The surprise of Palestinian conciliation comes at a price

Hassan Abou Taleb , Friday 6 May 2011

The changing political winds in the Middle East helped guide Fatah and Hamas to reconcile, but if the deal is to endure it is the Palestinian leaders who must stand strong in the face of pressures and challenges

The substance and timing of the announcement that Hamas and Fatah have signed a memorandum of understanding and conciliation took everyone by surprise. Perhaps this was made possible by the era of revolution meaning the Egyptian authorities dealt with this matter in the interests of Egypt and Palestinian alone, rather than those of a third party such as Israel. Contacts were clandestine and alternatives were proposed surreptitiously. Perhaps, also, Hamas and Fatah realised that there is a new Arab mindset as a result of the popular revolutions and that reconciliation would save face for the factions’ leadership and restore the prominence of the Palestinian cause on the Arab and international agendas. It would also restore the stature of the groups at the same.

Two factors which explain the surprise

Although it was a surprise to everyone that Hamas and Fatah signed a memorandum of understanding, this unexpected move can be explained with two factors. First, the Egyptian revolution and its role – which are still in the beginning – on rebuilding Egypt’s foreign policy, which one way or another would end the reign of the ousted Mubarak regime’s legacy of blatant bias towards Israel and the US. Second, the suspension of pressure by Syria and Iran on Hamas that had prevented the group from responding positively to previous Egyptian initiatives. Damascus is busy suppressing a popular uprising in Syria demanding freedom, dignity, ending corruption and domination by the Alawite minority which rules with an iron fist. Meanwhile, Iran is eager to end the diplomatic winter with revolutionary Egypt. This means that Hamas has no more excuses to remain unresponsive.

The same thing can be said about Fatah, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and President Abbas, who in the past few months has come under pressure from Israel and the US, blocking sincere efforts with Hamas to end Palestinian division. The US has suddenly withdrawn and a settlement seems to be on its death bed. Meanwhile, Israel is under the impression that the PA has no alternatives other than accept the morsels it is being offered, that Abbas’s hands are tied, and that reconciliation among Palestinians is impossible, according to Israeli intelligence reports given to Netanyahu’s government over the past few weeks.

Surprise substance

All these factors explain the surprise timing of the move in general, and the role of the new Arab environment in providing an incentive to end the dilemma of Palestinian fractures. But timing was not the only unexpected element or what facilitated the agreement; the content of the deal is also surprising. The conciliation agreement previously drafted by Egyptian intelligence after intense discussions with various Palestinian factions before the collapse of Mubarak’s regime (signed by Fatah in October, 2009), remains the basis of today’s Palestinian conciliation deal. An explanatory annex was added for some of the understandings, steps and coordination issues expected in the coming phase.

According to the memorandum of understanding, signed on Wednesday in Cairo by Fatah and Hamas as well as other Palestinian factions and unaligned figures, there are several commitments which all parties must abide by. These include forming five committees responsible for reforming the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), preparing for elections, a committee on prisoners of war and another to reform security agencies and organising presidential and parliamentarian elections, as well as balloting for the Palestinian National Council within one year.

The priorities of the interim government

Both sides agreed to form a transitional government with six priorities: preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as balloting for the National Council; supervising the implementation of the Egyptian plan; resolving issues regarding charities and NGOs; managing the security and administrative problems resulting from Palestinian division; unifying PA institutions in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem; and continuing efforts to end Israel’s siege of Gaza and reconstruction there.

This government’s agenda is primarily organisational and does not include any of the issues which had prevented Hamas from signing the Egyptian conciliation proposal about 18 months ago. It also indicates agreement between Hamas and Fatah, the two largest Palestinian factions, and not a comprehensive deal incorporating all Palestinian factions, although some items pertain to the PLO which is the umbrella for all Palestinian forces except for Hamas. It also refers to security agencies which are everyone’s concern, not only Fatah’s and Hamas’s.

It is unclear how willing Hamas will be to relinquish control over security in the Gaza Strip, or agree to cooperate with Fatah and other Palestinian factions to create a positive atmosphere to make conciliation successful. And if Hamas agreed to this, will forces in society which were born while Hamas ruled the Gaza Strip agree to surrender some of their privileges for the sake of the greater cause and a common fate? If these forces do not agree to compromise, how will Hamas handle the situation?

The significance of the conciliation deal is that it defined the nature of the new joint government which will be formed soon. It is an interim government of independent figures who have national and professional credentials recognised by both sides. This will make the transitional phase until elections nationalistic overall, and the players will be technocrats who are accepted by all Palestinian forces. This is under the assumption that all factions will agree to this proposal, and that everyone will cooperate with these independent figures.

A government removed from negotiations

It is apparent that the role of the next government will mostly focus on internal issues, and therefore the negotiations process – if talks are relaunched in some shape or form – will be the responsibility of the PLO. This government will not be conflicted in any way because it will not include members from Hamas, which the US and Israel view as a terrorist organisation and it is censured by the EU for not recognising Israel.

President Abbas said so when emphasising that the peace process is his and the PLO’s responsibility, and accordingly if talks begin in the future they will not be affected by conciliation with Hamas since the group will not be a member of the new government, neither will Fatah be. As for internal issues, these are a domestic affair, subject to compromises and balancing the various Palestinian forces.

Israeli threats and compounded myopia

Israel, as well as the US which is slow to do anything to revive the peace process, views Palestinian conciliation through another lens which refuses to see what is occurring in the Arab region, and its future repercussions on the regional balance of power. Both have reiterated the same statements about Hamas being a terrorist group that must make the ultimate sacrifice of completely accepting all Quartet preconditions, before they will even consider dealing with it as a legitimate Palestinian faction with a Palestinian and Arab following.

Abbas is also being forced to choose between Israel and Hamas, according to Netanyahu’s statements, with threats to stop dealing with Abbas as a relevant figure for Israel. This could lead to putting him under siege in Ramallah. There are also threats that Palestinian conciliation could prevent the creation of a Palestinian state, and possibly freezing the handover of taxes levied by Israel on behalf of the PA, according to the extreme-right minister Avigdor Lieberman.

These threats signify the calcification of Israeli cognisance and its inability to correctly interpret what is occurring in the Arab region overall, and Egypt in particular. These Israeli threats, supported by the US, put a burden not only Abbas and the PA but also Hamas which shoulders the greater responsibility to make conciliation a success and exit the bottle neck.

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