Palestinian Reconciliation: Plus Ça Change …
Palestinian Reconciliation: Plus Ça Change …
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
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Why Israel-Iran War Is a Lifeline for Netanyahu
Report / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

Palestinian Reconciliation: Plus Ça Change …

The reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas is frozen, but implementation is necessary to minimise the risk of Israeli-Palestinian violence and bring about a Palestinian leadership able to reach and carry out peace with Israel.

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Executive Summary

Hamas and Fatah surprised all with their announcement of a reconciliation accord. What had been delayed since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007 and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Abbas asked Salam Fayyad to form a government in the West Bank was done in Cairo in hours. Shock was matched by uncertainty over what had been agreed and the course it would take. Would the factions produce a national strategy and unify fractured institutions? Or would the agreement codify the status quo? Even some of the more pessimistic scenarios were optimistic. Reconciliation stumbled at its first hurdle, naming a prime minister – though that is not the only divisive issue. Neither side wants to admit failure, so the accord is more likely to be frozen than renounced, leaving the door slightly ajar for movement. Palestinian parties but also the U.S. and Europe need to recognise that reconciliation is necessary to both minimise the risk of Israeli-Palestinian violence and help produce a leadership able to reach and implement peace with Israel.

The reconciliation accord signed on 4 May, is several agreements in one: the Egyptian Reconciliation Document, signed by Fatah in October 2009 but rejected by Hamas, which claimed it did not accurately reflect prior discussions; an additional five points, agreed on 27 April – the “Understandings”, which reflect many of Hamas’s reservations about the Egyptian Document; and unwritten, informal understandings, some of which undo provisions of the signed agreements. Taken together, they would alter politics in two ways. First, they provide for a single Palestinian government, with limited functions, of technocrats or independents, charged with unifying institutions and preparing for legislative, presidential and Palestine National Council elections in a year. Secondly, they call for a newly constituted, temporary leadership body operating in ambiguous partnership with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The key was the decision to delay security reform until after the elections.

There were several reasons why the parties at long last reached an agreement, though a genuine change of heart was not one of them. Neither Fatah nor Hamas changed its views of the other, and their mutual mistrust did not somehow evaporate. Rather, the accord was yet another unpredictable manifestation of the Arab Spring. To an extent, it sensitised the two movements to the importance of public opinion which, among Palestinians, firmly favoured unity. But that was not the main impetus. Instead, what made the difference were the strategic shifts produced by Arab uprisings.

For Fatah and President Abbas in particular, it has meant the fall of a reliable ally in Cairo. Coming atop dwindling Palestinian faith in negotiations and acute disenchantment with U.S. President Barak Obama, Mubarak’s ouster signalled the need for a strategic reorientation. The deal with Hamas was one step in that direction; greater determination in turning to the UN as a forum for dealing with the Israeli occupation is another.

For Hamas, the regional landscape shifted in two perceptible ways. Changes in Egypt both removed a thorn from its side and augured a likely improvement in bilateral relations; the prospect that the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas’s parent organisation) would play an increasingly central role in Egyptian politics further led the Islamist movement to gravitate toward Cairo. Far more than Iran, and more even than Assad’s Syria, Egypt in theory is Hamas’s natural partner in light of its geographic proximity to Gaza and the movement’s historical relationship with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Simultaneously, popular unrest in Syria called into question the sustainability of Hamas’s close ties to President Assad’s regime. Together, these developments significantly enhanced the movement’s incentive to say “yes” to Cairo and sign the unity agreement.

Egypt’s newfound credibility among Arab publics is one reason why Fatah and Hamas are reluctant to walk away from the accord, even as both impede its implementation. The same applies to some extent to the U.S. and Europe, neither of which wishes to alienate the new regime in Cairo; the reconciliation accord represents its first foreign policy achievement, after all, and Western countries eager to show they are on the right side of history must think twice before openly opposing or blocking it. Besides, European capitals in particular seem to have learned a few lessons from the past and come to regret the approach they adopted the last time Palestinians sought to mend fences in 2007, when they kept their distance and contributed to failure. All of which explains why, to date, the European Union (EU) and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. (which is far more susceptible to domestic political pressure) have avoided verbal condemnation of the agreement and instead adopted a wait-and-see approach.

But refusing to bury the accord is not the same as helping bring it to life. President Abbas and many in Fatah are loath to endanger the international legitimacy and support that they see as their chief asset; forming a new government, replacing Prime Minister Fayyad and reforming the PLO could put those at risk, as Washington has made abundantly clear. Likewise, Hamas finds it difficult to compromise on core issues after a long period of sacrifice in Gaza and the West Bank. The partisan rivalry has not abated; if anything, after five years of bitter feuding, it has intensified. So far, signing the reconciliation agreement simply has looked like a way for Fatah and Hamas to wage their struggle through other means. Israel and many in the West might see in this reason to celebrate, ignoring as they have in the past that a divided Palestinian leadership has less legitimacy, less room for flexibility and less ability to shape the outlook and behaviour of increasingly frustrated constituents.

The Arab world is boiling. Palestinian activists chafe at the current paralysis. The international community is contributing little of use. Meanwhile, the two leading Palestinian movements remain stuck in their ways. Plus ça change …

Ramallah/Gaza/Jerusalem/Washington/Brussels, 20 July 2011


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