A boy holds up a Palestinian flag as he attends a Hamas demonstration against resuming peace talks with Israel, at the Al-Nusairat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip. (Mohammed Saber/EPA)

Gaza left out of Mideast peace talks

Gaza left out of Mideast peace talks

This crowded bit of Mediterranean shore is a long way from the closed-door rooms where Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are holding the first real peace talks in years.

But as Secretary of State John F. Kerry prepares to publicly present outlines of a proposed peace deal, the isolated and besieged Palestinian territory called the Gaza Strip is the rarely mentioned elephant in the bargaining room — a huge obstacle to a permanent settlement of the decades-old conflict.

Kerry has confined his peacemaking to Palestinians in the West Bank, a territory on the other side of Israel, and he envisions a deal signed by the moderate leadership there. Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are governed by the militant Islamist Hamas movement, which opposes talks with Israel and is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, and they are not part of the negotiations.

That means that if a deal could be done right now, the 1.6 million people who live in Gaza — about 40 percent of the population in the two Palestinian territories — would essentially be left out.

“Gaza and Hamas represent the real conundrum of the peace process. You can’t do a conflict-ending deal without them, and you can’t do one with them either,” said Aaron David Miller, a Mideast scholar at the Wilson Center and a U.S. adviser in failed peace negotiations in which Gaza played a central role.

“Nobody talks about Gaza and Hamas, because nobody has the slightest idea of how to deal with the challenges these issues pose,” Miller said.

Confined to West Bank

Negotiations began in the summer under heavy U.S. pressure and could soon move into a critical phase. Kerry is expected to lay out what he calls a framework for a final deal within weeks, probably during an address in Israel.

If Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agree to the terms, they would then begin more-formal bargaining over the border between Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank and other final details of an independent Palestinian state.

Security arrangements for Israel and economic development packages and international financial support for the Palestinians are tied to the talks but confined to the West Bank.

Mahmoud Zahar, a hard-line founder of Hamas, said negotiations with Israel for an independent Palestinian state are pointless.

“Israel is immune from pressure, and the other side, Abu Mazen, is weak and has no power to resist” the Americans, Zahar said in an interview.

Abu Mazen is the nickname for Abbas, whose Fatah party was routed by Hamas in Gaza legislative elections eight years ago, after Israel withdrew all settlers and soldiers from Gaza. Periodic attempts to form a unity government have failed, leaving Fatah in charge of the larger, more prosperous West Bank and Hamas in charge of Gaza and in almost constant conflict with Israeli forces.

Zahar predicted that the Israelis will refuse the central Palestinian demands, including that Arabs who left family homes and land inside what is now Israel could return there. He said he also doubts Israel would allow a physical link between the West Bank and Gaza, which are separated by miles of Israeli territory.

“So a state would be worse than the present situation,” Zahar said. “Not only will Hamas reject this, the people will reject it.”

Even if Abbas and Netanyahu can agree on peace terms, there is another potential roadblock to a deal.

It’s unclear whether Abbas has the constitutional authority to sign an agreement, either on behalf of the West Bank alone or for all Palestinians. It is also unclear whether and how Palestinians would ratify a deal through a referendum, given the bitter intra-Palestinian political split.

Abbas’s presidential term expired in 2009, and his ruling Fatah party has repeatedly postponed elections. Despite a few overtures by Abbas, neither Fatah nor Hamas appears ready for reconciliation or power-sharing, or for general elections. Abbas called in December for a six-month national unity government that would hold elections, but the proposal has made little headway.

“Would it be deemed legitimate, in light of his tenuous position as president?” asked Jonathan Schanzer, a Mideast scholar at the D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“There is also a question of how long would it last if the deal hinges on his leadership,” Schanzer said.

U.S. officials say Kerry is dealing with the moderate Abbas because he is the only Palestinian leader likely to make a deal and the only one U.S. and Israeli leaders could realistically engage. Like the United States, Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group, funded partly by Iran.

‘A pathway to peace’

The U.S. idea is that Gazans would want the same benefits of a deal and would force their leaders to take part or be replaced. President Obama made the strategy quite plain in a December address to the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center.

Obama spoke of “a pathway to peace, even if initially it’s restricted to the West Bank.”

“If there is a model where young Palestinians in Gaza are looking and seeing that in the West Bank, Palestinians are able to live in dignity, with self-determination,” Obama said, “that’s something that the young people of Gaza are going to want.”

A senior U.S. diplomat familiar with the talks acknowledged that it is strange to be discussing the fate of a future Palestine without Gaza at the table but stressed that Abbas’s Palestine Liberation Organization, whose purpose is to create an independent Palestinian state, represents the interests of all Palestinians.

Abbas calls himself the elected leader of all Palestinians, despite the long split with Hamas.

Gaza can be set aside for now and brought into the peace discussions later, the U.S. official said, because issues that are even harder than the political division, such as the presence of Jewish settlers and a disputed border, apply only to the West Bank.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because details of the discussions are supposed to be secret.

The United States is also banking on the current weakness of Hamas, as it tries to govern under a tight Israeli embargo and without the stout backing of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Basem Naim, a foreign affairs adviser to Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, dismissed the American hopes.

“Any talks that do not take Gaza into consideration will fail,” Naim said. “Obama sees Gaza as a side issue, and he believes that Gaza and Hamas are not at the center of things, because we are not participating in these negotiations. This reflects a kind of naivete, for the success or failure of all efforts depend on Gaza.”

Hamas wants to maintain control of the Gaza Strip, consolidate power and survive its current diplomatic isolation and economic crisis, Naim and others said.

At most, Naim said, Hamas might accept a long-term truce with Israel, “and allow the next generation to rethink the conflict.”