Washington Watch: Can this marriage of convenience survive?

Fatah and Hamas have signed reconciliation pacts in the past, only to see them quickly collapse.

By D. BLOOMFIELD
May 4, 2011 22:58
4 minute read.
Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh

Haniyeh and Abbas waving 521. (photo credit: REUTERS)

If past Fatah-Hamas reconciliations are any indicator, this one will have the life expectancy of a fruit fly. No sooner did the secular Fatah try to sell the agreement as a move toward peace than the Islamist Hamas declared just the opposite.

In the realm of odd bedfellows, the winners appear to be the terrorist group looking for international acceptance, its Iranian mentors, and Israel’s rejectionist Right, some of whom are calling for West Bank annexation and economic sanctions in retaliation. None is interested in a peace agreement that would see Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace.

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But for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to say this unity pact endangers the peace process wrongly assumes there was one to begin with. He and PA President Mahmoud Abbas have been doing their darndest to avoid two things: serious negotiations and the blame for their absence.

Fatah and Hamas have signed reconciliation pacts in the past, only to see them quickly collapse.

Factors bringing the two sides together this time include Fatah’s frustration with the deadlocked peace process, which it blames on weak American and Israeli leadership, and Hamas’ realization that the changes sweeping the Arab world are led by liberal, secular forces, not by authoritarian Islamists, plus the prospect of losing its patron and sanctuary in Syria.

Netanyahu must be pleased that Abbas has rescued him from having to offer dramatic concessions when he comes to Washington later this month.

And it now appears doubtful that President Barack Obama, the target of a scathing attack by Abbas in a Newsweek interview for his handling of the peace process, will be inclined to produce his own peace initiative, as was expected only a week ago.

Abbas insists he is in charge of the peace process regardless of Hamas’ rejection, but he knows no Israeli government can negotiate with – much less make concessions to – a Palestinian government half-controlled by a terrorist group committed to the three No’s: no recognition, no negotiations, no Israel.

A top Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, said: “Our program does not include negotiations with Israel, or recognizing it.”

Power sharing between these two bitter rivals is mind-boggling. I suppose part of the division of labor will be that Fatah continues relations with Israel while Hamas handles the terrorism against Israel.

Faux newsman Stephen Colbert aptly observed that the unity pact means “They’ve agreed to hate the Jews together.”

EVEN BEFORE their agreement was signed, Hamas had begun pressing Abbas to rescind PLO recognition of Israel. The two bitter rivals have diametrically opposed goals. Fatah seeks a secular national state, while Hamas wants an Islamic republic. Their differences were emphasized again this week when Fatah welcomed the death of Osama bin Laden as “good for the cause of peace” and Hamas condemned the American assassination of “an Arab holy warrior.” Abbas sees the unity government as bolstering his strategy of winning UN recognition of statehood this fall – something strongly opposed by Washington and Jerusalem.

Prominent bipartisan players on Capitol Hill are already talking of cutting the $400 million annual aid to the Palestinian Authority. They insist that its apparent decision to bring the terrorist group into its leadership is a violation of law governing aid.

Hamas is demanding that Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad – the only PA leader with any credibility when it comes to finances, security cooperation and institution building – leave office as a condition for the unity government.

A major concern for Israel is the possible integration of Hamas figures into the US-financed PA security forces, which until now have earned Israeli praise for professionalism and cooperation.

The agreement calls for an interim government of technocrats to run things until elections can be held sometime next year. For Hamas, this will be an opportunity to reestablish its political – and terror – infrastructure on the West Bank, especially if Fatah agrees to its demands and releases hundreds of Hamas prisoners.

How will Abbas respond when his new partner and its allies continue to fire rockets into Israel? And what happens when Israel hits back? Rep. Gary Ackerman called the pact “a recipe for failure, mixed with violence, leading to disaster” and something that “will be paid for in the lives of innocent Israelis.” Look for the administration to resist pressure from the Hill to push it farther than it might want to go in moving against Fatah, while trying to avoid looking like it is protecting Hamas.

No matter how he tries to frame it, Abbas is surrendering to Hamas and betraying everything he has said he stands for – a negotiated peace, two states living side by side, a rejection of terrorism.

Those who insist Fatah-Hamas unification will facilitate charting a course toward democracy should recall the expectations that Israel’s Gaza withdrawal would provide Palestinians with a showcase for democratic development.

Abbas shrugs that off and insists his marriage of convenience will enhance his chances for UN recognition. If it lasts that long.

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