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Palestinian unity: danger or opportunity for the peace process?

After the Palestinian unity agreement was announced, the Israeli government suspended peace talks

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to last week’s Fatah and the Hamas unity government agreement reminded me of a line from American novelist William Faulkner: “It is a happy faculty of the mind to slough that which conscience refuses to assimilate.” In the case of Netanyahu this means translating any development among the Palestinians as a threat to Israel and as a menace to her security. Immediately after the Palestinian unity agreement was announced, the Israeli government suspended the already stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, putting the entire blame for the collapse of the peace process on the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In typical fashion, Netanyahu warned the Palestinian leader that it was a case of “either us or them,” and “Whoever chooses the terrorism of Hamas does not want peace.” The U.S. was not far behind, describing the unity agreement as unhelpful, and called for a pause in the peace negotiations. Essentially, both had already reached the conclusion some time ago that the talks for peace had hit the bumpers. The Palestinian announcement of unity government presented the opportunity for Israel to lay the entire blame on the Palestinian Authority for the failure of the peace talks, without taking any responsibility herself.

Hamas is of course listed by the United States and the EU as a terrorist organization. Moreover, for Israel the periodical barrage of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, which is under Hamas’ jurisdiction, even if they are not responsible for their firing of them, is a major and unacceptable irritant. There is also no denial that Hamas’ refusal in the past to formally accept the right of Israel to exist, to respect past agreements and to renounce violence and its violation of human rights in Gaza undermines the movement’s legitimacy in the political process. However, here is exactly where the opportunity presents itself. It is inconceivable that the PLO leadership led by Mahmoud Abbas would join forces with Hamas on the basis of renegading support for a two state solution. Will the Palestinian leadership lead themselves into international isolation for the sake of a government with the Hamas? Not very likely. It is more plausible that the Hamas might gradually be reaching the conclusion that their political defiance and armed struggle has led them, and the Gazan people, in to a political cul-de-sac and to economic disaster.

The armed struggle against Israel has led to an unrelenting Israeli military response which killed and injured thousands, and destroyed much of the already fragile infrastructure in Gaza

Yossi Mekelberg

The armed struggle against Israel has led to an unrelenting Israeli military response which killed and injured thousands, and destroyed much of the already fragile infrastructure in Gaza. Furthermore, the Israeli siege on Gaza and the closing of the Rafah crossing since the Muslim Brotherhood government was removed from power in Egypt, left the economy in Gaza crippled and with almost no chance of recovering unless the leadership take a radically different direction in its relationship with both the Fatah and Israel. Signs of these budding changes could be detected in the changing tone among some within the Hamas leadership. Khaled Mashal, in particular, spoke of possible acceptance of Israel under a new set of circumstances. The unity government might provide a unique opportunity to change the tone and terminology, which can lead the way for a more profound change towards coexistence with Israel.

A tricky week

It was a tricky week for President Abbas. The unity government, if it materializes, is a great achievement for him, which strengthens his position domestically. It left him, nevertheless, with the task of mending a few fences with the Israelis and the Americans. In an almost unprecedented gesture of good will, on the eve of Israel’s annual Holocaust commemoration, he called the Holocaust “the most heinous crime” of modern history and expressed his sympathy for the victims. Regretfully, not many Arab leaders have done so before. Moreover, he was quick to reassure Israel and the U.S. that the unity government with Hamas would recognize Israel and condemn terrorism, which have always been two of the major demands in relation to Hamas since its winning of the elections back in 2006. Significantly, he also rightly pointed out that he was not negotiating peace with Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, but on behalf of the PLO which represents all the Palestinians inside and outside the occupied territories. Self-evidently, the unity government adds an element of complexity to an already very complex situation. It may be more difficult for Fatah negotiators to make the necessary concessions while sitting in the same government with Hamas. However, when Hamas is outside the government it does not necessarily make the pressures any easier. Considering the diversity of opinions within the Israeli government, if anyone can sympathize with having to maneuver with some extreme elements within one’s government it should be Mr. Netanyahu.

The potential benefit of dealing with a politically and geographically united Palestinian society is much greater than the danger it presents. If a peace agreement is ever to be reached, it needs unity between the West Bank and Gaza. Whether Israel, or anyone else, likes it or not, Hamas as a political and social movement is part of the Palestinian socio-political landscape. Accommodating them, as long as they adhere to the democratic and human rights principles at home, and non-violence and diplomacy abroad, might prove to be beneficial in the peace negotiations.

Fresh elections

Another aspect that has been ignored this week is that the unity agreement set a target for fresh elections within the next six months. These elections are well overdue and the fledgling Palestinian polity needs it desperately to maintain any semblance of being truly representative of its people. At a glance, surveys among the Palestinians reveal that the Hamas may fare well in such elections, but is definitely not going to win them. According to the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in presidential elections, Mahmoud Abbas receives 53 percent of the vote and Ismail Haniyeh only 41 percent. The same survey from last month contends that in parliamentary elections, Fatah receives 43 percent and Hamas trails behind with 28 percent. The decision makers in Israel are surely not oblivious to these figures. Through the Palestinian ballot box it is possible that a government will emerge which is seen as legitimate by most of the Palestinians and one that can tackle, if it wants to, the tough issues revolving around the peace negotiations. This temporary Palestinian unity government may have a mitigating impact on Hamas and concurrently lead to a re-energizing of the entire political system. Is the Israeli government afraid of such a development or should it at least see the opportunity in it?

Israel has legitimate concerns about the role of the Hamas, but at the same time has to accept that it is part of the Palestinian society. Both sides should have at least learnt from their experience since the last Palestinian elections, that stubbornness and mutual rejection can only end in prolonging the conflict and the bloodshed. As long as the Hamas does not sabotage the peace negotiations, the Israeli government has no justification in inflicting more punitive measures on the Palestinians. The deadline for a peace framework expired yesterday, and it would be disingenuous to blame Hamas or the unity government for either its expiry or that the future for peace looks less hopeful.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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