It’s probably smart to view yesterday’s deal between the leading Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas—in which the two groups agreed to create a consensus government and hold elections later this year—with some skepticism. Announced with similar fanfare, accords in Cairo in 2011 and in Doha in 2012 went nowhere, with neither side believing it had more to gain than lose from agreeing to share power.
There are reasons to believe this time is different, though. It came after the first delegation of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leaders sent to Gaza since the brutal 2007 Fatah-Hamas civil war. The agreement was signed in Palestine—in Gaza City, to be exact—rather than a foreign capital. What’s more, reconciliation remains hugely popular amongst Palestinians. In March 2011, with anti-government protests spreading across the region, tens of thousands turned out in Gaza and the West Bank to call for an end to the division. An April 2013 poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center found that over 90 percent favored reconciliation between the two factions.
It’s important to recognize the extent to which internal Palestinian political dynamics have driven the move, with both factions under enormous pressure. Amid what its leaders proclaimed an “Islamic Awakening” in the region, Hamas had taken a bullish view of its prospects, assuming it would benefit from the coming wave of Islamist-dominated governments in the region. But it has seen its fortunes turn sharply over the last year. The July 2013 Egyptian coup removed the supportive government of Mohammed Morsi, dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas was founded as the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood). Egypt’s new military government has closed down the majority of the smuggling tunnels along the Egypt-Gaza border, severely diminishing the blockaded strip’s access to the outside world and removing a key source of revenue for Hamas, which levies taxes on the tunnel trade
With the negotiations with Israel (which he entered against the wishes of the majority of his own party) now on life-support, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas clearly sees reconciliation as something to boost his flagging popularity and at a time when he is in a relatively stronger position vis a vis Hamas. One question is whether he sees this move as something to enhance his position in negotiations with Israel, as a substitute for those negotiations, or possibly both—the latter in case, the former completely collapses.
The outraged reaction from a few U.S. lawmakers illustrates the (added) challenge that this creates for the Obama administration, in its already faltering efforts to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian final agreement. The U.S. and European Union designate Hamas a terrorist organization, responsible for multiple acts of mass murder throughout the mid 1990s and early 2000s and for regular rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. Hamas’s charter remains a deeply offensive document that cites religious justification for killing Jews. Another important question is whether this agreement, and Hamas’ rejoining the Palestinian Authority, means Hamas has moved away from that document, abandoned its longstanding goal of destroying Israel, and warmed to the two-state solution.
Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub insisted yesterday that it does. “We weren't willing to sign the reconciliation agreement without it being clear to all factions that we are driving forward our nation to a two-state solution,” he said. “I hope that Israel will allow Abbas to continue peace negotiations, on the basis of two states for two peoples.”
But will this be enough to satisfy the international community? In response to Hamas’s 2006 electoral victory, the U.S.-led Quartet—which includes the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia—imposed three conditions on the group for rejoining the Palestinian government: Renounce terrorism, recognize Israel, and honor past agreements signed between Israelis and Palestinians. (It’s worth noting here that the Israeli government includes parties opposed to a Palestinian state, which doesn’t preclude it from negotiating over the creation of one.)
The U.S. government responded negatively to the news, with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki calling the announcement “disappointing” and saying it “raises concerns about our efforts to extend the negotiations.” The European Union, on the other hand, welcomed the deal. “The EU has consistently called for intra-Palestinian reconciliation behind” Abbas, EU spokesman Michael Mann said in a statement, calling the agreement “an important element for the unity of a future Palestinian state and for reaching a two-state solution.”
As he has done with previous announcements, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the move. “This evening, as peace talks were about to take place, Abbas chose Hamas and not peace,” said a statement released by the prime minister’s office. “Whoever chooses Hamas does not want peace.” It’s hard to imagine this offer carries much weight with Abbas given that peace talks over the past year have achieved little, while being accompanied by an unprecedented surge in the construction of Israeli settlements.
The Israeli security cabinet voted earlier today to suspend the talks with the Palestinians. But a number of Israeli analysts were quick to point out that the Fatah-Hamas agreement represented an opportunity for Israel. Critics of the negotiations have noted the disunity between the West Bank and Gaza, with the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority ruling in the former, and Hamas in the latter, as a reason why the time is not ripe for a final agreement with Israel. Israel’s leaders have “argued that Abbas doesn’t really represent the Palestinian people and no progress could be made so long as the PA didn’t control Gaza,” wrote Barak Ravid of Israel’s Haaretz. “The reconciliation agreement, if implemented, could provide a response to exactly these arguments by creating a government that represents all the Palestinians.”
“It would be wrong to put an ultimatum to the PLO, whereby it is required to choose between negotiations with Israel and rapprochement with Hamas,” wrote Ido Zelkovitz of the Israeli foreign policy think tank Mitvim. “Stability in the Palestinian political system can work in Israel’s favor, and if reconciliation is actually reached, any political process led by Abbas with Israel would also bind Hamas.”
It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will eventually choose to view it this way. For Secretary of State Kerry, who has made an Israeli-Palestinian deal a top priority of his tenure, the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation announcement further complicates an already struggling process. But despite the difficulties of the past weeks, as I’ve written previously Secretary Kerry has proven able to confront some of the most difficult issues in this conflict creatively and effectively. The question is whether he can be creative enough to convert this latest crisis into an opportunity.