Palestinian reconciliation in the shadow of Israeli threats

This new reconciliation government was born as a matter of urgent necessity for the Palestinians

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

The announcement of a Palestinian reconciliation agreement between Fatah and the Hamas movements on April 23, was greeted with much skepticism. After all, there have been a number of unsuccessful bids to form a coalition government over the past seven years since Hamas won the elections in 2006. Moreover, the animosity between the two Palestinian factions has not diminished throughout these years. The irony is that despite Israeli protestation about Hamas becoming part of the Palestinian government, the new government after all consists of technocrats. Their task is mainly to steady the Palestinian ship until elections take place in the absence of any of the well-recognized figures from either of the parties. The main challenge for this government is to stabilize the Palestinian political system, steering it safely towards reconciliation between the supporters of Fatah and Hamas, and thus bring the Gaza Strip and the West Bank closer politically, socially and economically. It might also prepare the groundwork for new bid for statehood in the United Nations. Not surprisingly, the new government was endorsed by most countries around the world.

This new reconciliation government was born as a matter of urgent necessity for the Palestinians and reflects pragmatism among their leadership. The conflict between Fatah and Hamas which culminated in violent split between the movements has had disastrous consequences on Palestinian society and led to strained relationships with the United States, the EU and particularly Israel. The rigidity shown not only by Hamas itself, but also by Israel and the international community, left Gaza very vulnerable, and the Palestinians as a whole very weak. The current reconciliation agreement is still in its early stages and hence fragile, but represents the only chance for repairing the rifts within Palestinian society. Without such an agreement, the Palestinians are an even weaker partner at the negotiations table, and the people of Gaza are exposed to the whims of the Israeli and Egyptian governments.

Israeli reaction

The Israeli government’s reaction to the announcement of the Palestinian unity government did not come as a surprise to anyone. It was rather predictable that this development is portrayed by Israel as signaling as shift towards “Hamasization” of the Palestinian political discourse. At the end of this week’s Israeli cabinet meeting, the Israeli prime minister warned the international community not to be deceived by this new government. As he put it, this will only give new impetus to terrorism. His Foreign Minister Lieberman called the Palestinian unity government a first step before a complete Hamas overtake of the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli leadership is, as a matter of fact, stepping up its international campaign against the inclusion of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority. This is because they sense a shift in atmosphere both in Washington and in Brussels towards engagement with the newly formed Palestinian government, and consequently towards Hamas. It was reported that Washington was considering inviting the Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah for meetings in the U.S.

There is little doubt, that the Israeli government will exploit, quite disingenuously, the inclusion of the Hamas in the PA

Yossi Mekelberg

According to the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, officials in the Obama administration asserted that, “Despite Israel’s position, the U.S. administration is tending toward cooperating with the soon-to-be-formed Palestinian unity government, even if Hamas as an organization does not accept the conditions of the Mideast Quartet…” The United States, as much as the European Union, are insisting that the three conditions requiring Hamas to recognize the State of Israel, uphold previous agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and abandon violence, remained unchanged. However, the new slant is that these conditions are required from the Palestinian government as a whole. In their most recent meeting last month the foreign ministers of the European Union expressed their support for a reconciliation government as long as it adheres to the Quartet’s principles. They went even further, promising additional direct financial aid if these conditions are met.

Kneejerk reaction

Unlike the kneejerk reaction eight years ago by the U.S. and the EU when the Hamas was elected, both seem to take a more measured approach this time round, an approach which suggests they will respond accordingly to the movement’s behavior in government. Furthermore, there is a recognition that the chances, as slim as they appear at the moment, to reach a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians might actually increase if the Hamas is participating in the government. The isolation of the Hamas when it became a party in power helped the movement to maintain its anti-establishment revolutionary reputation. Worse, the international isolation pushed Hamas into the hands of Iran and Syria, and helped it to conceal its own poor record in government, including a very troubling human rights’ record. Joining the Palestinian reconciliation government is in fact the movement’s first real test in shaping the Palestinian establishment from within instead of by defying it. Public opinion polls suggest it might end losing power if and when the next elections take place. Whether in opposition or in government, the maturity of the movement will be under close scrutiny. It might not be ready to publicly utter acceptance of the Quartet’s conditions, yet, it has to accept the spirit of them and behave accordingly. This is the movement’s only route to international legitimacy and for a possible, although begrudging, Israeli acceptance. Leading figures within Hamas expressed their readiness to accept Israel as a fait accompli in the past, but this was either drowned by the movement’s other radical rhetoric, or Israel’s plain refusal to accept that Hamas is far from being monolithic. It is worth bearing in mind that the movement joins the reconciliation government from a position of weakness. It has lost most of its international allies as a result of the regional upheavals, and has been under constant military and economic pressure from Israel. Participating in a government with the Fatah tests whether the Hamas is ready to abandon some of its zeal and become a mature and responsible party of power.

There is little doubt, that the Israeli government will exploit, quite disingenuously, the inclusion of the Hamas in the PA as evidence of President Abbas’ lack of sincerity in the peace process. As a matter of fact, the Palestinian President was less than enthusiastic about sitting with the Hamas in the same government, but wielded the threat of a unity government against the Israelis to encourage them to be more flexible in the peace negotiations. Succeeding in forming a unity government might be the unintended consequence of peace negotiation tactics; still it can end up benefitting the Palestinian people. Israel, will most likely decide to take punitive measures against the Palestinians, as a means of expressing her displeasure with the new Palestinian government. However, this might backfire with the international community, who already perceive Israel as bearing a bigger responsibility for the collapse of the peace process. Piling more misery on the Palestinians for reconciling their internal differences may be seen as adding insult to injury.


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.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.