Middle East

After past failures, will latest attempt at Palestinian unity turn out differently?

Past attempts by the Islamist terrorist group Hamas and the secular Fatah movement to jointly rule the Palestinian territories have failed. After the latest pledge by the rival factions to unite, opinions vary on what the accord will mean for the Palestinians, for Israel, and for the future of the peace process.

Head of the Hamas government Ismail Haniyeh (right) and senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmed (left) raise their hands together at a news conference that announced a reconciliation agreement between the rival Palestinian factions in Gaza City on April 23, 2014. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Head of the Hamas government Ismail Haniyeh (right) and senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmed (left) raise their hands together at a news conference that announced a reconciliation agreement between the rival Palestinian factions in Gaza City on April 23, 2014. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Israel suspended peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) a day after the April 23 announcement that Fatah, which is led by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, agreed to bridge its differences with Hamas. The pact called for a united governing coalition to be organized within five weeks and for elections to be held after six months—the first elections in the West Bank since 2006.

Elliott Abrams, a former top National Security Council official and senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked closely on the Palestinian unity issue during the George W. Bush administration, believes the odds of the new deal working out 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 the ground,” Abrams told JNS.org.

The two Palestinian factions have been in conflict 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—recognized by the United States, Israel and the European Union as a terrorist organization—in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) could severely limit the PLO’s ability to participate in further negotiations with Israel and the U.S., unless Hamas 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 negotiations with Israel.

“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,” Schanzer told JNS.org.

The ramifications could be severe. The U.S. is required by law to cut the millions of dollars in aid it sends to the PA if a joint government does not disavow Hamas’s 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, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chairwoman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs’ subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, called for an immediate cutoff of aid to the PA.

“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,” he told JNS.org. “We found this out after 2006 where they were in fact cut off by Europe and the United States. And they could have made some compromises. They refused.”

“Hamas is a terrorist group, and they believe in what they’re doing,” added 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 move is part of a general approach to achieve national goals through nonviolent means—a strategy that also includes the attempt to join United Nations agencies and treaties.

“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, like 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 with Israel.

“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 simply need to change, he believes.

“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 toldJNS.org.

Goldman and Badawi agreed that since both Fatah and Hamas are unpopular, it isn’t certain that Hamas would again rout Fatah in an election.

The U.S. and Israel, meanwhile, will be watching closely for what transpires before the Palestinian unity pact’s five-week deadline to form a government.

“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.”