Following a series of meetings held under Egyptian patronage and aimed at reviving the issue of reconciliation between the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, Cairo has issued an official statement defining the terms of the new reconciliation agreement. The meetings were held at this juncture in an effort to capitalize on the seemingly positive relations between the two over the past few months.
However, how do the terms of this agreement differ from those of the past? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Unlike the succession of past agreements that have failed to find a solution to Palestinian disunity, is it destined to succeed?
The Cairo Agreement is distinguished by the fact that it sets a timetable to begin extended "technical" negotiations aiming to discuss outstanding issues. It sets January 30th as the date for commencement of negotiations relating to the formation of a new Palestinian government; the resumption of work by the Central Election Commission in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and meetings between committees concerned with civil liberties and community reconciliation. It is also agreed that the Palestine Liberation Organization Development and Activation Committee will meet to resume its work in Cairo on February 9th.
The deadlines set by this schedule are relatively close. This gives it a sense of gravity and the possibility of it being executed unlike previous agreements which would set a deadline for the completion of negotiations without setting a date for their commencement. This often led to the deadline being reached before negotiations had even begun.
In addition, leaving the date for commencement open gives both parties room to manoeuvre in the event of changes in the political climate. This is often what happens with expected breakthroughs in negotiations with Israel; a matter arises, which President Abbas gives priority to over national reconciliation.
Moreover, the 2013 Cairo Agreement is significant as it requires the formation of a committee headed by Egypt and attended by two representatives from Fatah and Hamas. This committee aims to ensure that the agreement is executed, that obstacles are overcome, and that all terms of the agreement are carried out as a unit – this is to prevent either party from pushing toward the implementation of terms in their political and factional interests while stalling those that are not.
Egypt, as patron, plays an important role in this committee as it acts as guarantor for the implementation of the agreement. Given Egypt's new political performance since the fall of the Mubarak regime, its involvement lends additional weight. Moreover, under the leadership of President Morsi, the new government remains neutral. Under Mubarak's regime, Egypt was biased in favour of President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, and acted as godfather to US requirements and policies in the region which often hindered the realisation of reconciliation.
Another positive point in favour of the new agreement is that it calls for an end to all negative press releases from either side during the reconciliation process. This is very important considering previous experiences, when either or both sides would resort to making abusive press statements about one another creating a tense environment, lessening the possibility of reconciliation and diminishing public confidence.
This term is quite significant as it determines the mechanism for dealing with the release of such statements; returning to the Egyptian sponsor and the trilateral committee to discuss "media violations" quickly and quietly, so that it does not turn into a public matter which creates a negative atmosphere that gets in the way of the implementation of the agreement.
The final positive point for the Cairo reconciliation agreement lies in the requirement for resumption in the work of the civil liberties and community reconciliation committee in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by January 30th at the latest. The success of this committee and their commitment to the agreed timetable will, without a doubt, play an important role in removing the moral and communal barriers standing in the way of reconciliation.
The period of division has led to social, political, and factional cracks in Palestinian society. All eyes are on this committee to radically treat these cracks so as to guarantee public and factional acceptance of the push for reconciliation, ending the division and to reassure those who fear for their businesses that national unity will be capable of protecting everyone's rights.
Notwithstanding, the Cairo Agreement has repeated the same mistakes made by most previous reconciliation agreements which eventually led to their failure. This is due to its focus on forming a government and holding elections, and the avoidance of deep discussions on the strategic matters that are of more importance to a national liberation movement, especially with regards to the political and security program.
Even regarding elections, the agreement gave priority to the discussion of the technical and procedural aspects, and did not determine or require the follow-up committees to discuss the strategic aspects associated with it. The most important of such strategic aspects is determining the conditions of the elections, including the need for the inclusion of Jerusalem in the election process and the need to agree on a scenario for the day after elections; what will the scenario be in the event of a Fatah or Hamas victory?
Of course, the more pressing scenario to be explored would be the day after a Hamas victory; ensuring that the Palestinian people and the entire national project do not fall into a crisis similar to that which occurred after Hamas won the January 2006 elections.
It can be said that the agreement of all parties to accept the outcome of the elections, regardless of the winner, is the basis for the success of these elections. Accepting the outcome does not mean press releases accepting defeat similar to those of seasoned democracies; this will not work with a national liberation movement that is still under occupation. Rather, what is important is the decision made by the parties involved beforehand to accept all consequences that may arise from the election process. This includes facing the international community in a unified manner after the announcement of the results, and for example, the refusal of the Palestinian Authority to allow an international blockade of a Hamas government if they win the elections, and its refusal to participate in the blockade indirectly as occurred after the previous elections when President Abbas gave in to the international political blockade and agreed to negotiate with the international parties blockading the Hamas government.
Some may view this condition as difficult or unrealistic, but failure to comply with it will lead to the failure of elections to solve the issue of the Palestinian division and will contribute to the perpetuation of this division for many years to come. Therefore, Palestinian forces are faced with only these two choices: either hold elections with full consciousness of the day after elections and how to deal with the outcome, or stop proposing elections under occupation as the solution to the division.
As for the second weakness of the agreement, it is in refraining from mentioning the need to agree on the status of the security services and resistance brigades. This has been the obstacle that has led to the downfall of all previous reconciliation agreements. In addition, it is the major hindrance that led to Hamas' formation of an executive force in response to the "Fatah" security forces' rebellion and its refusal to carry out the instructions of the Hamas government and the national unity government formed based on the Makah Agreement. This ultimately pushed Hamas to resort to military force, which led to the continuing division after June 2007.
In order for this agreement to succeed in achieving true reconciliation, it must not only answer questions regarding reform of the security services in the West Bank as demanded by Hamas, but also more importantly it must agree on the military and security doctrine of these services; will it be similar to the doctrine of national services that serve the project of Palestinian liberation, or will it be the new Palestinian doctrine, the foundations of which were put forth by General Dayton and were continued by his successor, General Michael Mueller?
The danger of this obstacle increases with this new agreement due to the fact that its signing coincides with the commotion surrounding the media leaks asserting that President Abbas stated that reconciliation would not be possible until the military brigades, especially the Izz El-Deen Al-Qassam Brigades, are dismantled. This was immediately rejected by Hamas and may lead to the failure of this agreement to achieve its goal.
The final weakness is the most important and, with the exception of the June 2006 national conciliation agreement, has also been a weakness in all previous reconciliation agreements from Cairo 2005 to Cairo 2013. This is the lack of agreement and focus on the Palestinian national project, or the PLO's political program, which will assign a representative to this project once it is reformed and activated.
Although it is true that the agreement sets a timetable to start working on a committee to reform and activate the organization, its terms focus on reform from the perspective of renewing its structures and institutions, National Assembly elections, and accommodating the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements in the organization's institutions and formations. However, it does not take into consideration agreement on the organization's political program.
Fatah's vision in this regard, so far, is that whoever wants to enter the organization must do so as it is, following the same political program it adopted years ago, and that no one has the right to change that program. This essentially means that the organization, which is supposed to represent the dreams of all Palestinians, inside Palestine and in diaspora, will continue to be in the bottleneck of the Oslo Accord with all its requirements and concessions.
Both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movement rightly believe that the political program of the organization is not set in stone, but rather a natural result of variable subjective and objective political circumstances. Therefore, this program should be adjusted depending on the new circumstances and structures, which will be put forth by the National Assembly and Executive Committee elections.
If the new agreement fails to develop a mechanism for agreeing on the program of the PLO, and if each party continues to have the same opinion on the matter, then this will eventually and, without a doubt, lead to its failure to achieve its objectives.
Prospects of Success
The political reading of the strengths and weaknesses of the Cairo reconciliation agreement revives some hope of Hamas and Fatah reaching a temporary solution to the issue of Palestinian division. However, this solution will not be able to last for an extended period as it has not been able to avoid the pitfalls of previous agreements, especially those related to the issues of security and the political program.
If Palestinians want a radical solution to the division and want to reach a comprehensive national reconciliation agreement, they must start discussing the terms of this agreement with the mentality and approach of national liberation movements and not that of independent countries. This can only be done through a comprehensive national dialogue, rather than bilateral dialogue governed by factional calculations. Moreover, a political program which aims at liberation and the reclamation of national rights in all its forms should be the compass that guides the agenda of this dialogue.
*The author is the chief editor of Al Hiwar TV. This article is a translation from the Arabic which first appeared on al Jazeera net, 22 January, 2013
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.