The announcement of a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement is a by-product of the Arab Spring, and the Palestinian chess game to position the public of both the West Bank and Gaza Strip for Palestinian statehood. The questions that the deal raises are numerous – yet so are the possibilities. Should this new Palestinian understanding hold, and should it serve to advance national aspirations for a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside the State of Israel, the Fatah- Hamas agreement could prove to be a critical step toward securing Palestinian independence based on a two-state solution.

The Fatah-Hamas deal comes after more than a year of reconciliation talks and two previously failed attempts (in 2007 and 2009) – so why now? After all, the agreement calls into question Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and continued aid from donor countries (particularly the United States), just as the Palestinians are gaining momentum for international recognition of a state.

FOR FATAH, the agreement serves three purposes. First, it ensures that its agenda, a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip come September, is feasible.
Just days ago, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad stated that establishing a Palestinian state required an urgent end to Palestinian disunity. Second, it addresses the demands of the Palestinian people in the midst of the radical change sweeping the Arab world. Those who have protested in Ramallah and Gaza have not used “Down with the regime” as their rallying call, but “The people want to end the split.” Third, it serves to reconnect Fatah with Gaza, where its operations have been all but erased by Hamas’s grip.

For Hamas, the reasons are also clear. First, the unrest in Syria threatens the group’s operations and support base in Damascus, weakening its overall position. Second, Hamas was more comfortable with the mediation of the caretaker government in Egypt after its clear friction with ousted president Hosni Mubarak, whose alliance with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood were well-documented.
Reports that the new Egyptian government will soon open the Gaza-Egypt border indicate the new tenor of the Hamas-Egypt relationship. Finally Hamas, like Fatah, seeks to gain a foothold in the West Bank. The next several months will be critical as both factions compete for influence in advance of presidential and parliamentary elections.

To be sure, while they announced reaching an agreement on five points – forming an interim government, convening elections, combining security forces, activating the Palestinian legislative council and exchanging prisoners – there was no mention of any commitment on pursuing peace with Israel. However, there was a clear statement that the agreement would pave the way for the Palestinians to seek recognition of an independent state along the 1967 Green Line at September’s UN General Assembly.

In announcing the agreement, Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar stated, “Our plan does not involve negotiation with Israel or recognize it; it will be impossible for an interim government to take part in the peace process with Israel.”

THE EMPHASIS on an interim government is critical. Officials on both sides have emphasized that the unity agreement is intended to address internal Palestinian governance and set the stage for elections in less than one year, while the PLO, headed by Abbas, would continue to represent the Palestinian people in negotiations with Israel. Yet should the UN recognize a Palestinian state in September, the next elections would be those of a state, which would have full authority (and responsibility) for both domestic and foreign affairs. As such, the new Palestinian government would be faced with a choice: negotiate with Israel, or fight it. Many members of the UN, especially the Europeans, are unlikely to recognize a Palestinian state if they believe the newly admitted member that includes Hamas is committed to the destruction of another member state – Israel.

Unfortunately, the possibility that a unity government might serve Israel’s strategic interests has eluded Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. His kneejerk reaction to the Fatah-Hamas deal, stating that Fatah must choose between Israel and Hamas but that there is “no possibility of peace with both,” fundamentally misreads the implications of the agreement. In the past, Netanyahu has pointed to Palestinian disunity as a significant obstacle to a two-state solution – he cannot have it both ways. Just last week in Tunisia, Abbas renounced violence and stated his clear opposition to a third intifada. With over 130 nations prepared to recognize a state under his leadership, and the UN, IMF and World Bank all endorsing the PA’s preparedness for statehood, Abbas would not risk entering into an agreement with Hamas unless he felt it would advance, rather than hinder, this statehood effort, the viability of which depends on continued Israeli cooperation.

Meanwhile, by entering a unity government, Hamas has indirectly taken on a significant level of responsibility. A renewal of violence from Gaza would seriously impede the Palestinian statehood efforts, in addition to halting international financing of Palestinian projects, to the detriment of Hamas’s political standing in Palestine. In this context, the unity agreement is a renewed challenge for Hamas to behave in a responsible way.

BUT NETANYAHU’S quick dismissal of the agreement signals that he did not read the agreement for what it is: a potentially significant shift in the Palestinian political dynamic in preparation for independence. Instead, the prime minister seized the announcement as a political tool to shift away the pressure that had been building on him to announce a peace initiative of his own. Indeed, the pressure for now has shifted to the Palestinians, who are being watched closely by the international community to see if this deal holds. However, it may not be long before attention returns to Netanyahu’s government. In fact, should the Palestinian unity agreement hold without a renewal of violence, the Palestinians will be in an even stronger position to gain international recognition for a state.

Although from the Israeli perspective, Hamas must first meet the Quartet’s three conditions – that it renounce violence and recognize Israel and past agreements – before engagement can occur, it is not likely that Hamas will accept any of these requirements ahead of the Palestinian elections. In fact, Russia’s hailing of the agreement, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s stating that she would “study” the deal, suggests that members of the Quartet may be weakening their demands.

Indeed, only one condition should matter going forward: a complete cessation and permanent renunciation of violence by Hamas as a means of achieving statehood. This would signal the unified Palestinian polity’s willingness to negotiate with Israel, and could ultimately produce the recognition and lasting peace agreement that both sides profess to seek. Instead of dismissing the report of unity, Israel should join other nations in studying it, and should signal its readiness to welcome a change of attitude on the part of Hamas. However, just as the Israelis have every right to demand such a change, they must understand that a Palestinian unity government should be able to recognize Israel as the result of a negotiated accord, not as a precondition to talking.

The United States should respond similarly. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, in the past two years, has been that a two-state solution is not possible without the inclusion of Hamas – which could undermine peace talks at any time with renewed violence – and that the blockade policy of Gaza has worked to entrench Israel’s isolation, not Hamas’s.

The US should recognize that Hamas is unlikely to accept the Quartet’s conditions. After all, even many figures in Fatah today view their own recognition of Israel in 1993, prior to a final peace agreement, as a strategic mistake for which they have paid dearly.

The US should lead by example, and encourage Israel to follow, by challenging Hamas to utilize unity to demonstrate that a Palestinian state with a unified government will be a responsible member of the international community seeking to coexist in peace alongside Israel.

The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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