraine crisis is ever going to subside, Kiev and its backers in the West will need to come up with a viable formula for boosting the power of ethnic Russians in the eastern part of the country without giving Moscow everything it wants.

Last week's Geneva agreement between Russia, Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States endorsed the concept of greater autonomy in eastern Ukraine, but the all-important details have yet to be worked out. The urgent imperative for Washington and Kiev is to devise a way to devolve power that stems, rather than accelerates, the centrifugal dynamics that are currently destabilizing Ukraine. The stakes couldn't be higher: A poorly crafted autonomy plan risks helping Russia achieve all of its designs on Ukraine without sending a single tank across the border.

The best place to draw lessons about the risks of autonomy is the Balkans, where a variety of federalization models have been applied to the region's ethnic conflicts. The biggest federalization failure -- and therefore the preferred model for Moscow -- is Bosnia's Dayton Agreement, which provided rebellious Serbs with an autonomous but non-independent entity known as Republika Srpska. Rather than attenuate Serb demands with ironclad security and extensive self-government, this arrangement has had the opposite effect, serving only to reinforce Serb separatism.

Granted both sweeping executive powers and a defined territory over which it has near-wholesale control, Republika Srpska has little incentive to cooperate with the central government in Sarajevo.  Over the last eight years, while the international community's gaze was trained elsewhere, the leadership of Republika Srpska has worked assiduously to erode painstakingly constructed state-level institutions. Numerous desperately-needed governance reforms have stopped; Bosnia's progress towards European Union and NATO membership has stalled out. 

At this point, it is hard to envision a solution to the Ukrainian crisis that better serves Russian interests than Bosnia-style federalization.Without a pliable, Russian-oriented autocrat like the departed Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev, Moscow's imperative is to weaken and delegitimize Ukraine's central government, stymie its advancement towards Euro-Atlantic institutions, and consolidate Russian influence in the east of the country. Ultimately, of course, Moscow would like to see the new "region" eventually hold a referendum to secede, as Crimea has done. But even the threat of secession serves Russian interests: Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik's deft use of this tactic is a powerful demonstration of just how pernicious wide, regional autonomy can be. Underscoring the appeal of the Bosnia model, Dodik visited Moscow last month at the height of crisis over Crimea, proclaimed his unabashed support for Russian policy in Ukraine, and left with a commitment for a whopping €270 million credit line for Republika Srpska.

Ukrainian leaders are wise to this danger, and have already rejected the term "federalism" in negotiations. But the real lesson from Bosnia is the need to go beyond semantics and transfer meaningful power away from the center -- but to the municipal, rather than provincial level. Doing so would give restive minorities a greater stake in government without simultaneously enhancing their ability to sabotage the state, or worse, secede altogether. In this sense, a far better model from the fractious Balkans is Macedonia, which unlike Bosnia, forged a deal with its once-rebellious ethnic Albanian minority to increase their powers both at the central and local government levels without creating any new "regions" or "entities" at all. Doing so has constrained the ability of would-be Albanian separatists to coalesce in a bid to undermine state authority. On the contrary, to realize their communal rights, Albanians must go to the capital, Skopje, and participate actively in central government institutions, thereby reinforcing the country's unity.

Steps to boost Albanian power at the local level, meanwhile, have proven popular across the country, including in predominantly Macedonian towns. To be sure, ethnic divisions, mistrust, and misrule still dog Macedonia, but none is institutionalized as all three are in Bosnia. Unlike Bosnia, Macedonia is a divided, but functioning state that has progressed to the doorstep of NATO membership and kept its EU aspirations in view.

Ukraine's existing constitution provides ample space for local self-government on the Macedonian model. Some western Ukrainian towns like Lviv, for example, are already taking advantage of the arrangement, developing their local economies and increasing their tax revenue independently of the central government. The potentially contested southern town of Odessa, seen as the next Russian domino, has also made moves in this direction. The challenge is to make decentralization at the local level appealing to the east of the country, where a significant segment of the ethnic Russian population has demanded greater autonomy -- not as a way of reforming government, but as a way of perpetuating the role of the state as sole the provider.

Breaking this Soviet-style, statist mentality will take more than just reasserting Kiev's control. If a deal on decentralization is to be struck and implemented, the European Union is going to have to step in with generous programs that reward local self-reliance, and emphasize accountability and transparency in local government. Just as Albanian and Macedonian mayors learned to cooperate with one another in order to wrest powers from the stifling central state, so might Ukraine's successful mayors in the west work together, under EU auspices, with their colleagues in the east to make decentralization work, cooperating in the popular fight against rapacious corruption at the central level.

The United States should work closely with Kiev and its EU partners to develop a package deal for Ukraine's ethnic Russians that is grounded in sensible, broad principles, but also specific on concrete EU assistance programs, particularly at the local level. As part of this arrangement, the Ukrainian government should allow the direct election of all provincial officials, not only in the east but all over the country. (Most decentralization provisions should be uniform throughout the country, so as to prevent the exploitation of special privileges -- like those enjoyed by Crimea prior to its annexation -- to move toward secession.) Language provisions, including the right to use Russian in the national parliament, should be clarified, not just by law but in the constitution. This would amount to an important symbolic commitment to protecting the rights of ethnic Russians. Critically, however, Ukraine should resist efforts to allow the provinces to join together in a formal association like the Serbs in Kosovo have done. Devolving additional power to the provincial, rather than local level, risks deepening divisions and inviting a regional secessionist movement.

Would such a prudent package, backed by serious EU money, have any chance of winning backing from Moscow? Perhaps not at present, but if Washington backs up its tough rhetoric with concrete steps to counter Russian aggression, Ukraine has another card to play: its relationship with NATO. Beyond federalism, Moscow is also demanding that Ukraine promise to remain outside the alliance. The truth is that NATO membership is not in the cards for Ukraine at the moment anyway, given the mountain of reforms that its weak military would need to accomplish and the anxiety many allies feel about bringing in a member with Ukraine's level of security exposure to Russia. It is telling that the alliance has evinced no appetite for advancing Georgia's NATO prospects, even though it is smaller, better organized, and has a stronger military than Ukraine. 

In other words, it is within the realm of possibility to imagine a deal in which Kiev trades its immediate, largely illusory NATO prospects for Moscow's acceptance of a viable decentralization plan backed by the United States and European Union. The deal, of course, would be expressly conditioned on Russian respect for Ukraine's territorial integrity. Should a secessionist movement emerge in the future, Kiev would be free to move ahead with NATO membership -- providing a real incentive for Moscow to actually honor an agreement with Ukraine.

Naked Russian aggression in Ukraine makes it much harder to address the legitimate concerns of the country's ethnic Russian citizens. But Kiev and its Western backers should still be exploring a range of options for doing so, from risky federalism to benign decentralization. As they ponder constitutional revisions, however, they would do well to recall the lessons of the Balkans, lest they unwittingly deliver eastern Ukraine to Russia on a platter.

Getty Images