IF HAMAS-FATAH RECONCIALIATION HOLDS, IT COULD BOOST EFFORTS TO DECLARE A PALESTINIAN STATE
by Syarif Hidayat
Senior Fatah official says, ‘We are not giving the Americans or anyone else a reason to shun us because of the reconciliation or anything else.’
The Palestinians’ agreement to unite their dueling governments was supposed to have boosted their efforts to unilaterally declare a state. Unity would let Abbas project to the world that his Palestinian Authority represents not only his West Bank base but also the Gaza Strip, which Hamas violently overran four years ago. Because peace talks with Israel were going nowhere, unity with Gaza, it seemed, could be a key building block of his case for statehood at the United Nations.
The Palestinian request September 2011 for United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state in the land occupied by Israel in 1967 created quite a diplomatic stir. This came after weeks of anticipation and guessing whether the Palestinian leadership would ask the Security Council for full U.N. membership, or take the safer route of asking the General Assembly for non-member observer state status.
Now that the request for full membership has been made, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have made their speeches and the diplomatic dust has largely settled, we can come to some conclusions now that these events have passed. These events suggest that there has been a dramatic change of strategy by the Palestinians but with uncertain results; a continuing pro-Israel tilt by the United States; a consistent but increasingly isolated and unconvincing strategy by the Israeli government; and, an embarrassing show of incompetence and daydreaming by the Quartet (the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union) that is supposed to shepherd the two sides to conclude a permanent negotiated agreement.
In the end, all we can judge are the words of the various parties, because the past week has been a festival of rhetoric above all else. Nobody has made any substantive moves on the ground, with even the Palestinian request for U.N. recognition being words on paper that signal intent rather than any tangible accomplishment.
The intent that Abbas has signaled, however, is potentially a game-changer, if he sticks to his position and refuses to resume the diplomatic game according to the old rules that have failed to achieve any progress since the Madrid peace talks began nearly 20 years ago. If Abbas persists in refusing to resume negotiations while the Israelis continue their settlement building, this would turn out to be the dramatic change that could have far-reaching consequences – but only if several things were to happen in the coming months and years.
Withdrawing from the negotiations is not particularly impressive if there is no alternative strategy that could realistically bring the Palestinians their national rights through some other means than American-mediated direct talks with Israel. It remains unclear what that alternative strategy might be, beyond asking the U.N. General Assembly to reaffirm the Palestinians’ right to sovereign statehood. But a U.N. vote recognizing the state of Palestine is not a strategy; it is a procedural move that signals the fact that the Palestinians will not persist in the failed old diplomatic approach that brought them no real gains on the road to sovereignty.
This move, to be effective, must be followed up by a complete Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, a rebuilding of the institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organization, reformulating the Palestinian national consensus on engaging or resisting Israel, or both, and defining mechanisms by which all Palestinians around the region and the world can share in decision-making and lend their ideas, support and weight to their leadership’s diplomatic moves. The chances of this happening with the current leaders are slim, but the popular will for them to happen is huge.
If Abbas’ firm stand on rejecting negotiations under the failed old American-Israeli-dominated formula is the most significant development of the last few weeks, and the American tilt to Israel and Netanyahu’s speech are mere continuations of the stalemated and violent status quo, the most pitiful development has to be the statement issued by the Quartet last weekend. It proposed that both sides re-engage in a serious diplomatic effort that leads to concrete proposals within a few months and a Palestinian state within a year.
That this is a comical and totally inept performance is no surprise. The Quartet has proved itself to be a malicious mechanism by which the U.S. seeks to maintain a pro-Israeli tilt in the overall diplomacy surrounding Arab-Israeli negotiations. By merely repeating the same failed formula of the past, the Quartet members show that they have totally missed the point of how the Palestinians are demanding that the diplomatic rules be re-written, as opposed to being revived.
This is not surprising, given the prominent role in the Quartet played by the American official Dennis Ross and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the group’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Men like these – and the governments they represent – have proven many times over that they lack the honesty and trust needed to succeed in diplomacy. It is no surprise that at the moment of truth, they have simply reaffirmed their inability to recognize the truth and come to terms with it.
Palestinian reconciliation and unity vital for any progress
The key dynamics to watch now are within the Palestinian camp, where reconciliation, unity and national consensus will be vital for any progress beyond the drama September 2011 in New York, where old rules were discarded, but new ones have yet to be formulated. The historic change was that Palestinians stopped acting like helpless victims of history and global politics, and started acting like a self-interested party demanding their rights, and in that way displaying political agency.
“If Palestinian reconciliation holds, it may release all the players, the US and Israel included, from the ossified roles of the process,” writes an English Newspaper, The Guardian.
Meanwhile an Israeli newspaper Jerusalem Post writes: “Should this new Palestinian understanding hold, and should it serve to advance national aspirations for a Palestinian state living at peace alongside the State of Israel, the Fatah-Hamas agreement could prove to be a critical step toward securing Palestinian independence based on a two-state solution.”
For the better part of 20 years, the policies of Fatah (the leading faction within the Palestine Liberation Organisation) have been predictable to the point of tedium. The Palestinian National Initiative was signed in Cairo on April 27, 2011, in agreeing to a unity and power-sharing deal with Hamas, Fatah surprised. Yes, Palestinian national reconciliation has been tried before, fleetingly and unenthusiastically, following a Saudi-brokered arrangement in spring 2007, and it may again unravel. But this time, Fatah’s move appears to be a more calculated and profound break with past practice – and the anticipated opprobrium of the US seems to weigh less heavily.
From the Algiers 1988 decision of the Palestine National Council adopting a two-state solution on the 1967 lines, to the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles recognising Israel’s right to exist, through to last September’s relaunching of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Washington, DC, the PLO approach can be reduced to one simple equation: that a combination of an accommodationist Palestinian side, Israeli rational self-interest and US leverage would overcome inbuilt Israeli-Palestinian asymmetries of power and deliver Palestinian independence and de-occupation.
Gaining traction for that formula was a marketing challenge under the military-fatigued Yasser Arafat, but he was replaced over six years ago by the unequivocally peace-credentialled Mahmoud Abbas. And still, the Palestinians kept doubling down on that formula in the face of failure. Fatah pursued negotiations without terms of reference, security coordination with the Israel Defence Forces, institution-building under occupation, and an inexplicable faith in American mediation – even as settlements metastasised across the Occupied Territories, elections were lost to Hamas, and accusations of collaboration grew deafening.
The last roll of this Palestinian dice, Fayyadism (named after Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and predicated on the notion that Palestinian good governance would induce Israeli withdrawal or, at least, international pressure to force that withdrawal) is set to splutter to an ignoble end this September. The two-year programme of building state-readiness will have succeeded, but will then stand helpless against the reality of an immovable Israeli occupation.
The test results are in. The accommodationist PLO equation did not compute. A centrepiece of that strategy was for the peace process to be an exclusive domain of American mediation. In recent months, the Palestinians have been slowly maneuvering out of this American cul-de-sac. Abbas refused to continue those September negotiations with Israel when the US failed to deliver an extension of even the limited and partial Netanyahu settlement moratorium. The PLO forced a vote on settlements at the UN security council, despite US pressure, leaving the US alone to cast its veto in a 14-1 vote. Preparations for UN recognition of Palestinian statehood proceed apace (again, in opposition to US policy). Finally, and most dramatically, Fatah has now agreed to this deal with Hamas.
The US supported Israeli ploy of “Divide and Conquer” or “Divide and Rule”
Palestinian division, playing so-called “moderates” against “extremists”, had been a cornerstone of US (and Israeli) policy. If the Palestinian unity deal holds – and caution is well-advised with the details yet to be agreed, and with a history of false dawns – that cornerstone will be no more. It would be inaccurate to attribute this development to any radical departure in policy on the part of the Obama administration. Rather, this development is best understood against a backdrop of attrition, combined with new, post Arab Spring regional realities.
The attrition part is obvious: there has been relentless growth in Israeli settlements and control of the territories over the years. When Oslo was signed in 1993, there were 111,000 settlers in the West Bank alone; today, that number exceeds 300,000, and 60% of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem remain under exclusive Israeli control. And then there has been the impunity unfailingly granted to Israel by the US.
What has changed is that, in a region in democratising flux, Egypt no longer plays the role of status quo guarantor and is rediscovering a capacity for enacting regional policy that is independent, constructive and responsive to domestic opinion. The shift in Egypt’s outlook was key to delivering the Palestinian reconciliation breakthrough.
The Fatah-Hamas deal will, inevitably, meet with a rocky reception in the US. Congress may move to defund the PA, security assistance may be withdrawn, and official Israeli talking points (“they chose peace with the terrorists over peace with Israel”) will be warmly received on Capitol Hill. But will this reconciliation deal, if it holds, really be a negative development for the Palestinians, the US or even Israel?
For the Palestinians themselves, internal unity seems a prerequisite for developing a new national platform and strategy, and for reviving a legitimate, empowered and representative PLO. Unity creates one Palestinian address, the likelihood of a more robust negotiating posture, and provides an on-ramp for Hamas to engage in the political process, should it so choose. Crucial to any strategy will be a Palestinian adherence to international law and, in that context, to non-violence.
The Palestinians would best avoid preemptively cutting any ties to the US, but reduced dependence on the US, including the possible suspension of US aid, could be far from disastrous and might facilitate more productive and challenging Palestinian approaches to attaining their own freedom. Unity, or even a UN vote for recognition, will not in itself constitute a fully-fledged strategy or end of occupation.
Huge challenges remain: managing security coordination (internal and external), running a limited self-governing authority that depends on Israeli goodwill to function and, not least, alleviating the closure-induced misery of Gaza. Unity, though, may be a crucial first step in developing a more compelling local and global Palestinian strategy – especially with the new prospect of meaningful Egyptian support.
For the US, Israel-Palestine is a defining national security interest in a critical region of the world. Alongside that, the peculiarities of American domestic politics on anything related to Israel leads the US to box itself in and limit its own manoeuverability on this issue. Too often, the result is American diplomatic impotence.
There might be advantages for the US in having this issue taken somewhat out of its hands, whether via enhanced Palestinian strategic independence, invigorated Egyptian diplomacy, or greater European or UN involvement. Such developments might enhance the prospects of a solution, produce openings for more effective US engagement with Israel, or at least might mitigate the debilitating cumulative impact this issue has on America’s standing in the Middle East.
Finally, Israel. It is unlikely that Israel will welcome a more independent, strategic or empowered Palestinian counterpart. Yet, Israel is today more, not less, insecure and uncertain of its future. In many respects, the aggravated asymmetry of the current peace process and strategic floundering on the part of the Palestinians gives Israel a false sense of permanent impunity and has encouraged Israel’s most self-destructive tendencies (not least, towards settlement building and intolerant nationalism). It makes sense to speculate that a course correction by Israel’s leaders towards greater realism, pragmatism and compromise might emerge in response to a more challenging, strategic and – one would hope – non-violent Palestinian adversary.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW: “Israel plays a role”
There has always been a very strong correlation between internal Palestinian issues and Palestinian-Israeli relations. This is true because Israel is a key player in all aspects of Palestinian life. Israel’s troops are on the ground in the West Bank, and occupy the Gaza Strip by air and sea. But Israel’s occupation was never an issue of military or security control alone; it has interfered with Palestinian economic and political development for the four decades of its existence. Because of this, whatever happens inside the occupied Palestinian territories will be affected one way or another by Israeli practices and visa-versa. Reconciliation between the two rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fateh, is one of the best illustrations of that.
On the one hand, Israeli policies and practices in the occupied territories were among the factors that led to the schism between the Palestinian factions. At the same time, that split has impacted Palestinian-Israeli relations. The failure of the peace process to achieve the legitimate Palestinian objectives of ending the occupation ultimately weakened the Palestinian leadership and contributed to the rise of the alternative–Hamas. By the same token, Israeli unilateralism, which reached its climax under former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during the first few years of this century, rendered the Palestinian leadership irrelevant and compounded its decline. The subsequent shift in the balance of power towards Hamas among Palestinians was partially an outcome of Israeli positions and practices.
Palestinians are approaching the reconciliation process with the belief that its success is not only important in serving internal Palestinian objectives–like better government, more efficiency in running the affairs of the Palestinian people, and improved services–but is also crucial in meeting the aims of the peace process, which is based on a two-state solution. A unified Palestinian Authority and leadership governing a less divided society and its polities are ultimately more conducive to peace talks and delivering the Palestinian side of any agreement. At the end of the day, the peace process is about two states, one of them Palestine in the territories Israel occupied in 1967, which include Gaza and the West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem. The current political division contradicts our dreams for this state.
In addition, everyone must acknowledge that Hamas is not a small spoiler that can be left out of Israeli political calculations. Keeping Hamas outside the process and excluded from the legitimate Palestinian political system could also jeopardize the outcome of the peace process.
Recent experience has led many analysts and politicians to conclude that engaging Hamas and involving it collectively in social responsibilities have a moderating effect on the movement. Engaging Hamas empowers its moderates and encourages healthy debate within the group. Isolating it, on the other hand, plays into the hands of the movement’s most extreme elements.
For these purposes, Palestinians are having difficulty understanding Israel’s anxiety about the reconciliation process. They are suspicious that Israel’s hostility to reconciliation arises because Israel is actually hostile to an independent, unified, and contiguous Palestinian state as part of the two-state solution.
AN ISRAELI VIEW: “Israel needs a positive approach to Hamas-Fateh reconciliation”
The conventional wisdom in Israel holds that Hamas-Fateh reconciliation is detrimental to the peace process. The main argument is that Hamas is a spoiler of the negotiations process because it is a radical Islamic movement guided by a virulent anti-Israel ideology that preaches elimination of the state of Israel. Successful reconciliation would endow Hamas with veto power to block any attempt to achieve a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There is also much concern that Hamas will win the elections that are planned as a stage in the reconciliation process and as a result will take control of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority. This would end any possibility of a viable peace process. Accordingly, Israeli government policies as well as those of the United States strongly oppose the Palestinian reconciliation process. These policies are practiced through threats aimed at the PLO and PA: to cut transfer of tax money collected by Israel for the PA as well as other financial aid, and to stop negotiating with the PLO and the PA.
Cynically, it is possible to argue that to a large extent these arguments are absurd and the threats empty–that this is like discussing the killing of someone who is already dead. The peace process is dead anyway. If there have been no real negotiations for the past two years, what is the meaning of discussing the effect of reconciliation on the peace process and threatening to stop it? The survival of the PA is an Israeli and American interest, so what is the sense of causing its financial bankruptcy?
Yet on a more serious note, one needs to analyze the reasons for the stalemate in the peace process and to deduce from this analysis whether reconciliation will make it more difficult or easier to revive this process.
It seems that the main reason for the deadlock is each side’s deep conviction that there is zero probability the other will be willing to conclude a permanent status agreement their own party can live with. On the Israeli side, there are also grave doubts whether the PLO and the PA are capable of implementing any agreement the two parties do conclude. One of the main reasons for these doubts is the division between Fateh and Hamas and the latter’s growing power. Hamas governs the Gaza Strip and no agreement can be implemented there without its consent. There is also concern that the “Arab spring” is only going to augment Hamas’ power.
The main implication is that we should either wait for political changes among Palestinians and Israelis that enable them to make the tough concessions needed for a permanent status agreement and to implement it–assuming these political changes do eventually take place and that prolongation of the status quo does not create an irreversible situation–or, alternatively, that we devise a new political process that enables gradual progress towards the hoped-for two-state solution.
It seems that the second approach is much more realistic and makes more sense. In this context, Palestinian reconciliation has the potential to facilitate such a gradual process that includes partial and limited agreements or even unilateral steps. The main reason is that Hamas has the capacity to be a partner to this kind of process. This reflects two factors.
First, this kind of process does not force Hamas to completely forego its ideology and its declared policies. The movement will probably not be required to recognize Israel until a later stage of the process–unlike under Quartet conditions that demand recognition as a precondition for any Hamas participation. Hamas has repeatedly declared its willingness to enter into agreement with Israel based on a long-term “hudna” (armistice) in the framework of which a Palestinian state is established. Right now, Hamas’ conditions for a hudna cannot be accepted by Israel, but that is the purpose of negotiations–to bridge the gaps between the two parties’ positions.
Second, Hamas has an interest in participating in such a process. Since becoming a political player in the legitimate Palestinian political arena, participating in elections and seeking to join the PLO, Hamas has a strong interest in being perceived by the Palestinian population as catering to Palestinians’ basic interests: to raise families in an environment where they can live peacefully, enjoy basic human rights and have a reasonable life and a future.
That is also the main message of the Arab spring. It is quite evident that Hamas wishes to be perceived as part of the Arab spring and not another dictatorial clique. For the very same reasons, Hamas has an interest in becoming a legitimate player in the international arena.
Those who fear that Hamas will eventually become the dominant political force in the PA and the PLO have of course reason to be concerned, especially as we witness the rise of Islamic movements all over the Middle East. Yet this dynamic reflects a strong momentum in the present Middle East that can probably not be stopped by artificially sabotaging internal political processes such as Fateh-Hamas reconciliation. Trying to influence the policies of these Islamic movements is a more promising line of action.
AN ISRAELI VIEW: “Playing for time”
Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is currently managing two very different and in many ways contradictory negotiating tracks. Neither has produced any sort of substantive success thus far. If one does produce a breakthrough, the other will probably collapse. Meanwhile, the counterpoint between them is instructive.
In Amman, Abbas’ representative Saeb Erekat is discussing with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s delegate, Yitzhak Molcho, the conditions for a possible renewal of final status negotiations. In Cairo, Abbas has met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to chart a course for Hamas-Fateh reconciliation within the framework of the PLO as well as through the instrument of new Palestinian Authority elections.
In agreeing to the Amman talks, Abbas is catering to the need of Jordan’s King Abdullah II to demonstrate progress toward greater Israeli-Palestinian understanding as a means of stabilizing his kingdom and his rule in the face of widespread popular dissatisfaction. Abdullah, who is visiting Washington this week, can brag there about having brought Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table at a time when the Obama administration and the Quartet have proven incapable of doing so.
In entering into negotiations with Meshaal in Cairo–talks that have extended into Gaza as well–Abbas is bowing to pressure from Egypt’s military rulers. The latter, for their part, have adopted a conciliatory attitude toward Hamas that reflects the massive electoral popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more strict Salafists.
Between Amman and Cairo, then, the two tracks of talks appear to reflect developments in the regional Arab revolutionary wave. The Cairo track, in particular, seemingly points to an assessment on Abbas’ part that he needs to integrate Hamas into broader Palestinian politics in order to accommodate the rise of political Islam throughout the Arab world. Hamas, incidentally, has condemned the Amman talks, much as it has opposed a third strategy developed in the course of the past year or so by Abbas: an appeal to United Nations and other agencies to delegitimize Israel and support Palestinian statehood. Hamas apparently fears that success for Abbas on either of these tracks would obviate his need to reconcile with the Islamist movement.
But is there any real potential substance to these tracks? The Amman negotiations have no chance of producing genuine progress toward a two-state solution, given the huge gaps separating Abbas’ and Netanyahu’s positions. The best one can hope for–and this too is doubtful–is agreement on a series of confidence-building measures: Israeli territorial and security concessions in areas B and C of the West Bank in return for a PLO commitment to abandon the UN/de-legitimization track. Netanyahu, who has rejected such moves consistently for three years even after at one point promising the Quartet to adopt them, might theoretically now be “ripe” for this approach if indeed he is contemplating early elections for which he grudgingly needs to point to some sort of negotiating achievement. As for Abbas, he too needs such an achievement for domestic political reasons. Hamas could presumably live with territorial/security confidence-building measures in the West Bank, too.
On the other hand, any sort of breakthrough in the Hamas-Fateh negotiations is liable to scuttle both the Amman talks and the UN track. The Amman talks would suffer because Israel and the United States, if not the entire Quartet, would refuse to deal with a Palestinian leadership that integrates Hamas as currently constituted. The UN track would be abandoned due to Hamas’ own disapproval. Netanyahu, who fears real progress toward a two-state solution, would presumably not mourn the demise of either track.
Then why should Netanyahu have a problem with Palestinian reconciliation? After all, Israel should long ago have acknowledged failure to develop a viable strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza. If Israel is receptive to the idea, reconciliation could provide an opening for a possibly productive dialogue with Hamas. The US and the Quartet, too, have to recognize that after 18 years the Oslo process has ceased being relevant and should be replaced with a model that focuses on the kind of territorial agreement Hamas could conceivably live with.
Yet when it comes to Palestinian reconciliation, Israel also has legitimate reasons for caution. Reconciliation, if it happens, will be a by-product of the rise of political Islam throughout the Arab world. We do not know how that revolutionary process will end in any of the affected countries. This reality may even explain why not only Abbas, but Netanyahu too, appears to be playing for time on all fronts. (HSH)
1. “How Hamas-Fatah unity could break Middle East deadlock.” The Guardian
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/apr/28/palestinian-territories-hamas 2. “Palestinians finally shed victimhood” by Rami G. Khouri, The Daily Star http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Opinion/Columnist/2011/Sep-28/149903-palestinians-finally-shed-victimhood.ashx#axzz29mFzxOHl
3. A PALESTINIAN VIEW: “Israel plays a role” byGhassan Khatib, a coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. Published 16/1/2012 © bitterlemons.org
4. AN ISRAELI VIEW: “Israel needs a positive approach to Hamas-Fateh reconciliation” by Shlomo Brom. Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. 5. AN ISRAELI VIEW: “Playing for time” by Yossi Alpher, a coeditor of the bitterlemons.net family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.