Fatah’s reconciliation with Hamas is vital for Middle East peace

PLO representative Azzam Al Ahmad with Hamas prime minister Sheikh Ismael Haneiya and Ahmad Nahar. EPA/Mohammed Saber

At a ceremony in Gaza on Wednesday, representatives of the two main rival Palestinian political factions, Fatah and Hamas, signed a reconciliation agreement. Predictably, the news was met with stern criticism from officials in Washington and Jerusalem. Although this comes at a very delicate time for the negotiations, it should not necessarily be considered exclusively negative for the peace process.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “It’s hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist.”

Is it though? In the words of legendary Israeli general Moshe Dayan, if you want to make peace you sit down with your enemies, not your friends. Substantial parts of the current Israeli government, such as HaBayit HaYehudi leader, Naftali Bennett, do not recognise the Palestinian right to statehood.

Bennett’s so-called Stability Initiative, which calls for Israeli annexation of most of the West Bank, is diametrically opposed to a two-state solution. Bennett and others from the right wing have made it clear that they will leave the government if Israeli settlers are evacuated – and more recently threatened to do so if the final, fourth tranche of Palestinian prisoners were released as had been previously agreed.

Israel must now engage

Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), can have peace with Israel or peace with Hamas – but not both. But this logic is inherently problematic; an oft-heard criticism during the seven-year rift between Fatah and Hamas has been that the Palestinian Authority does not represent all Palestinians and so any agreement reached would not be able to be implemented.

But when the Palestinians do move to create a unified, democratically elected leadership that represents all their people and can negotiate meaningfully if it chooses to do so, Israel considers this a non-starter.

This is a convenient excuse for Netanyahu to disengage from negotiations that he was never seriously committed to in the first place. If the talks collapse, as seems very likely, he can blame the Palestinians for it and no progress on peace means that his government coalition survives for the time being. Netanyahu is not a man with a great vision; he is a politician whose primary concerns are remaining in power and preserving the status quo.

Third time lucky?

For the Palestinians, it is early days yet. This is the third reconciliation agreement, as previous incarnations reached in Doha in 2011 and Cairo in 2012 did not survive the actual implementation phase. But with Hamas severely economically and politically weakened by the most recent coup in Egypt and Abu Mazen keen to improve his popularity damaged by the fruitless negotiations with Israel, it might be in the interests of both sides to make it work this time. Political division has long been a major cause for complaint on the Palestinian street and this would be an important step towards getting their own house in order.

The precise terms of the agreement are not yet clear, so it remains to be seen how Hamas will relate to the PLO and if it will agree to abide by past agreements with Israel. Together with recognition of Israel and a commitment to non-violence, these are the longstanding Western conditions for engagement with Hamas.

Though recognition of Israel has not yet been forthcoming, there have been positive signs of moderation from parts of the Hamas leadership, such as acceptance of a Palestinian state within the June 4 1967 borders. This pragmatic wing exists and should be nurtured, not isolated.

Ultimately, Hamas cannot just be ignored. The group has repeatedly acted as a spoiler whose suicide bombings have helped thwart the peace process at key intervals. These tactics are reprehensible and their Islamist ideology is far from what Israel, the West, or Abu Mazen wants. But the taboo of dealing with them has already been broken. Israel has negotiated multiple cease-fires with Hamas in the past and reached a deal over the prisoner exchange which freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Rather than preparing financial sanctions against the PA, as the US Congress is sitting down to do and as Israel will no doubt do by withholding tax revenues, perhaps this is an opportunity that should be embraced.

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