This week Haaretz reported an unusual event: a meeting in Hebron between leaders of the Jewish settlement there and 30 of the city's Palestinians, including representatives of Hebron's largest clans, Jabri and Abu Sneineh. The Jews thanked Sheikh Abu-Hader Jabri for preventing the demolition of an illegal outpost, in which a synagogue had been established. In the wake of the meeting, some of the Palestinian participants were summoned for questioning by the Palestinian Authority Hebron region commander, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade put up posters throughout the city condemning them as collaborators. Sheikh Jabri justified the meeting in light of what he called the PA's powerlessness.
In recent months, two processes have been unfolding in the West Bank. The first is a shift in power and initiative, from the central government to civic forces (clans, dignitaries, merchants) and local authorities. The second is the willingness of the latter to speak with Israelis (settlers, businesspeople) to solve local problems.
These developments are symptoms of the grave crisis affecting the Palestinian national movement. In the mid-1960s, under Yasser Arafat's leadership, that movement emerged from the crisis that had plagued it since Israel's 1948 War of Independence. Nearly three decades of armed struggle later, it reached mutual recognition with the State of Israel and managed to establish an autonomous government in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - with solid prospects for turning the PA into a Palestinian state.
The collapse of the negotiations on a permanent arrangement in late 2000 and the intifada that broke out afterward seriously weakened the PA institutions. By the time Arafat died, in November 2004, the national movement was in tatters. Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza laid the foundations for the emergence of separate development tracks for it and the West Bank, and for the Hamas takeover in Gaza.
Hamas presents multiple challenges to the secular Palestinian national movement. There is the daily political and military challenge posed by an efficient and violent organization to a weak national movement. But there is another challenge, one that posits the superiority of an Islamic community to a secular nationalist one. If Hamas defeats Fatah, it will not only be the victory of one faction over its rival, but also the replacement of one worldview by another.
Hamas is not a faction of the Palestinian national movement, it is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. It draws its inspiration and encouragement from the impetus of Iran and Hezbollah - from the effort to establish Islamic states and communities to the total rejection of compromise or a peace agreement with Israel.
In the wake of the Hebron meeting and similar events, certain Israeli leaders and people are at risk of falling sway to the false charms of the "opportunity" to definitively break apart the Palestinian national movement - which is indeed finding it difficult to "deliver the goods" to those who still seek a historic compromise in the form of a two-state solution - and to replace the government's current policy with a system of arrangements with local forces.
There are precedents for this kind of approach in the Israeli-Palestinian context, and in the region as a whole. During the British Mandate, the Zionist leadership cultivated relations with local leaders who rejected the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and the leadership of the Palestinian national movement. Some of these arrangements continued into the period of the War of Independence and made their mark on the Israeli map, as in the town of Abu Ghosh, near Jerusalem.
A similar, and relatively successful, effort is under way today in Iraq. In recent months, the United States has significantly improved its position and the general situation there, partly through cooperating with tribal heads against Al-Qaida. In both cases, the central regime is in a state of collapse and local forces are willing to cooperate with yesterday's "foreign occupier" against radical Islamic elements in order to ensure a modicum of tranquility and stability. The critical difference is that the U.S. seeks to establish order in Iraq and leave, whereas Israel wants to remain in the region as a Jewish and democratic state.
The split between Gaza and the West Bank, the disintegration of the PA and the cooperation with local elements of power are components of a policy that will attract everyone who wants to maintain the status quo. But those who view the continued stalemate in the peace process as a threat to Israel because it undermines the two-state option will avoid this approach because of that danger. The challenges of Hamas and of Gaza must be addressed; cooperation with municipal and regional forces is welcome. But Israel must not be left without a legitimate and effective partner for a historic compromise between two national movements.
Itamar Rabinovich is a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S.