Senior officials from Fatah and Hamas have been meeting in Istanbul for the past few days, and have reportedly reached a deal for elections within the next six months. The last Palestinian parliamentary elections were held in 2006 when Hamas won with an unexpected landslide. Since then, the differences between the movements have ensured a political split which has seemed impossible to mend.
What, then, has happened to bring them together to seek reconciliation as a matter of national urgency? Are the current talks a genuine attempt towards sincere reconciliation and unity? Importantly, will these talks in Turkey succeed?
The context, of course, is the rush by some Arab states to normalise relations with Israel. For the Palestinian leadership, these unilateral moves towards “peace” deals with Israel means principally the concession of Palestinian rights. The UAE and Bahrain claim that their “Abraham Accords” with Israel serve the Palestinian cause and that Israel will not proceed with the annexation of the West Bank and will allow Muslims to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque. However, according to the Israeli leadership weeks ago, annexation is not a priority simply because the Trump administration does not have the appetite to move forward with the plan prior to the presidential election in November.
The UAE and Bahrain have basically abandoned the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative in which the Arab League drafted a 10-sentence proposal for an end to the Arab–Israeli conflict during a summit in Beirut. The initiative called for normalising relations between the Arab world and Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel from the occupied territories and a ‘’just settlement’’ of the Palestinian refugee problem based on UN Resolution 194, as well as the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The moribund Arab League has not even condemned the UAE-Bahrain deals. Back in 1979, when Egypt, the biggest Arab country and one of the founders of the organisation, signed a peace treaty with Israel, the other members voted to suspend Egypt’s membership and transfer the League’s headquarters from Cairo to Tunis. Egypt was only reinstated as a member of the League in 1989, and its headquarters returned to Cairo the following year.
The Israel-Egypt treaty meant the cessation of the state of war that had existed since the fighting which followed Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence; normalisation of relations; and the complete withdrawal of its armed forces and settlers from the Sinai Peninsula which Israel had captured during the Six-Day War in 1967. Today, the Emiratis are normalising relations in return for a potential arms deal with the US to purchase F-35 jet fighters. Israel is opposing any such arms deals in order to maintain its military supremacy in the Middle East.
The Palestinian Authority has quit its current chairmanship of Arab League meetings and might reconsider its relations with the organisation. Ultimately, with these notorious deals with the UAE and Bahrain, Israel has made no concessions whatsoever and the Palestinians have gained nothing in return. Washington’s strategy of excluding the Palestinian leadership has simply been reinforced further.
The inauguration of Donald Trump in the White House in January 2017 was a turning point in the bilateral relations between the PA and the US administration. Trump was upfront in proclaiming his unequivocal support for Israel: he closed the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s mission in Washington, citing Palestinian leaders’ resistance to peace talks and attempts to get an international court to prosecute Israel for alleged war crimes; he cut US donations to UNRWA programmes for Palestinian refugees; and, most importantly, he relocated the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The PA was not even invited to the Bahrain Conference last year when Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner tried to tout bedrock principles at untenable discounts. At that time there were no buyers, but now it seems that there are some Arabs who are more than willing to pay the price.
It is not only Kushner who has offended the Palestinian leadership; the US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has reportedly stated that Washington is considering support for the former Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan to be the next PA president. The Israeli newspaper which reported this quote has now said that Friedman was misquoted. It is obvious that the Americans and their allies are concerned about the successor to the 85-year old President Mahmoud Abbas.
This is a historic moment that could lead to a breakthrough for the Palestinian cause if it is managed well and with good intentions. The situation is like the early days of this century, when the then President Yasser Arafat, the Godfather of the peace process, realised that all of his efforts to reach a just peace deal with Israel had been led into a cul-de-sac. He found himself locked and isolated in his compound in Ramallah under virtual house arrest and so gave the green light to the Second Intifada and the formation of Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, Fatah’s military wing.
Mahmoud Abbas had the chance to echo Arafat’s stance but has been betrayed by the Arab League, his Israeli “peace partners”, the US “peace broker” and Dahlan, his old friend in Fatah. The Hamas-Fatah preliminary agreement reached in Turkey will be tested soon. The US election is pending and if Donald Trump is re-elected he will most likely move forward with his policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If that happens, it is likely that Fatah will have no other option but to get closer to its people and its rival factions. However, if Joe Biden wins in the US, Abbas might reconsider his rapprochement with Hamas.
The agreement of both parties is undoubtedly historic, and a Palestinian election would rejuvenate the leadership and its agendas. The PA will hold the international community responsible for respecting the electoral will of the Palestinian people and put pressure on Israel to allow elections in occupied Jerusalem. Most importantly, it will be a test of the universal standards of democratic nations and whether they will endorse the Palestinians’ election choices.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.