THE RECONCILIATION agreement between the Palestinian Authority (PA), in
Ramallah, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has been ready for signing
for nearly three years.
Yet it was only signed in early May.
agreement had been prepared by General Omar Suleiman, then head of Egyptian
intelligence. Mahmoud Abbas, representing the PA, which is essentially the Fatah
movement, accepted it while Hamas rejected it out of hand.
suddenly signed on. What happened? Why did Hamas’s Damascus-based leader Khaled
Mashaal and his men suddenly change their opinion – or, to be more precise, why
did they suddenly cave in?
The well-known principles of the agreement include
the establishment of a government of experts; preparation for general elections
in the West Bank and Gaza, to be held in less than a year; and the establishment
of a council that will supervise the security apparatus.
In the past,
Hamas leaders rejected these principles because they did not want to cede any of
the legitimacy of the democratically-elected government headed by Ismail Haniyeh
in Gaza and because they did not want to dismantle the security apparatus they
had built there.
But events in the Arab world, and especially the regime
change in Cairo, together with the shock waves coming out of Syria and the
escalating tensions between the Sunni Arab world and Shiite Iran, have forced
Hamas to accept the document (albeit with minor, insignificant
The regime change in Cairo is the key to understanding the
Palestinian unity document. Hamas is a spin-off of the Egyptian Muslim
Brotherhood – almost all of the leaders of Hamas were educated in Cairo, where
they joined the Muslim Brotherhood and accepted its ideology and its opposition
to the regime in Egypt.
Hosni Mubarak, the deposed former ruler of Egypt,
has therefore always been hostile to Hamas and its personnel.
rulers, Hamas’s dramatic success in establishing a government in Gaza, right in
Egypt’s backyard, made up of supporters and members of the Muslim Brotherhood,
has posed a severe threat. As a result, until Mubarak’s fall, Egypt joined
Israel’s attempt to topple the Hamas rule by imposing the siege on
The new regime in Egypt, which is attempting to present itself as
more open and democratic, has opened up the possibility for the Muslim
Brotherhood to participate in government; the regime has acceded to some of the
Brotherhood’s demands and to the popular demand to open up the Rafah crossing
into the Gaza Strip. This means that Egypt is no longer participating in the
siege on Gaza.
For their part, the Brotherhood has also given in on some
of their previous oppositional stands; most striking, at least from Israel’s
point of view, has been the announcement by Brotherhood spokesmen that Egypt
does not have to cut off its diplomatic relations with Israel.
I HAVE SEEN
THESE IMPORTANT statements written up in several media outlets in Egypt. They
were reflected in a recent front-page headline in the Palestinian paper
“Al-Ayam,” which declared: “The Brothers: Breaking off relations with Israel is
a mistake and an empty slogan.” But this concession has not received much
attention in Israel.
The Muslim Brotherhood has not suddenly become
enamored with the State of Israel. But the Brotherhood does know that
gone are the days of great wars and military confrontations with Israel, which
were fueled by the conflict between the West and nowextinct Soviet bloc. In the
new Egyptian age, neither the army nor civil society are interested in military
confrontations. Egypt is financially and socially allied with the West – and especially with the US, which has
equipped Egypt militarily.
Against this background, it is clear to all in
Egypt that while it may be possible and even necessary to conduct a more
demanding policy towards Israel, and it may be possible and even necessary to
cool down the cold peace even further, to engage in diplomatic confrontations,
to change commercial agreements such as the one pertaining to gas – it is
impossible to cut off ties with Israel or to cancel the peace agreement. This
would cause irreparable damage to the new Egypt’s international
And this is what has forced Hamas to change its position on the
reconciliation agreement with the PA in Ramallah. To be even more explicit, one
might say that the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Cairo has instructed its
little sister, Hamas in Gaza, to be more flexible in its dealings with PA
President Abbas and its attitude towards Israel. And so, it is not by
coincidence that in his speech on the occasion of the signing of the agreement
in Cairo, Mashaal publicly stated that his goal is “to establish a Palestinian
state in the West Bank and Gaza, with Jerusalem as its capital.” Later he told
an American journalist that his organization would only conduct military
operations (that is, terror) against Israel in coordination with the Fatah – an
unlikely event at this time.
This does not, of course, indicate any
recognition of the State of Israel. Every day, the heads of Hamas repeat that
they will never recognize Israel – but they have definitely come to terms with
its existence. Heads of Hamas have made similar statements in the past, but this
is the first time that such statements have been made in such a prominent forum
by such prominent leaders.
Hamas has thus taken long strides since its
establishment in 1988, progressing from the declaration in its founding
statement that it would fight against Israel to the death and utterly destroy it
to its recent begrudging acceptance of Israel’s existence.
ABBAS AND THE
HEADS OF THE Fatah have declared that they see no reason to demand that Hamas
recognize Israel. As far as they are concerned, Hamas is one among the many
movements and parties in Palestinian politics. There is no reason to demand that
each and every one of them declare that it recognizes, or does not recognize,
the State of Israel. In the media in Ramallah, Palestinian commentators have
noted that the Palestinians could also demand that right-wing Israeli parties
such as Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, or the settlers’ HaBayit
HaYehudi, along with the ultra-Orthodox parties recognize the Palestinian
The official Palestinian position contends that the PLO, which is
the national representative movement of the Palestinian people, recognized
Israel in the Oslo Accords. It is the PLO that conducts the diplomatic
negotiations with Israel, and not the numerous movements and parties. If
Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu can be part of a government with Benjamin
Netanyahu – then Hamas can be a part of a government with Abbas, they
This is not merely a formal matter. At the time of the signing
of the reconciliation document, Abbas stated that the new Palestinian
government, to be composed of experts, will be committed to the policies
dictated by the PLO – that is, to negotiations and to the past agreements with
Israel. According to Abbas, the new government won’t even deal with diplomatic
issues at all – it will focus on preparation for general elections for the
Palestinian parliament and presidency (and Abbas has stated that he does not
intend to be a candidate) and rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip.
former unity government established in 2006 was composed of equal numbers of
ministers from Fatah and Hamas, the new government will be composed of experts
with no clear party alliances. Even the new prime minister will be a neutral
figure. In this way, the Egyptians, together with the representatives of Fatah
and Hamas, tried to sidestep the problem of including Hamas ministers in the
Palestinian spokesmen claim that Netanyahu is misleading
everyone by saying that half of the members of the Palestinian reconciliation
government will be terrorists from Hamas, who are calling for the destruction of
Israel. According to these spokesmen, the new government will not include even
one member of Hamas; therefore, in their opinion, the countries of the world
will be able to deal with the new ministers without any concern that they are
speaking with representatives of an organization that has been declared a
It is also important to note that both sides,
Fatah and Hamas, know that the reconciliation agreement is very fragile. It
still has a long way to go before elections for the prime minister and cabinet
and, most significantly, for the security council that will oversee the security
apparatuses. On paper, the agreement seems reasonable, but it will be difficult,
nearly impossible, to put real content into its provisions. Members of Hamas
will not allow Fatah members to be full partners in control over the security
forces in Gaza – just as there is no chance that the members of Hamas will be
given any say in security in the West Bank (and, of course, Israel won’t allow
One can assume that the government of experts will in fact
come to be and that there will be some cooperation in preparation for general
elections and the rehabilitation of Gaza. But the governmental division between
the West Bank and Gaza will remain fairly similar to what it is today.
IF IT IS NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE to implement the agreement – who needs it? Both sides
need it, immediately.
Abbas and Fatah need at least the illusion of
reconciliation in order to present their vision for a Palestinian state in 1967
borders, including both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, to the UN General
Assembly in September.
And Hamas needs the reconciliation because of the
events in Syria. After all, it was not only Israel and the international
community that defined Hamas as a terrorist organization – to a certain extent,
the PA in Ramallah did, too. So Hamas has had to look for support in Shiite Iran
and secular Syria despite their ideological differences. But as Syrian cities
burn and Bashar Assad’s government wobbles, Hamas’s leaders in Damascus know
very well that they will soon have to look for another place of
They’ve been looking for a better place than Syria for a long
time. But they were thrown out of Jordan and were rejected by Lebanon and Saudi
Arabia. They tried to find a home in the emirates in the Gulf, but only Qatar
agreed to take them in, and only under extremely constricting conditions. Now
they have an opening in Cairo, providing them with an opportunity to break out
of their imposed isolation and obtain legitimacy from the new Egyptian
Prime Minister Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Lieberman and other
ministers are concerned by the Palestinian reconciliation. The outgoing
head of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) Yuval Diskin has tried to calm
them down and cautioned them not to blow the situation out of
The reconciliation is clearly an important event – that
upsets the Israeli right wing. But, it is not a disaster – and it might even
present new opportunities.