How Hamas-Fatah unity could break Middle East deadlock
If Palestinian reconciliation holds, it may release all the players, the US and Israel included, from the ossified roles of the process
guardian.co.uk, Thu 28 Apr 2011 19.30 BST
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. This week in Cairo, 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 manoeuvering 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.
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.