It’s easy to bet against a Palestinian unity agreement, but that doesn’t mean it’s not on the horizon.
By: Grant Rumley
Ed. Note: A version of this article appeared in the Daily Beast, you can read it here.
For observers of Palestinian politics, watching the spectacle of reconciliation attempts between Fatah and Hamas is like watching Sisyphus and his rock. The rhetoric that is normally conciliatory, even diplomatic at first, so easily devolves into a spat, derailing any potential agreement. Few outsiders, and even fewer Palestinians, believe an actual reconciliation agreement will occur. Indeed, as one Palestinian in Beit Jala put it: “the conflict between Palestine and Israel is nothing compared to the conflict between Fatah and Hamas.” Yet when words sabotage potential agreements, actions sometimes rebuild that potential. In November, Abbas was quick to call Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, and ‘congratulate’ him after Operation Pillar of Cloud. That same month, as Abbas and the Fatah-led Palestinian leadership took to the UN General Assembly their bid for an upgraded status, thousands of supporters in Gaza rallied for the bid, with a former Hamas deputy prime minister calling it “the right step in the right direction.” For two parties that have spent the greater part of the past six years differentiating themselves from the other, the actions of the past few months may have shown an area for common ground.
And while the immediate talks between the two parties are benched as Morsi addresses the upheavals in Egypt, don’t expect the reconciliation dialogue to break down so quickly this time.
For one, the Israeli elections present a new opportunity for the Palestinian leadership. Yair Lapid, who ran a campaign on domestic issues, has suddenly shifted gears and expressed his desire to return to the negotiating table as part of the coalition package. On the Yesh Atid party list, Yaakov Peri, a former Shin Bet head, has described the recent change in neighboring Arab countries as an “opportunity” for Israel to improve its regional relations. With coalition negotiations set to start this week, many believe Lapid and his 19 Knesset-seat-winning party will occupy the foreign ministry; and depending on how the rest of the coalition shakes out, talks with the Palestinians could be on the horizon. If the coalition includes Naftali Bennett, a man who billed his party as the only major Israeli party completely opposed to a Palestinian state, expect domestic issues such as Haredi reform to be on the docket for the foreseeable future. If the coalition includes the Sephardic Shas party, expect Haredi reform to be off the table, and a feasible route to negotiations appears.
There are quite a few barriers to any palpable agreement, however, and even more barriers between any potential agreement and its acceptance by Israel, the US, or the EU. For an agreement to work internally, according to Daoud Kuttab, new elections need to be held, Hamas has to be incorporated into the PLO, and the Palestine Legislative Council has to be reconvened. In order to hold the elections, the Palestinian Central Elections Committee must be permitted to register voters and monitor election sites. After being held up at the border for a few days, the Hamas government has finally allowed them into Gaza, where Haniyeh will meet with their representatives ahead of the planned voter registration in February. For any possible agreement to be recognized internationally, a new set of qualifiers needs to be met. The US and Israel have long said that any government which includes Hamas would not be recognized, a direct result of Hamas’s continued belligerence against, and its refusal to recognize, the state of Israel. As such, any agreement would have to see a severe downsizing of the role of the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing, a renunciation of violent resistance, and an acknowledgement of Israel’s existence. A tall order, to be sure, but bear in mind that Abbas has repeatedly stated that Hamas has already accepted the premise of a two-state solution with an Israeli and Palestinian state side-by-side. If Haniyeh and Meshal make a concerted effort to reel in Qassam, shrink its role, and review their charter, there could be just enough political cover for the US and other countries to recognize the newly formed Palestinian government.
Still, there are many other question marks on the table with any potential agreement – who would head the unity government (most certainly, Abbas), what would be done with the arms in Gaza, who would constitute the PLO and PLC, etc – and the safe bet would be to bet against the talks leading to an actual agreement and reconciliation, but don’t discount the events of November in illuminating a middle ground for the parties. As Abbas invites the moderate and center-left Members of Knesset to Ramallah for talks and meetings, perhaps it’s worth noticing the sense of urgency between Ramallah and Gaza City. For a Palestinian leadership that has so often pursued multiple policy routes half-heartedly, a full-on concerted effort towards reconciliation could bear fruit.
Grant Rumley is the Editor in Chief at the Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs.
Photo credit: Flickr user Il Naso Precario, creative commons.