- Palestinian national reconciliation is indispensible to the conclusion of a just and lasting peace settlement and the implementation of any two-state solution. Any efforts to secure a peace deal before unity is achieved are illegitimate and only serve to exaggerate the rift while damaging the Palestinian cause.
- The split in the Palestinian leadership has been exploited to perpetuate the status quo while deflecting international pressure toward change. To-date, efforts by outside players to broker reconciliation have been half-hearted and limited in their effectiveness. A concerted effort, particularly on the part of Arab governments, is needed to push through an agreement.
- The US-trained Palestinian Security Force (PSF) has become essentially an extension of the Israeli Security Forces. Their actions in tandem with the incumbent Israeli government's inherent antagonism and antipathy towards peace constitutes the greatest obstacle to reconciliation and thus to peace.
Palestinian reconciliation talks scheduled to have taken place in Damascus last week were postponed after the bitterly divided two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, were unable to agree on the location. Given the momentum for reconciliation that began to build following a meeting between the two sides at the end of September, this postponement represents a disappointing setback to prospects for the formation of a unity government. As evidenced by the recent failure of direct peace negotiations between the Palestinian Authority under Fatah and the current Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, many argue that any effort to achieve a just and lasting peace settlement without the inclusion of Hamas lacks legitimacy and exaggerates the rift while damaging the Palestinian cause.
Palestinian disunity is both unfortunate and unhealthy, although the division cannot be viewed as the primary obstacle to a peace settlement; it is worth remembering that Fatah was negotiating with Israel for over 15 years prior to the split with Hamas and failed to make any significant progress. Coupled with the weakness of both PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Legislative Council [PLC] is the fact that the President's term in office has expired, elections for the presidency and the PLC have been suspended, institutional decay is rife and there is growing opposition in the West Bank; the division underscores the need for Palestinians to strengthen their position through unity before they can consider negotiating with Israel.
Torpedoed reconciliation talks
After a hiatus of a year, efforts toward Palestinian national reconciliation resumed last month when the Hamas politburo head, Khaled Meshaal, met with Egypt's Minister of Intelligence, Omar Suleiman, in Saudi Arabia. Another meeting was held between the two groups in Syria. Described as "serious", the meetings were thought to have resolved several sticking points with the 2009 Egyptian reconciliation paper and a framework for progression established. The previous breakdown in talks was caused by a Hamas request for amendments related to elections. Hamas has said that it wants an agreement which restores Palestinian dignity and rules out US and Quartet conditions. It was also announced that Meshaal would sign the agreement in the Syrian capital of Damascus, the location of the headquarters of the exiled leadership, in order to gather support for the move.
However, in a meeting held before the Extraordinary Arab Summit in Sirte at which Mahmoud Abbas hoped to rally support for his decision to withdraw from direct peace talks with Israel, tensions flared between him and Syria's Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian President insisted that it was not the Arab League's role to grant or deny Palestinians permission to negotiate with Israel, but rather it was a matter for the Palestinians themselves to decide. It was reported that President Al-Assad also criticised Abbas's attitude towards reconciliation and resistance and proposed that Khaled Meshaal be invited to the summit to foster further reconciliation. Abbas refused, on the basis that an agreement with Hamas had not yet been signed and Fatah asked for further talks be held anywhere except Damascus.
Perpetuating the rift
The policy of siege and isolation used against Hamas thus far has failed, as evidenced by its consolidation of power and the extension of its political influence. Nevertheless, outside actors continue to pursue a policy which seeks to exploit and perpetuate the rift with Fatah with the goal of achieving specific interests and a particular vision for the region. This strategy aims at maintaining two distinct and separate Palestinian political entities along with a physical division of the Palestinian people.
External support for Fatah is based ostensibly on the fact that for decades it was the umbrella organisation of the Palestinian movement and enjoyed the long-term support of many. However, things have changed. The West Bank is not Palestine and while Fatah certainly has a constituency in the West Bank, it is clearly not the sole representative of the Palestinian people as a whole, including Gaza and diaspora Palestinians.
Since the Hamas and Fatah split occurred in 2007, Egypt has monopolised the mediation of reconciliation talks and the two factions struggled for months to reach an agreement. The four-year Israeli blockade of Hamas has been enforced by Egypt and it continues to construct an underground steel barrier along its border with Gaza to isolate further the population. This has led to assertions that Egyptian mediation has only been half-hearted, if that. Moreover and for obvious historic reasons, Egypt associates Hamas with what it considers one of its own greatest domestic threats, the Islamic Brotherhood, and fears that Hamas's success at the polls will have a subversive impact within its own borders. Egypt's support for Fatah was perceptible in the reconciliation paper it proposed in October 2009, the bias of which towards Fatah allowed for it to maintain control over the Palestinian Security Forces (PSF) one of Hamas's key objections.
At present, the Fatah/Hamas split is also being used by Israel and the US as a ruse to avoid acknowledging Palestinian rights while claiming that Israel is granting Palestinians 'concessions' and 'taking risks'. Actions by the PSF, which have been praised by Israel, are cited as reasons for a reduction in Israeli restrictions on movement in the West Bank as well as for economic growth. Moreover, US and EU funds which have flowed over the West Bank recently while Gaza has been cut off; the fact that the PA has become dependent on such largesse is exploited to impose demands and exert pressure on a weak Abbas to maintain the status quo.
Despite the questions raised by analysts about the value of a peace process without Hamas, it is hoped that by pushing it through any 'concessions' achieved will serve to justify and further shore-up support for the PA while continuing to marginalise Hamas as well as to buy time. In addition, by keeping Hamas under pressure, it is hoped that a split can be nurtured within the movement itself between the pragmatic and more hard-line elements.
Shunning Hamas undermines Palestinian democracy and, therefore, efforts toward peace. The notion of propping-up politically and economically an unconstitutional government that lacks legitimacy indefinitely, while forcing it on the Palestinian people, is an undemocratic concept which lies at the heart of the problem. Over the last few decades there has been little change in Fatah's leadership and this has led to stagnation; Abed Rabbo and Saeb Erekat have been the Palestinian negotiators for the past 20 years, in stark contrast to the constant turnover of Israeli negotiators. It would appear that much of the external support afforded to these leaders, rather than being based on their leadership skills or their policies, is based on their pliability; their willingness to make concessions without getting anything in return, to maintain the status quo, and even to cross the so-called red line of Jerusalem, refugees and the recognition of Israel as the Jewish state.
What is the likelihood of a breakthrough?
When the impasse reached in this round of direct negotiations between the PA and Israel coincided with talk of reconciliation, it was hoped that the PA would seize it as an opportunity to foster more openness toward Hamas and secure unity. One of Hamas's strongest criticisms of Fatah has been its security cooperation with Israel which has allowed the PSF to become what is essentially an extension of Israeli security. During the September meeting in Damascus, security discussions were deferred but should have been at the top of the agenda during this month's meeting. Indeed, a senior Hamas official in Damascus said the meeting would have been geared towards "forming a joint security committee" and solving related issues including the release of hundreds of Hamas supporters being held in PA prisons.
Nevertheless, the PSF continued with its on-going clampdown against Hamas supporters in the West Bank with a PA military court sentencing one to 20 years in prison with hard labour. Needless to say, this has intensified tensions and stirred opposition to the deal from Hamas leaders in Gaza. It is unlikely that Hamas will agree to act as an extension of Israeli security forces in suppressing the Palestinian people, and unity cannot be achieved unless a joint security partnership and agenda based on Palestinian national interests can be agreed upon, along with the release of any political prisoners on both sides.
There is a clear division among the Palestinian public in terms of their vision for Palestinian sovereignty along Islamist and secular-nationalist lines, as reflected by the elected leadership in Gaza and the leadership in the West Bank. Only through the unity of these two groups can Palestinian democracy be served and the Palestinian cause strengthened. There can be no doubt that reform of the PLO is needed, and whilst Hamas recently reiterated its commitment to resistance against the occupation of Palestine by Israel, it has shown itself to be a pragmatic organisation in practice and a force for stability in the area. It has previously stated that it would enter into a long-term cease fire with Israel as well as talks, abide by UN-demarcated 1967 borders for a state and honour previous Fatah deals with the state. Moreover, pragmatic voices within Israel, including the former head of Mossad, have called for the inclusion of Hamas.
According to polls, national reconciliation and the formation of a unity government is at the top of the agenda for the Palestinian public. As such, the international community should throw its weight behind the people's demand for democracy and reform. International efforts to end Hamas's diplomatic isolation as well as the spearheading of reconciliation initiatives are both progressing apace. Turkey has offered to mediate for the Palestinians and last week Yemen offered to host the next dialogue session while former members of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission have been in Ramallah to offer advice on how to move forward.
What is the future of a peace deal?
Under the ideologically-driven current right-wing coalition government in Israel led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the likelihood of a peace deal appears to vary between slim to none at all. The racist supremacist ideas espoused by his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, along with comments made by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of current coalition partner, Shas, offer little encouragement. Yosef, who prayed earlier this year for a plague to strike down Mahmoud Abbas, recently asserted that gentiles had no purpose on earth other than to serve the people of Israel.
Moreover, the 1996 document 'A clean break: A new strategy for securing the realm' written by the group of hawkish neoconservative opinion makers under Richard Perle, was originally written for Netanyahu. Simply stated, Netanyahu does not believe in peace. Along with proposals to contain, destabilise and roll-back entities in the region that Israel believes pose a threat, it hoped to create a new relationship with the Palestinians that would allow 'hot pursuit' into Palestinian-controlled areas and attempt to promote an alterative leadership. Through the PSF, the current Netanyahu government appears to be still pursuing these objectives.
Given the disparity in the balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, in the run-up to the recent direct peace talks, few saw any prospect of progress toward peace without the Palestinians giving up more of their national rights. After all, Israel has its security; Abbas is doing Israel's dirty work for it in the West Bank and its interests as the occupier are protected. Therefore, there is no reason for it to make any efforts and to move forward. For the current Israeli government, the peace process and negotiations are tools used for their value as a means of breaking out of international isolation and appearing to be reasonable and willing to bend over backward to accommodate Palestinian demands.
If not for tactical considerations, then perhaps the realisation that Palestinians are currently in effect faced with an existential question – the annihilation of their history and heritage – should convince them that they must unite and come together. The highhandedness and arrogance of recent Israeli aggression against Palestinians, including attacks against several mosques and the burning of a school, should serve as a catalyst for unity.
Reconciliation with Hamas will bolster Abbas's position without which he has neither the legitimacy nor authority to enter into negotiations with Israel; any agreements he signs will be illegitimate. Given that Hamas has alluded to a willingness to comply with Quartet demands, if the movement has not already done so, the international community and particularly the Arab League must get behind Palestinian reconciliation, reform and democracy if there is to be any prospect of a just and lasting peace. While US and Israeli policies detrimental to Palestinian national interest would face more resistance and opposition with Hamas as part of any unity government, it is an opportunity for the emergence of a genuinely democratic Middle Eastern government across Palestine. Apart from anything else, what the opponents of the inclusion of Hamas appear to have overlooked, is that peace is made with one's enemies, not with one's friends.