By Alon Ben-Meir
Characterizing the Fatah-Hamas unity, or rather reconciliation, agreement as helpful or harmful to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is premature at best. Determining the viability or the lack thereof in such an agreement must first be examined in the context of Hamas’ changing state of affairs and the status of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
The fact that two similar agreements failed to materialize in the past does not suggest that this one will necessarily meet the same fate. My understanding is that both Fatah and Hamas have concluded that, unlike past agreements, the new accord is essential to adjust to the changing dynamics in the region and their bilateral relations.
Hamas was motivated by a number of factors, including the extremely difficult task of meeting Palestinian needs in Gaza, who are despairing with unemployment reaching nearly 40 percent, substandard medical services and education, and a new generation living the daily indignities with little prospects for a better future.
Hamas has been cut off from Egypt as the new military-controlled government destroyed most tunnels, preventing the smuggling of goods to Gaza, which have in the past provided a financial lifeline to the Hamas government.
The turmoil in Syria and Hamas’ decision to support the rebels deprived it of the political and logistic support that had been provided by the Assad regime. Moreover, because of the sanctions imposed on Iran, Tehran has substantially reduced its financial aid and military supplies on which Hamas relied heavily in the past.
The Israeli blockade of Gaza, though somewhat eased during the past two years, still prevents the free flow of goods, especially building materials, not to mention the extraordinary travel restrictions and the near-isolation of the Palestinians from the rest of the world.
Finally, Hamas’ inability to challenge Israel militarily now and in the future has finally sunk in, leaving it to conclude that the only viable option left is joining Fatah in a bid to ease the financial pressure, enjoy, over time, greater political acceptance by the international community, and become an integral part of the peace process.
For the PA, the agreement with Hamas is accepting the inevitable: no peace agreement with Israel can be reached, fully implemented and endure without the support of Hamas. For Abbas, since the peace negotiations have thus far made hardly any progress, he concluded that he stands to risk little by reaching out to Hamas, consolidating his role as the leader of all Palestinians while gaining wide Palestinian political support.
With Hamas, the PA will be in a position to present a united front, prevent Israel from continuing its policy of “divide and conquer,” deny Israel’s claim that there is no partner with whom to negotiate, strengthen its mandate to govern, and gain, over time, enhanced international support.
Finally, given Hamas’ diminishing popularity, Fatah is more than likely to emerge as the winner in the elections, scheduled to take place within a few months. For Hamas, other than easing the financial pressure, joining the Arab fold appears to trump its policy of violent resistance towards Israel.
Abbas’ assessment of the Israeli reaction was on target. Notwithstanding Netanyahu’s decision to suspend the negotiations, which are already moribund, and his threats to squeeze the PA financially, Netanyahu wants to prevent the collapse of the PA. He is terrified of being forced to assume the financial and security burden of over 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank.
Although the US expressed disappointment with Abbas’ surprise decision to reconcile with Hamas, the Obama administration will, too, find it extremely difficult to punish the PA as such punishment, including withholding financial assistance, will not only scuttle what is left of the peace process but damage its ability to influence the PA in the future.
Netanyahu’s insistence that Abbas must chose to make peace with either Israel or with Hamas is disingenuous at best. For Netanyahu, the reconciliation agreement is heaven-sent; it gave him a timely opportunity to end the negotiations over a two-state solution to which he has never subscribed, while conveniently blaming the PA.
Netanyahu and most of his coalition partners do not want to even entertain the idea that Hamas can moderate its position, and refuse to consider that time and circumstances have brought this about. Israel itself precipitated much of this change, but is now refusing to accept the results of its own policies.
Indeed, regardless of Hamas’ current political posture toward Israel, its leaders know full well that they cannot now or at any time in the future pose an existential threat to Israel. They cannot stay outside the main political currents, which potentially bear significant developments in months and years to come, and they know that there is no other viable alternative if they choose to remain relevant.
Yes, Hamas was rightfully designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, the US and the EU, but so was the PLO less than two decades ago. The changing political conditions and the reality on the ground forced the PLO to change its stance toward Israel, which eventually led to canceling the articles in the PLO charter that denied Israel’s right to exist on April 24, 1996.
In fact, Hamas’ position and its precondition to establish peace with Israel is not much different than the current PA stand. Hamas’ political guru Khaled Meshal told CNN in November 2012 what he has stated twice before: “I accept a Palestinian state according [to] the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as the capital, with the right to return.”
Moreover, even though Israel considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization and has blockaded Gaza for the past nine years, it has been dealing and negotiating directly and indirectly with Hamas on many fronts including prisoner exchanges, trade in both directions, and the exchange of some information to prevent accidental flare-ups.
Instead of rejecting outright the reconciliation agreement, both Israel and the US should encourage Hamas to take additional steps to demonstrate its intentions and ask friends of Hamas, such as Turkey, to persuade Hamas to change its public posture toward Israel.
In this regard, Hamas may well be persuaded to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which offers Israel a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace based almost exactly on the same provisions that both the PA and Hamas are demanding. This would allow Hamas to return to the Arab states’ fold without losing face and allow the US and the EU to remove Hamas from their terrorism lists.
It should be noted that the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and the PA requires Hamas to refrain from calling for Israel’s destruction, not to provoke Israel, and prevent other Palestinian extremists from provoking Israel, which Hamas has, in any case, been doing for the past three years.
To be sure, the idea behind the unity agreement is for Hamas to become an integral part of the Palestinian body politic, and permanently abandon violent resistance to the Israeli occupation in favor of peaceful political resistance.
The latest unity agreement at this particular juncture will more than likely survive and offers new opportunities for the US and Israel to build on it rather than dismiss it. Hamas and the Palestinians in Gaza are a fact of life, and for the US and Israel to choose to be oblivious to their existence is not only shortsighted but dangerously misguided.
Indeed, neither the US nor Israel could wish Hamas away. Both will have to deal with Hamas as long as it moderates its ways and challenges Israel to make peace rather than challenging its right to exist.
Cover photo by David King
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.