Palestinian Unity: Dividends and Discontents

The announcement today of a deal for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas certainly caused a great stir. It’s worth examining what it means.

Is This For Real?

That’s the first question to be asked and only the coming days will provide an answer, but the early indications are that it seems like this will finally happen. The announcement of the deal was met with no small amount of cynicism, as these agreements have been said to be coming about in the past, but have always evaporated over some dispute or other.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (left) and PA President Mahmoud Abbas

This has a different feel. Probably the biggest reason for that is the proposed vote in the UN in September on recognition of Palestinian statehood. The proposition is problematic, even for supportive countries, as long as the Palestinians themselves are split. Also, while Egypt has been the broker of these agreements in the past, this time the Mubarak regime, and particularly his aide Omar Suleiman, are not involved. The new faces may have had ideas that the former mediators would not have broached. Finally, the Arab Spring has unleashed a wave of democracy. Neither of the Palestinian factions want to wait until such a thing happens in their own territory. But more importantly, the increasing weight of Arab public opinion will be a boon to the Palestinian cause, both in new Arab regimes and in the current ones that survive. A unified Palestinian government will be in a much better position to take advantage of that.

The deal apparently will mean a sharing of power between Hamas and Fatah in the broader PA government, while getting around the question of control of security forces (which has been the main sticking point in previous attempts at an agreement) by keeping the status quo, where Hamas will control security in Gaza, Fatah in the West Bank. Ultimately the PA will be reconstituted by elections within a year.

If this does happen, it’s a game-changer. The changes are not entirely predictable; nothing ever is, especially in this conflict. But there is no doubt that it will mean changes for the Palestinian Authority and will present new dilemmas for Israel and the United States, as well as the larger Middle East and the international community in general.

What Will This Mean for the Palestinians?

The fact that Fatah, in particular, is willing to do this at this time speaks volumes. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is well aware that Israel will refuse to talk with a PA that includes Hamas in the near term, and that the United States will back that stance, at the very least until the 2012 elections and quite likely thereafter. This agreement is a very clear statement that Abbas considers the peace process as we’ve known it since 1991 to be dead and buried.

It also would seem to mean that Hamas is very much on board with the push for the UN vote. This is less certain, because Hamas has other reasons it would wish to reconcile with Fatah as long as they are not abdicating all their power in the process. But they have shown a commitment to establishing a Palestinian state for years now and there is no downside for them in the UN voting in support of that state. They are certainly more than prepared to see Israel refusing to talk. Indeed, it means, more than likely, that the interim PA, Israel and the US would all refrain from trying to revive negotiations at least until after both the Palestinian and American elections next year.

Hamas also has, from what I’ve heard from Gaza, been encountering more difficulties with some of the more militant groups in the Strip. And, while it also seems that a great many Palestinians have shifted their focus away from statehood as the cure for their ills, there is still general support for this move at the UN and it would not do for Hamas to be seen as an obstacle to that effort.

Obviously, reconciliation gives the push for UN recognition a big boost. From the Palestinian point of view, it also puts Israel on the defensive, and a unified Palestinian government makes success more likely and more impactful if it does come.

Abbas may be hoping that the Obama Administration finds a way to continue to supply financial aid to the PA. The law does give Obama some ways to do this. But Abbas must understand that this would be far more of a political danger for Obama than it is likely he is willing to risk.

Does this mean that Abbas has gotten assurances from European countries that they would pick up at least some of the slack left by to loss of US funding, or at the very least an assurance that they would not reduce or eliminate their funding as well? We don’t know, but Abbas has recently been in Europe meeting with leaders there. One hopes he at least checked this out.

There are other possibilities for increased aid from elsewhere. Turkey is certainly one possibility. The Turks are interested in enhancing their leadership role in the region, and they may also be eager to warm their ties with a new PA for whom the current Turkish government, which melds secular and religious ideologies, could be a model. There is also the possibility that the Saudis and other Gulf states could step up their support.

Ultimately, this, like the whole UN push, really needs to be part of a larger Palestinian strategy. As Daniel Levy pointed out in my interview with him, there are currently no indications that this is the case. Still, even by itself Palestinian unity is a positive—despite the hysterics from the Israeli right and their friends and supporters, there can never be peace with part of the Palestinian body politic, any more than there could be with only part of Israel.

What Will This Mean for Israel?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted swiftly and furiously to reports of Palestinian reconciliation by reiterating what he had said a month ago: that Abbas could not have peace with both Israel and Hamas.

If Bibi meant this as a threat, it seems an odd one, since he has steadfastly refused all moves toward peace. His tactic has been to ensure that settlement construction continues, thus making it politically impossible for Abbas, in the wake of Obama’s determination to obtain a freeze on settlements, to return to talks and then shedding crocodile tears for the Palestinians “refusal” to come and talk to him.

This tactic has killed a peace process that, after twenty years of settlement expansion and massive tightening of the occupation, was already on life support. So, Bibi essentially gave Abbas a choice between peace with Hamas and no peace at all. Abbas, then, made the only call he could.

In the short term, Bibi will reap benefits from Palestinian unity, all at the expense of the Israeli people. He will now easily be able to paint the PA as a terrorist outfit, which will open a good many political options as long as all Bibi cares about is the view of his right-wing Knesset and his even farther right (at least on this issue) friends in Washington.

But for Israel’s future, this is a positive. For all the legitimate fear Israelis have of Hamas, there is no doubting they are a significant part of Palestine. There simply can’t be peace with the Palestinians without Hamas. The Israeli insistence on isolating Hamas has done nothing to weaken the group or enhance Israel’s security. All it has done is made an already intractable conflict more so.

This will also give additional momentum to the criminal and suicidal efforts in the Knesset to annex most of the West Bank. This push is still not likely to succeed, but it will certainly become a stronger factor in Israeli discourse in the coming weeks.

While Palestinian unity will add weight to the “diplomatic tsunami” Ehud Barak has predicted as a result of the possible vote in the UN in September, it is also a real opportunity for a peace that will finally end 44 years of Israeli occupation of the Palestinians.

What Will This Mean For the USA?

Americans for Peace Now illustrated the opportunity Palestinian unity presents for the Obama Administration:

“Clearly, it would be preferable if Hamas – a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization with a long history of bloody attacks on Israel – could be completely wished away.  However, five years of U.S., Israeli, and international efforts to sideline Hamas have failed.  The reality today is that the Gaza-West Bank split is a hurdle to peace efforts, raising questions about the capacity of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to implement an agreement.

“For years the U.S. has made the mistake of opposing Palestinian reconciliation rather than encouraging it; it should not compound this mistake by wasting this opportunity to engage a new Palestinian government. It should do so making clear that U.S. relations with this government – including decisions about the future of our foreign assistance program for the Palestinians – will be based solely on the positions and actions of the government.  Unfortunately, there are many in Israel and the U.S., including inside the Netanyahu government and the Obama Administration, who will try to spin today’s announcement as evidence that the Palestinian Authority is not a partner in peace.  Such a reaction is at best mistaken; at worst it is a cynical pretext for not negotiating peace.

“This reconciliation announcement bolsters the conclusion that now is the time for President Obama to redouble his own commitment to peace.  By laying out his own plan for peace – including presenting substantive peace parameters and his plan of action for moving forward – Obama has the opportunity to re-assert credible U.S. leadership, to forestall action at the UN in September, and to take the true measure of both the Israeli and the Palestinian governments’ commitments to peace.  He should not miss this opportunity.”

APN has it exactly right.

But it is almost inconceivable that the Obama Administration will heed their advice. President Obama has proven himself to be a very conservative leader on this issue, and, after his early days, has refused to take the risks and steps needed to bring a breakthrough about in this conflict. There will be an all-out blitz in Washington to ensure that Obama takes a hardline stance on a Palestinian unity government.

Obama has shown that he buys into the idea that the Israel Lobby can make or break his re-election bid, even though this is unlikely. He has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that no matter what he does, the hardline supporters of the occupation (which includes AIPAC as well as some hardline Jewish groups, but also the large number of Christian Zionists, none of whom are likely to vote for Obama in 2012) will be lining up to castigate him.

The initial reaction from the White House seems measured, an indication that they don’t want to react too quickly but want to see how things unfold, both in the region, and domestically, once Congress comes back into session.

Unless Obama takes a more courageous and realistic stance than he has in the past, he is almost certain to suspend aid to the PA, or at least put severe restrictions on it. And actually, that is going to be a long term boon to the Palestinians.

The bottom line for the Palestinians is that they need to get out of the system that has snared them since the Oslo Accords (with, I do believe, the best of intentions) were signed.

The Oslo process has depended on three things: a Palestinian commitment to abandon all forms of violence, Israeli willingness to end the occupation and American mediation that balanced the tables between the two belligerents who were coming to the arena with a severe lack of balance as occupying power and occupied people.

In recent years, the PA has not only done their part (often angering the Palestinian public in the effort), but has also gone a long way toward building the institutions of a state despite the ongoing occupation. Still, when one looks at all Palestinian factions, it cannot truly be said that Palestinian violence has stopped over the long term.

Israel, for its part, has massively expanded its settlements, built a new reality on the ground in the form of the Security Barrier and placed Gaza first under crippling sanctions, and then under siege. The only times there have been what look objectively like serious attempts to reach a settlement of the conflict according to the international consensus of a two-state solution (as articulated in the Clinton Parameters, Geneva Initiative, Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement, and numerous other agreements that all more or less look the same) have been under lame duck Israeli prime Ministers, Ehud Barak (at the Taba talks in 2001) and Ehud Olmert (as was revealed in the Palestine Papers, much to the consternation of an impatient Palestinian public). America’s utter refusal, through the Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama Administrations, to ever put any significant pressure on Israel (of the kind that Bush 41 did, at least on one issue) is well documented.

The simple fact is that under this system, Israeli governments would take many political risks and would likely face and certainly perceive (rightly or wrongly) major physical risks in a peace agreement, with benefits that are neither completely clear nor guaranteed to Israel’s satisfaction to be genuine.  The status quo, while perhaps less than ideal, does not offer sufficient downside to spur Israeli action.

The Palestinians, if they are ever to find, in whatever form, freedom from occupation, need to change that equation. Unifying their leadership and pursuing their goal of statehood at the UN offers promise, and is certainly better than waiting for the US to overcome its own internal politics or for Israel to suddenly spawn a new and genuine peace movement that has political traction. They need a strategy for getting there, and they don’t have one. This may ultimately mean any efforts they undertake now are futile, but both internal unity and an external strategy that don’t depend on US action or Israeli goodwill are good ideas. Hopefully, these steps will lead to that broader strategy.

14 thoughts on “Palestinian Unity: Dividends and Discontents

  1. Unless there is some formula arrived at for Hamas to endorse a two-state solution with Israel, I fear that this reconciliation agreement is NOT a step forward. But if it does clearly state that Hamas would not oppose peace with Israel, then it has some potential to be for the good.

    Still, one has to trust Hamas to be true to its word, and for Hamas and Fatah to coexist peacefully (as they have not in the past). We don’t know the details, but we have to be wary.

  2. Hamas will endorse a genuine two-state solution – albeit as a long term truce — well before Israel does. I have lived in Israel for over thirty years, and, with the exception of folks like Uri Avnery, no Zionist I know endorseds a genuine two-state solution. Even the Geneva Initiative doesn’t do that. The two-state solution has been dead for some time, and it would take a miracle for a tehiyat ha-metim.

    The Palestinians need a strategy — who doesn’t? — but unity is necessary before a strategy. And that doesn’t just mean Fateh-Hamas unity, but unity of the entire society, including Palestinian civil society. Once there is unity, then a strategy that includes diplomacy, non-violent struggle, and a targeted armed resistance — in short, one that imitates successful pushes for self-determination, like the Zionists in the 30s and 40s — may work, if the international climate is ripe.

    We are talking decades here, but inshallah it will come.

    • I guess it’s understandable, albeit sad, that Mr. Haber sees Hamas as more trustworthy than Israel. But it’s really sad that (to say the least) that his cynicism is so pervasive that he actually endorses “a targeted armed resistance.”

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  4. Absolutely right on. You don’t make peace with your friends, you make it with your enemies. Any diplomatic strategy based on not dealing with Hamas is not only destined to fail but intended to fail.

    • The issue Red Jenny and all of us should address is whether Hamas will ever deal diplomatically and non-violently with Israel. If the Israeli gov’t. were wise (and unfortunately it appears not to be), it would pose exactly this in response to the Fatah-Hamas agreement.

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