In international mediation theory, ripeness is the key theoretical concept. I.William Zartman, an Africanist and a negotiations expert posits that three conditions are necessary for ripeness, which will allow foreign mediation between two or more warring parties to succeed. These are: 1) a hurting stalemate; 2) representative parties; and 3) a way out or formula. Most theory since then has worked on further defining the characteristics of a hurting stalemate. But I believe that representative parties is at least as important. The parties in the negotiations must represent the sides involved in the conflict.
All too often, one side will refuse to negotiate with the other and instead picks a more acceptable or palatable negotiating partner. This happened with Israel and the Palestinians from 1967 to 1988. It happened in Northern Ireland in 1973 during the Sunningdale initiative. And it has happened elsewhere. In Northern Ireland both the violent Protestants--the loyalists--and the violent Catholics--the republicans--were excluded from a power-sharing experiment. Both conspired against it and after only five months it collapsed. In the Middle East the Israelis refused to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) both because it used terrorism and because it refused to accept Israel's right to exist. Only after the PLO recognized Israel's right to exist in December 1988 did Israel finally choose to negotiate with it in 1993 in Oslo, Norway.
Today, some twenty years later there is a similar problem. The PLO/Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza have been in competition since the founding of the latter in 1988. In January 2006 Hamas defeated Fatah, the main component of the PLO, in open elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Eighteen months later Hamas staged a coup in Gaza and ejected Fatah from power. Since then the split has been an aggravating factor in the so-called peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Fatah has been unwilling to offer concessions similar to those demanded of Israel out of fear that Hamas will exploit these concessions in inter-Palestinian politics. When Al-Jazeera published reported minutes of 2008 Israel-Palestine negotiations the PLO was quick to denounce the reported concessions made by it as false slanders.
There may be a solution to the problem posed by competing nationalist organizations. In African nationalist politics in what was then Rhodesia and now is Zimbabwe, there were four veteran nationalist leaders competing for domination in the mid-1970s. The leaders of the Frontline States (FLS) that bordered on Rhodesia and Namibia or provided sanctuary to the guerrillas fighting against the white minority regimes in these two countries, formed an organization in late 1974. This was in order to facilitate negotiations between the ruling white minority Ian Smith regime and the African nationalists. The FLS recognized the problem posed by the lack of nationalist unity and attempted to provide a solution. This was not only to facilitate negotiations but to avoid a repeat of the civil war in Angola between rival liberation movements fighting over power once Portugal decided to pull out of its colony.
First the FLS forced four rival organizations to consolidate within one larger umbrella organization, the African National Council, in December 1974. Eight months later the negotiations with the Smith regime had collapsed before they really started and two rival leaders, Joshua Nkomo and Bishop Abel Muzorewa, had split the ANC into rival wings. Then the FLS attempted to organize a joint guerrilla army out of the armed wings of the veteran ZANU and ZAPU movements. This organization lasted for about eight months before it broke down as a result of inter-organizational fighting in the camps and desertions by ZAPU guerrillas from the joint army.
In October 1976 the two rival leaders of ZANU and ZAPU, Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, formed a diplomatic alliance ahead of a Geneva conference on the territory hosted by the British government, which had official legal sovereignty over the territory but no real power. For seven weeks three competing nationalist delegations and the Rhodesian government delegation talked past one another. A few weeks after the conference ended without result in mid-December, the FLS recognized the Patriotic Front as the sole legitimate representative of the Zimbabwean people. A month later the Organization of African Unity (OAU) recognized this decision.
Thirteen months after this the two nationalist leaders without guerrilla armies signed an agreement with the white minority regime in Rhodesia for a form of majority rule with extensive powers reserved in the hands of the whites. The war continued and escalated. Finally in December 1979, exactly seven years after the war began, the war ended after three months of negotiations between the the Zimbabwe-Rhodesian government and the Patriotic Front. With the support of the FLS who were suffering from attacks from the Rhodesian military, the British government forced a settlement based on elections.
In the future, the Arab League, which first recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in October 1974, might perform a similar function of arbitration between the secular nationalist Fatah/PLO and the Islamist Hamas. This could be by forcing Fatah to admit Hamas into the PLO. Or if support for Fatah significantly weakens due to continuing corruption, it could simply delegitimize the PLO in favor of Hamas.
In the past the authoritarian Arab regimes favored secular Sunni Arab movements supported by them over allies of the Shi'ite Iran. Both Hezbollah and Hamas are seen by both Israel and the Arab regimes as Iranian proxies. But if as a result of the "Arab Spring" more democratic and Islamist governments come to power, then the Sunni Hamas could benefit. Arab regimes supported anti-Zionist and anti-semitic rhetoric but many preferred de facto peace with Israel as a means of ensuring regional stability and their own survival. This was true of Syria and Lebanon as well as Egypt and Jordan. Now with Egypt having deposed its president under popular pressure and the Syrian regime facing significant internal unrest, things could change. We could return to an era in which Palestinian nationalist organizations received regime support from surrounding countries that were competitors to rule the Arab world. This will be a trend that will be worth watching. One potential result of genuine revolutions--regime changes--in either Egypt or Syria or both--might be the Arab League stepping in to play a role like that played by the FLS in Southern Africa over twenty years.