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Do Palestinian reconciliation talks have any chance for success?

February 1, 2016 at 2:18 pm

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After intervention by the Qatari government, a meeting between representatives of Fatah and Hamas will be held in Doha within the next week. Once again, the two factions will look into the possibility of reconciliation. If successful, the meeting will be followed by a summit.

Is there any chance for success, or will this meeting go the way of so many others before it? We have seen agreements signed, their implementation begin, and their collapse. After the much-heralded Makkah Agreement a national unity government was formed but lasted for only three months; another unity government formed after the Beach Camp Agreement had the same fate. There is no longer a national unity government.

It is no secret that few people are concerned about reconciliation, because everyone is tired of hearing about dialogue and agreements that do not get implemented. In the meantime, the Palestinian cause is being lost and Jerusalem is being lost, prompting a third uprising which has been ongoing for four months with no leadership and no identifiable goals. It began with individuals and has continued thus, earning it the nickname of the “orphan intifada”; it is the latest victim of the political split.

If we look at regional developments, the factors which call for ending the division and restoring unity are increasing. All Palestinians are in an aggravated crisis; this is being admitted openly without any of the parties being held fully responsible. In fact, each party is holding itself partly responsible. Also, betting on the collapse of Fatah because of the end of the so called “peace process”, the intensification of Israeli aggression, settlement expansion and racism, and the lack of a political horizon has not worked. At the moment, the factors for the survival of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority are stronger than many may believe, despite the continuing loss of land and rights and what is left of legitimacy.

In addition, betting that Hamas would collapse as a result of the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has not worked despite the deterioration of relations between the Palestinian resistance movement and Egypt, the latter’s destruction of the tunnels into Gaza, the worsening of Hamas’s relations with Iran and Syria, and failure to repair relations with Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Hamas still survives, not least because it stood strong in the face of three brutal Israeli offensives against the Gaza Strip. The movement continues to derive strength from the failure of the Oslo Accords and negotiations sponsored by the US, and also from the fact that its rival, Fatah, has started the struggle to find a successor for President Mahmoud Abbas. This could explain why Hamas’s popularity is increasing according to the latest polls, which suggest that Fatah and Hamas are neck and neck on 35 per cent support; if there was a presidential election tomorrow, it is likely that Ismail Haniyeh would beat Abbas.

International events mean that regional states are busy protecting their own interests and regimes, and making sure that they are still there when the map of the region is re-drawn. Even though this means that neighbouring governments may take less of an interest in the Palestinian issue, the Palestinians can use the opportunity out of the spotlight to bring about a workable reconciliation, restore unity and be stronger.

The success or failure of the reconciliation talks will depend on whether they are based on the same ideas that underpinned the previous agreements and experiences. Have lessons been learnt from them? Fatah and Hamas need to look at the root causes of the division and how the issue was tackled previously before deciding how the latest attempt can be structured.

The division is attributed to differences in ideologies; regional, Arab and international intervention; and the fact that the Palestinian cause has always been an international issue, given that the international community put Israel on the map and continues to protect it despite the dangers it poses to global security. The world has also imposed the unfair terms of the Quartet if the Palestinians want unity, while imposing nothing on Israel. Since the PA depends on foreign aid, donor countries — mainly the US and those in Europe — have always played an important role in ensuring that previous reconciliation efforts failed. Israel not only played a role in causing the division, but it too plays an important role in maintaining and deepening it.

One of the reasons behind the ongoing division is that previous reconciliation attempts have focused on selected issues while ignoring others. While getting bogged down on procedural and formal aspects, the core issues have been overlooked. Hence, we saw discussions about forming a government and elections, but the latter were not held; talks about security matters were postponed until after the elections, which were not held, so this was a guaranteed recipe for failure. These issues can also easily be influenced by the Israelis.

Neglecting the political content of reconciliation is the main flaw in unfulfilled agreements, where the desired unity and its goals have been separated. Is this meant to perpetuate the status quo, with autonomy under the occupation, or an authority that is a tool of the PLO and part of a comprehensive strategy for ending the occupation and achieving the people’s goals? The issue of agreeing on a political agenda has been left out, under different pretexts, including that there are differences between the parties, or that it is the prerogative of the PLO, or because an agreement to such an agenda can lead to Israeli and American sanctions, and perhaps European and international penalties as well. How could there be unity without national participation in the decision for peace or war, defining authority and reforming it and its relationship with the PLO?

The PLO file has also been put on the back burner although it is the best gateway towards rebuilding the national movement, representation, ending the division and restoring unity. All Palestinians must be included when talking about the PLO being the only legitimate representative, and for the PLO to be as such its institutions need to be reformulated to incorporate new knowledge, experience and developments so that it includes all political and social groups.

Another cause for the division is the presence of two parties — Fatah and Hamas — which can neither live with each other nor defeat each other nor control each other. Hamas is being told to participate in the PA, and even the PLO, as a minority posing no threat to Fatah’s leadership, by giving up its authority in Gaza, agreeing to the PLO agenda and accepting the agenda of the president before even considering its participation. In this scenario, Hamas is expected to give up all it has in exchange for what would be, at best, a minor role in the national arena, this despite it being the strongest party at the last Palestinian election 10 years ago.

On the ground, Hamas gives priority to maintaining its power and influence in Gaza and actually making progress. Although it has given up on its government, it maintains control over the Gaza Strip. It continues to call for a comprehensive solution, but focuses mainly on holding the leadership framework, solving the issue of salaries for the staff it hired as the elected government, reconstruction and opening the Rafah Border Crossing while maintaining its power. It is doing all of this without giving the necessary attention to the reconstruction of the entire political system based on real partnership and democratic procedures.

Hamas is also getting ready, in case reconciliation is not achieved on acceptable terms, to negotiate with Israel indirectly to maintain its authority as part of a “calm for calm” formula, even if this means establishing an offshore port in exchange for a long-term truce with the occupation. This suggests that the goal is to stay in power pending a change in circumstances that can allow it to lead the PLO and the PA, especially if Fatah collapses due to the failure of Oslo and its internal conflicts. The latter have increased since the battle for the presidential succession began.

To overcome the division Fatah and Hamas must understand and accept that there are differences between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They have been kept apart for decades, mainly to create another obstacle to the establishment of a Palestinian State; to maintain not only a political but also a geographical split; to get rid of the demographic burden by pushing Gaza towards Egypt for Cairo to worry about; and to take a huge step towards the Judaisation and colonisation of the West Bank, blocking all other solutions that do not meet Israeli goals.

Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 ended the permanent physical presence of settlers and the army but it remains the occupying power. This has created a difference in conditions between West Bank and Gaza that must be taken into consideration; the blockade and periodic aggression against the Palestinians in Gaza are manifestations of the occupation in all but name.

Finally, it must be said that the absence of any real participation from the people of Palestine has helped to create the conditions for the political split between Fatah and Hamas to exist for so long. Without real representation, the way has been left open for partisan and factional interests to dominate proceedings.

The success of the upcoming talks requires all these matters to be taken into consideration. The dialogue needs to cover a comprehensive package as part of a new vision that suits the new stage. It also requires a full road map and not to focus on some issues to the exclusion of others. Any agreement, for example, must not only form a government but also make sure that it has the strength to conduct free and fair elections. Failure to do this will simply repeat previous mistakes.

Will such a government have autonomy and be acknowledged by the UN? Will it commit to Oslo, which the PLO is currently threatening to abandon? Is it going to be a government that challenges the occupation or coexists with it? We’re told that a government which cooperates with Israel can give protection in case the president dies or resigns, while I believe that it would be doomed to failure, because it would be built from the top down with no popular base; it will collapse in the face of any dispute over power and authority, particularly security disputes or if Israelis are killed.

It will be difficult for elections to be held after nine years of deep division which created unique political, economic, cultural and security situations, as well as a whole raft of people with their own interests and an equivalent lack of trust. There needs to be a transitional stage for building trust, agreeing to the bases of comprehensive partnership and a new social contract that is based on historic rights; agreeing to the goals of the current stage without giving up on final status goals; learning lessons; and identifying common denominators which do not cancel pluralism, as this has always been a source of Palestinian strength.

Based on the above, it is necessary to proceed with the conviction that any first step towards unity due to compelling circumstances for the two parties, or as a result of internal disputes stemming from the struggle of the presidential succession, will collapse when circumstances change. Ending the division needs time and cannot be achieved all at once, so it is very important to come up with a comprehensive agreement that outlines all points of agreement and disagreement, as well as possible ways of working together, in a manner where everyone can win, and no one will give in to external or domestic pressures. The agreement must be accepted internationally without having to deal with conditions from the Quartet. Participation in the dialogue should also include all sectors of society, not just the factions, in addition to securing the participation of young people and women, representation from the Diaspora and ongoing dialogue; all of these points are very important for success.

Agreeing on a political and struggle agenda is the starting point, but we have to know in advance the rest of the steps, stages and timetable for which political and popular protection must be provided in order to guarantee their implementation. This needs a specific vision that tells us where to stop and where we want to get and how to achieve what we want.

All of the above indicates that unity cannot be achieved if ideas, procedures and players are the same as before. New players must be introduced to represent the majority which believes that unity is a necessity for survival.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.