An agreement to bury four-year-old differences between rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, has returned the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to the center stage of an Arab world wracked by anti-government protests.
For much of the last four months, Palestine had receded to the backburner as protesters in a host of Arab countries—Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Oman, Bahrain and Syria—demanded political and economic reform with no focus on longstanding and emotive foreign-policy issues like the Palestinian problem.
That could change as the United States and Europe face difficult choices following an agreement between Fatah and Hamas to bury their differences, which weakened Palestinian negotiators seeking to achieve peace with Israel. The two groups will form under the agreement an interim unity government in advance of legislative and presidential elections in the coming year and integrate their security forces.
The agreement, already rejected by Israel, could lead to a US and European refusal to deal with new government because of the presence of Hamas, which the United States has labelled a terrorist organization and which Europe has refused to deal with as long as it fails to endorse the principles on which the Middle East peace process has been based. The principles include recognition of Israel as a sovereign Jewish State.
In an initial response to the agreement, the White House reiterated that Hamas was a terrorist organization and a US national security spokesman suggested that the Obama administration would maintain its refusal to deal with Hamas.
“As we have said before, the United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace. Hamas, however, is a terrorist organization, which targets civilians. To play a constructive role in achieving peace, any Palestinian government must accept the Quartet principles and renounce violence, abide by past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist,” the spokesman said.
A prominent member of the US Congress, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtine, called in a statement for the cutting off of US funding for the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.
“According to existing US law, such a hybrid government cannot be a recipient of US taxpayer funds because the law stipulates that the PA government must recognize the Jewish state of Israel’s right to exist, among other things. Therefore, in order to implement existing law, the US must end assistance to the Palestinian Authority,” the statement by the Republican Congresswoman from Florida said.
The US has committed some $3.5 billion to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the mid-1990s and is the largest contributor to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA).
A refusal by the United States and/or Europe to deal with the authority following the agreement between Fatah and Hamas that was brokered by post-Mubarak Egypt would almost certainly provoke anger in the Arab world, where emotions are already enflamed by the wave of protests.
Palestine may not have figured prominently in the protests until now, but it never was far from the surface and returned as an important element in Egypt and Tunisia, the two countries that successfully toppled their authoritarian leaders earlier in 2011.
In many ways, the agreement is a product of the protests. Egyptian-sponsored efforts to achieve agreement prior to the protests had stalled. The eruption of protests on the West Bank in Gaza demanding an end to the dispute between the two factions and the leaking earlier this year of documents that showed that Mr. Abbas’s negotiators had made concessions to Israel without announcing them to the public left the Fatah leader with little choice.
His position of conceding to Israel while refusing to compromise with Hamas had become untenable.
It’s a weakness Hamas was willing to exploit in the conviction that it would win future elections in Gaza and also perform well in polls on the West Bank. By achieving Palestinian unity with the agreement, Hamas also hopes to compensate for the fallout of the crisis in Syria. The embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad is one of Hamas’ main backers and hosts the exile wing of the group headed by Khaled Meshal. The fall of Mr. Assad would be a major blow for Hamas.
Ironically, Hamas and the Obama administration have a common interest when it comes to Syria. Neither wants Mr. Assad to go. While Hamas does not want to lose its staunchest ally, the Obama administration has been careful in its sharp criticism of the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown to stop short of calling for Mr. Assad’s resignation.
US officials, uncertain of who might succeed Mr. Assad and concerned that Syria could disintegrate in escalating violence, appear to believe that they are better off with the devil they know than the one they don’t.
The country most worried about the consequences of the Fatah-Hamas agreement is likely to be Israel. A return of Palestine to a prominent position in Arab politics puts it on the spot, returns it as a focus of potential criticism and increases its disquiet of what change in the Arab world means for the peace process and Israeli Arab relations.
Egypt’s success in bringing Fatah and Hamas together is one indication of which way the wind is blowing. Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority is already heading rapidly south in the wake of the agreement.
Israel may find solace in a US and European refusal to deal with the new national unity government but could find itself back in the international firing line if it carries out its threats to sanction the Abbas government by restricting the freedom of movement of the president and other senior officials and refusing to transfer taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
A prisoner swap that would release Hamas operatives incarcerated by Fatah could become the real flashpoint in escalating Israeli-Palestinian tension with Israeli officials warning that it would be up to the military and security forces to counter any threat.
Yet another round of military hostilities between Israel and the Arabs is the last thing that anyone would want in the region, which is already a tinderbox. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin and his hawkish associates may translate their current –and predictable—political theater into a theater of war. Would that really be in anyone’s interest, especially now?
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)