Mideast Briefing: “That Sinking Feeling: Palestinian “Unity” and the Peace Process”

May 10th, 2011

Ed Rettig, Director, AJC-Jerusalem

A familiar sinking feeling accompanies the news of a unity agreement between the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah leadership and the Islamist Hamas government of Gaza. Some informed observers suggest to AJC that this should not be taken too seriously. It is, they claim, mainly window dressing designed to facilitate the Palestinian attempt to bypass negotiations with Israel and attain independence through a UN vote in September, and the alliance will not hold water much beyond that. Nevertheless, even window dressing carries costs, and this particular adornment may be more expensive than most.

What follows is a brief rundown of this development’s winners and losers. First, the losers:

Fatah

Despite having taken the initiative in formulating the agreement, Fatah did not require Hamas to accept the conditions articulated by the Quartet (UN, EU, U.S. and Russia) in January 2006 for inclusion in peace negotiations: “…non-violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the Road Map,” which articulated the goal of Jewish and Arab states living side-by-side in peace.

Mahmoud a-Zahar, a leader of Hamas in Gaza, recently informed Al Jazeera that Hamas would never recognize Israel, which he described as “the rule of Poles and Ethiopians in their [Palestinian] land.” More discouraging was the fact that he enjoyed the support of Nabil Shaath, longtime negotiator with Israel and member of the Fatah Central Committee, who said that “many others agree with us that the old rules of the Quartet were not logical, and are not workable… stop asking Hamas.” Fatah even agreed to allow Hamas to join the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is the political organ that negotiates with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. As the meaning of this step sinks in, Palestinians may well come to ask themselves what remains of the credibility of Fatah as an ideological alternative to Hamas. The fact that Fatah had to use an outsider, Dr. Salam Fayyad, to introduce good government already showed how the party has little credibility in that department.

Hamas

Shlomo Brom, a respected analyst at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, suggests that the agreement actually represents a Hamas capitulation to Fatah’s terms as formulated in a Fatah resolution dated October 14, 2010. If he is correct, Hamas’s acceptance denotes the group’s sense of its own vulnerability in light of developments in the “Arab Spring,” which, Brom argues, “have highlighted the problem of the Arab regimes’ lack of public legitimacy and its ramifications. From this point of view, Hamas finds itself in a position of weakness.”

Indeed, polling in Gaza shows a decline in support for Hamas. At the same time, its close ally, the Assad regime in Syria, is in serious trouble. It remains to be seen whether Fatah’s acquiescence in Hamas joining the PLO will outweigh the humiliation suffered by Hamas in caving in to Fatah by making noises, dutifully noted by the New York Times, that sound vaguely agreeable to a two-state solution, albeit without “end of conflict.” It was perhaps to balance that perception of moderation, and another sign of weakness, that Ismail Hanniyeh, “prime minister” of the Hamas Gaza regime, condemned the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

Israel

Hebrew University’s Gadi Taub suggests in a recent article in The New Republic that the Hamas-Fatah accord may have a perversely positive result, harming peace negotiations but encouraging both sides to move in “mutual unilateralism” toward what Taub correctly defines as the heart of the peace process, partition of the Land. That is, the idea dating back to the 1930s that the only practical resolution of the conflict requires the division of the Land into two states, one that embodies Palestinian national liberation, the other doing the same for the Jews.

Time will tell, but this view seems improbably optimistic. With its erstwhile peace interlocutors gone, Israel is likely to emerge a loser since there will be no orderly and, above all, safe way to arrange an Israeli withdrawal from the territory that will become the Palestinian state. True enough, most Israelis agree that the entropy of occupation works against their interests. But Fatah, by associating with Hamas, has chosen to expose its lack of commitment to partition, to the Quartet principles, and to the peace process as a whole, apparently placing a show of Palestinian national unity as it heads into its great gamble at the UN in September ahead of the pursuit of peace through the negotiated partition of the land. The Palestinian People When it is finally born, Palestine will face serious geographic and economic challenges: only about 95% of the size of the American state of Delaware (assuming the 1949 ceasefire lines), it has neither significant natural resources nor direct connection between a mountainous heartland and a small coastal region, and will be tasked with repatriating numerous diaspora Palestinians, a task requiring a rapidly growing economy. Unless the U.S. and the European Union are prepared to continue subsidizing independent Palestine at current irrational levels and higher, none of this can happen without accessing its major economic resource, the economy of Israel. However, the Israelis have reservations about dealing on a friendly, mutually beneficial basis with a political entity that allows significant and even potentially dominant space to the antidemocratic, bigoted, Islamist iteration of Ku Klux Klan ideology that is Hamas.

Former President Jimmy Carter stated in a Washington Post op-ed that “If the United States and the international community support this [Palestinian unity] effort, they can help Palestinian democracy and establish the basis for a unified Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza that can make a secure peace with Israel.” And if such support is not forthcoming? To grasp the gravity of the situation, understand that reality is exactly the opposite of Carter’s fantasy on all counts.

The U.S. Administration

Whatever it represents on the intra-Palestinian level, the Palestinian unity accord is a PA vote of no confidence in the American Administration. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has arrived at the conclusion that the U.S. is equally unlikely to help or harm him. Some of this may be blowback from America’s handling of the events of the “Arab Spring.” Washington observer David Makovsky reported: “Abbas complained that the State Department did not back Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, his main regional patron, at the beginning of the Tahrir Square protests. He added that the revolution would produce only chaos and Muslim Brotherhood ascendance, revealing a fear that Washington might abandon him as well.”

Abbas’s relations with this Administration have long been strained. He feels President Obama forced him out on a limb by insisting on an Israeli settlement freeze and then deserted him, letting Netanyahu face him down on the issue of settlements. We should take seriously what Abbas said in January: “The U.S. is assisting us in the amount of $460 million annually. This does not mean that they dictate to us whatever they want, because we do what we view as beneficial to our cause.” The Administration showed that it could not “deliver” the Israelis on its challenge over settlements, and now Abbas appears to be going to great lengths to show that it cannot “deliver” the Palestinians either.

Winners from the Palestinian unity accord: ultimately, no one.