Questioning Palestinian Unity

Senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmed (left) and Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas government, announce a reconciliation agreement in Gaza City on April 23. The leaders agreed to form a unity government within five weeks. (Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash90/JNS)

Senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmed (left) and Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas government, announce a reconciliation agreement in Gaza City on April 23. The leaders agreed to form a unity government within five weeks. (Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash90/JNS)

Now that Fatah and Hamas have agreed to form a Palestinian unity government, opinions are mixed on what this means for Israel, for the Palestinians and for the future of the peace process.

Israel suspended peace negotiations a day after the April 23 announcement that the rival factions agreed to bridge their differences. It calls for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to organize a united governing coalition within the next five weeks and to hold elections after six months, the first elections in the West Bank since 2006.

National unity is a popular issue among the Palestinians, but past attempts by the Islamist Hamas and the secular Fatah to rule the Palestinian territories together failed.

Elliot Abrams, a former top National Security Council official and senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked closely with this issue during the George W. Bush administration, believes the odds are stacked against the Palestinians.

“The first thing we have to say is that this has never worked before, and if one were betting, one would have to bet that it doesn’t come off,” said Abrams.

The two factions have been opposed since 2007 after the previous year’s election victories by Hamas led to a civil war — resulting in Hamas taking complete control of the Gaza Strip, while Fatah retained the West Bank.

Including Hamas, which is recognized by the United States, Israel and the European Union as a terrorist organization, in the Palestinian Liberation Organization could severely limit the PLO’s ability to participate in further negotiations with Israel and the U.S. unless it recognizes Israel and renounces terrorism.

According to Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the move is an understandable — albeit reckless — concession made by Abbas to gain favor from the Palestinian people rather than placing his faith in the negotiations.

“By allowing Hamas to join the PLO, Abbas is almost guaranteeing that the organization or one of the organizations that he heads is going to be designated as a terrorist organization,” he said.

The ramifications could be severe. The U.S. is required by law to cut the millions of dollars in aid it sends the Palestinian Authority if a joint government does not disavow Hamas’ principles of violent resistance and recognize Israel, although a sitting president can always choose to issue a waiver and ignore this congressional budget provision.

Shortly after the reconciliation was announced, Rep. Iliana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs’ subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, called for an immediate cutoff of aid for the P.A.

“President Obama must not allow one cent of American taxpayer money to help fund this terrorist group,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “In the coming weeks, I will convene a subcommittee hearing on this issue and many more regarding the P.A., Israel and the peace process. It’s long past time the U.S. reassess its relationship with the corrupt Abu Mazen [Abbas] and his cronies.”

Abrams said history shows that Hamas will not change merely for the opportunity to sit in a government with Fatah.

“Hamas is not going to abandon its beliefs. We found this out after 2006, where they were in fact cut off by Europe and the United States,” he said. “And they could have made some compromises. They refused.

“Hamas is a terrorist group, and they believe in what they’re doing,” continued Abrams. “It’s an Islamist group linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, and they’re not going to give up their views. Nor are they going to give up power in Gaza. The notion that they would seriously contemplate letting the Fatah party run Gaza, I think, is ridiculous.”

But Lisa Goldman, director of the Israel-Palestine initiative at the New America Foundation, believes the latest Palestinian moves is part of a general approach to achieve national goals through nonviolent means. While Israel and the United States oppose the Palestinians’ steps to join United Nations agencies and treaties, these actions are a far cry from indiscriminate acts of terror.

“I think it’s just part and parcel of their general shift toward diplomatic means — nonviolent, diplomatic and also unassailably credible,” said Goldman. “You can’t take away the rights of the Palestinians to apply for membership in an international agency. It’s a nonviolent means of establishing some kind of basis for their state.”

Others, such as Palestinian-American writer and Middle East observer Samer Badawi, say that a unified Palestinian populace is the only realistic approach to achieve success in negotiations.

“Fatah and Hamas are coming to the inevitable conclusion that you cannot negotiate a peace agreement with the Israelis — with or without [Secretary of State] John Kerry’s help — if you leave out one-third of the population of the occupied territories who are essentially the people of Gaza,” said Badawi.

To Badawi, unification means that rather than negotiating with Fatah and excluding Gazans from a Palestinian agreement, both parties would be at the table, granting any result legitimacy. That the U.S. and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization that cannot be negotiated with will just have to change.

“It’s not unprecedented for the U.S. to affect a policy shift when it comes to negotiating with groups that we consider unsavory,” explained Badawi, who pointed to the U.S. negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan as an example.

“If you’re looking to create a sustainable peace, you can’t not negotiate with your enemies,” he said.

Goldman and Badawi agreed that since both Fatah and Hamas are unpopular, it isn’t certain that Fatah would be routed again by Hamas in another election.

The U.S. and Israel will be watching closely for what transpires in the next five weeks.

“I do think when we talk about Palestinian unity, it’s important to note that in principle it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because you ultimately do need a unified Palestinian front if you’re going to make [peace] last,” said Schanzer. “But if you include Hamas in its current form and current ideology, then you’ve got a big problem.”

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com
JNS.org contributed to this story.

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