Palestinian unity need not hinder the cause of peace with Israel


That collective freakout you heard this morning between Jerusalem and Washington? palestineISrel Flag Icon

It was the entirely premature overreaction of both the US and Israeli governments to a one-page agreement between the two competing Palestinian factions that attempts, for the third time since their 2006-07 rupture, to unite Fatah (فتح‎), which currently controls the West Bank, and Hamas (حماس‎), which currently controls the Gaza Strip.

The agreement is hardly definitive, and it follows two failed deals agreed to in high-profile meetings in Cairo and Doha over the past three years. It commits the two factions to an interim unity government within five weeks, with elections to follow within six months. Needless to say, it’s an incredibly preliminary deal, and there are countless opportunities for West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas and Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniyeh to derail it. 

With a preliminary deadline of April 29 approaching for US-brokered peace talks between the West Bank and Israel, it’s clear that neither the United States nor Israel believe that the potential reconciliation is an incredibly positive sign. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu went so far as to describe the agreement in zero-sum terms:

Israel immediately responded by saying the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was moving to peace with Hamas instead of peace with Israel. “He has to choose,” said the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. “Does he want peace with Hamas or peace with Israel? You can have one but not the other. I hope he chooses peace, so far he hasn’t done so.”

After the agreement was announced, Israel cancelled a planned session of peace negotiations with the Palestinians. It also launched an air strike on a site in the north of the Gaza Strip, wounding 12 people including children, which underscored the deep mutual suspicion and hostility that persists. Speaking in Ramallah in the West Bank, Abbas said in his view the pact with Hamas did not contradict the peace talks he was pursuing with Israel, adding that an independent state living peacefully alongside Israel remained his goal.

Needless to say, Israel’s freakout won’t facilitate future negotiations. Meanwhile, the US government is already talking about suspending aid to any future unity government that includes Hamas:

The United States would have to reconsider its assistance to the Palestinians if Islamist group Hamas and the Palestinian Liberation Organization form a government together, a senior U.S. administration official said on Thursday….

“Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to non-violence, recognition of the state of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties,” the U.S. official said, listing terms Hamas has long rejected. “If a new Palestinian government is formed, we will assess it based on its adherence to the stipulations above, its policies and actions, and will determine any implications for our assistance based on U.S. law,” the official said, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Foreign aid, in part, is responsible for an economic boom in the West Bank, and, particularly, in its unofficial capital of Ramallah. So it’s a step that would cause some significant hardship to Abbas, undermining the most reliable Palestinian partner that the US and Israeli governments currently have. It’s not hard to see Palestinian voters delivering a resounding Hamas victory in a vote later this year if the United States and Israel take such a hard line. 

But Netanyahu or US secretary of state John Kerry couldn’t have seriously believed that a truly lasting Palestinian-Israeli peace deal could exclude Gaza, which is home to 1.4 million Palestinians; the West Bank is home to 2.4 million. It’s farcical to believe that Abbas or anyone could deliver any true stability for Israel or Palestine while Gaza remains a 1.4 million-strong refugee camp, notwithstanding the West Bank’s position.  

That’s especially true because Israel and the United States played such an important role in the initial Fatah-Hamas schism, which dates to the January 2006 Palestinian elections to determine the 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council, the legislature of the Palestinian National Authority.

Riding a wave of discontent with Fatah, compromised by years of peace negotiations with Israel and unable to deliver much in the way of economic progress or employment, especially in the Gaza Strip, Hamas narrowly edged out Fatah in absolute votes. Hamas won a more lopsided victory in terms of actual seats, winning 74 to Fatah’s 45, leaving Fatah in the minority for the first time. Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei resigned, and Haniyah assumed control of the government in wary alliance with Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president.

But relations between the two sides deteriorated, in no small part due to the refusal of the Israeli and US governments to work with Hamas. Though the US government tried to boost Fatah and Abbas at Hamas’s expense, it managed to embolden Hamas, which now had the clear electoral mandate of the Palestinians, both in Gaza and the West Bank. Accordingly, US and Israeli policy managed simultaneously to divide any semblance of Palestinian unity and to undermine the legitimacy of democratic rule.

The schism formalized after the June 2007 Battle of Gaza, during which Hamas took military control of Gaza and kicked Fatah out of any governing role, leading to the current de facto division today between Gaza and the West Bank. In the ensuing years, Israel, with acquiescence from Egypt, has effected an embargo against Gaza that’s hardly improved relations. Though Israeli officials justified the embargo on the basis of preventing Hamas from gaining the kind of weaponry that could jeopardize Israel’s safety (for the avoidance of doubt, a perfectly legitimate concern until Hamas denounces violent conflict), critics argue that it’s amounted to Gaza’s economic, social and developmental suffocation, thereby radicalizing Gaza’s Palestinians even further.

With Haniyah illegally controlling Gaza, Abbas appointed a new prime minister Salam Fayyad, who served until June 2013 in what has been a caretaker government, focused mostly on strong economic stewardship of the West Bank. His successor, Rami Hamdallah, another Fatah official, has largely carried forward the ‘Fayyadist’ program that emphasizes good government and economic growth. 

But it also means that Palestinians have had a ‘caretaker’ government for seven years and running. Whatever other merits Abbas, colloquially known  as ‘Abu Mazen,’ might have, it’s hard for him to bring even the West Bank into a long-term deal with Israel when his own authority among Palestinians remains so unclear, given that he was last elected to a four-year term in 2005. What’s more, at age 79, Abbas, isn’t getting any younger, and he certainly doesn’t want to go down in history as the man who permanently divided Palestine.

What does Hamas get out of the reconciliation? Hope for an economic lifeline. With Qatari funding running low and with a much less friendly military government in neighboring Egypt, Hamas is increasingly isolated within the Arab world.

If Hamas is willing to engage serious with Fatah to form a unity government under Abbas’s direction, it might be willing to agree to an agreement that would cease Gaza-originated violence against Israel, which itself would mark a significant step forward — certainly enough to give hope to US and Israeli officials.   

Instead of immediately attacking the deal, Netanyahu should realize this is potentially the best opportunity of his premiership. While there’s a chance that the reconciliation deal could pull Fatah and Abbas toward the more radical Hamas position, the current deal seems much more likely to be the best chance in years to moderate Hamas. What’s more, if Palestinians vote later this year, nothing will empower radicals within Hamas more than a recalcitrant Israel that doubles down on suspicion. 

Imagine, instead, if the deal between Fatah and Hamas holds, that a responsible unity government works constructively toward free elections and continues to work in good faith on the peace process. Imagine further that, in the shadow of elections, Netanyahu makes a grand gesture — lifting the Gaza embargo, calling a moratorium on new settlements, or even releasing Marwan Barghouti after 12 years in Israeli custody. That would give Palestinian moderates within Fatah credibility and momentum. If Palestinian voters, especially in Gaza, are weary of the Israeli ‘stick,’ they still want to see that a more moderate approach will be met with the Israeli ‘carrot.’ 

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