After protests calling for the removal of dictatorial regimes broke out across the Arab world, Palestinians echoed them with their own protests. However, they were not calling for the removal of any government but rather they wanted the two largest Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, which had been in a state of conflict since 2007, to set aside their differences and unite. Thus, when Hamas and Fatah signed an agreement on Wednesday putting an end to their differences and establishing a national unity government, the news was greeted with joy and celebration from Ramallah to Gaza. However, Israel has loudly expressed its disapproval and dismay and has done everything it can to scupper the deal. For their part, Europe and the United States have shown a lack of enthusiasm for the deal.
The new deal between the Palestinian factions gives each side the guarantees they need in order to take part. New elections for a Palestinian parliament will be held next year and in the meantime an interim government will be formed. This will be a "technocratic" government. It will not contain ministers from either Fatah or Hamas. It will be headed by a prime minister acceptable to both sides. Hamas will continue to have responsibility for security in the Gaza Strip and Fatah will control security in the West Bank. There will be a higher security committee co-ordinating security between the two sides. Political prisoners will be released and Hamas members in the West Bank and Fatah members in Gaza will be free to organise and carry out activities openly without fear of persecution. At the same time the security arrangements with Israel on the West Bank will be unaffected. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have agreed to keep to a ceasefire with Israel Most importantly perhaps, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation will be reformed to reflect the reality of Palestinian politics, in which Hamas is a central player.
The decision of President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah to come to an agreement with Hamas has come after two years of fruitless attempts to restart peace negotiations with Netanyahu's government. President Abbas's Palestinian Authority was serious about negotiations with Israel, granting concession after concession, as shown by leaked documents. However there was no way it could negotiate with the Israeli government while it continued to build and expand settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Israel was trying to make the creation of a viable Palestinian state impossible and any Palestinian government which carried on negotiations with Israel under these circumstances would lose any legitimacy it once had. Half-hearted attempts by the United States to stop Israel building settlements soon turned into complicity with the Israeli settlement project, as shown when the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements. It became clear to Abbas's government that there was no way it could stop settlement building and that there was no way negotiation with Israel would lead to a Palestinian state. Its alternative strategy was to seek international recognition of a Palestinian state with sovereignty over the territories occupied by Israel in 1967; the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. In September, it will ask the General Assembly of the United Nations to do this.
The resolution of the inter-Palestinian conflict is vital for this. Hamas won democratic elections in 2006 and controls the Gaza Strip. The Fatah-supported Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas only controls a group of non-contiguous enclaves on the West Bank surrounded by Israeli occupied territory. It is not democratically elected, having been illegally constituted by Abbas in an "emergency measure" after he sacked the Hamas government following Hamas's armed response to a Fatah coup attempt in Gaza in 2007. Thus, Abbas's government's claim to represent the Palestinian people is tenuous, to say the least. Had it tried to declare a Palestinian state without the support of Hamas, its lack of democratic legitimacy would make that declaration hollow. It could not have built the institutions of a state without the support of its people and other nations would use its lack of support as a reason not to recognize it. A declaration of a Palestinian state by a government supported and recognized by all the Palestinian factions will now have to be taken seriously by the international community. It is now quite obvious to the world that Israel's aggressive settlement policy and its refusal to end the occupation of Palestinian land are responsible for the failure of the peace process. The international community has little choice but to recognize the natural right of the Palestinians to self-determination under these circumstances.
The Israeli government's response to the Palestinian reconciliation is predictable. It is now threatening Abbas with an end to negotiations and is conducting an aggressive diplomatic campaign against the reconciliation agreement. On a visit to Britain, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said that the deal was a "tremendous blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism". Last week, the Israeli government announced it would stop the transfer of taxes and customs payments to the Palestinian Authority in an effort to economically strangle the unity deal at birth. It did the same thing in 2006 after Hamas won Palestinian elections. Netanyahu has previously said that Abbas had a choice between "peace with Israel or peace with Hamas". This is an extremely disingenuous statement. Peace talks had been in hiatus for more than a year and Netanyahu was responsible. When he came to power with his extremist coalition partner, Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu rejected all calls by the Obama administration to freeze construction in settlements. After a meeting with Obama and Abbas he then agreed to a "freeze" which in reality meant that construction could continue with little hindrance in order to allow Obama to save face. The Palestinian Authority rejected this but was later cajoled by the Obama administration into taking part in "indirect negotiations". Soon after this Netanyahu announced that the freeze was over and the Palestinian Authority suspended its participation in negotiations. Netanyahu knows that the "peace with Israel" choice he is offering Abbas does not exist. He has already seen to that. What he is doing now is to use the reconciliation as a way to blame the Palestinians for the failure of the peace process. Already his allies in the US Congress are calling on Obama to stop all aid to the Palestinian Authority because of the reconciliation agreement.
However, it is very unlikely that Israel, even if it manages to bring the US on board, will be able to do anything to affect the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. It has nothing to offer Mahmoud Abbas anymore and it now seems that the Palestinians have found a new regional ally in revolutionary Egypt, which brokered the reconciliation. The new Egyptian government has declared its opposition to the siege of Gaza and will oppose any new sanctions against the Palestinians. Israeli intransigence has ensured that the only way for Palestinians to gain their legitimate rights is by seeking international recognition as a state without going through fruitless negotiations with Israel. In order to achieve this all the Palestinian political forces must be united.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.