Hamas-Fatah reconciliation: Opportunity or disaster?

Encountering Peace: It is important to remember that the Hamas-Fatah agreement leaves almost all the details to be negotiated.

By
May 2, 2011 22:57
Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh

Haniyeh and Abbas 521. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The Fatah-Hamas reconciliation caught everyone by surprise – even Mahmoud Abbas. Fatah, under Abbas’ leadership, had signed the proposed Egyptian document for reconciliation in October 2009. I speculated then that the only reason Abbas signed was because he was convinced Hamas would not. The new understandings contain less content and explicit reconciliation than the original document, which included a re-integration of the security forces. The current agreement is much more procedural in nature, and mainly focuses on preparing for new elections. I have frequently said the only thing that Fatah and Hamas can really agree on is a date for new elections.

It is important to remember that the Hamas-Fatah agreement leaves almost all the details to be negotiated.

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So many key questions remain unanswered: Who will lead the new government? Will Fayyad still be prime minister? Will the international community continue to support the PA without him? There will be a “formation of the Higher Security Committee, composed of professional officers to be by consensus.”

Will this committee instruct all the security forces to continue cooperating with Israeli forces? Will the Hamas military wing agree to a full ceasefire for a full year, as Abbas had demanded? Will Izz el-din al-Qassam leader Ahmed Jaabri agree to the Fatah-Hamas agreement? Will Hamas re-hire all the Fatah teachers who were replaced by Hamas teachers in Gaza? Will the 80,000 Ramallah PA-paid employees go back to work in Gaza ministries? Will Hamas really give up control to technocrat ministers? Will Fatah agree to a government with zero Fatah representation? Will the thousands of Gazans living in Ramallah and the West Bank go back to Gaza? How long will it take before the US Congress freezes all money to Palestine? Will the three non-US members of the Quartet continue to adhere to the Quartet demands that Hamas recognize Israel, adhere to the Oslo agreements and renounce terrorism? Will the international community continue to support a Palestinian state if it includes Hamas in its government? What about Gilad Schalit – Abbas said he had no control, but what about now? There are a lot more questions, and I doubt they can reach agreement on all of them.

Some things, though, should be clear. It would be a huge mistake to dismiss Fayyad from his position. I spoke with Fayyad, and could easily understand how much he would like to see a Palestinian state born with the acceptance of the whole world, including Israel. Fayyad’s reputation is so good around the world that it is doubtful if any other potential prime minister could gain the support of the donor nations and of the 130+ states prepared to recognize Palestine in September.

MY ASSESSMENT of the new understanding is that the Egyptians orchestrated it entirely, knowing of the growing uncertainty of Hamas’s standing in Syria. Khaled Mashal reportedly sent a message of support to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which could at least become a legitimate political player in Syria if the Assad regime falls. Clearly this act, once made known to Assad, resulted in some stern messages back to Hamas.

The Hamas leadership has also begun to coordinate more directly with the Muslim Brotherhood in the new Egypt. Hamas apparently wants to open an interest office in Cairo, and the Brotherhood and Hamas have also demanded that Cairo cease its cooperation in the siege of Gaza and immediately open the Rafah crossing. My understanding is that the Egyptian military rulers informed Hamas that they would open the border, but that Hamas had to agree to the Egyptian proposal for reconciliation with Fatah. Hamas’s quick decision to comply and caught everyone off guard.

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Hamas immediately stated that they it would not accept Fayyad as prime minister, but Abbas quickly replied that he is the president and only he appoints the prime minister. This is already the first of many difficulties to come. The Cairo agreement does not explicitly bring up the mutual release of political prisoners, but this was mentioned in the press conference when the agreement was announced. Abbas noted, though, that the PA in the West Bank held no “political prisoners” – a clear contradiction to the Hamas assertion that over 700 Hamas prisoners languish in PA jails.

From the perspective of the Quartet and Israel, the new reconciliation could be an opportunity to advance peace with one Palestinian Authority.

New Palestinian elections are the best way for the Palestinian people to tell the world what they want. They will be given a choice, and it is important that the choice be clear and direct. This is an opportunity to strengthen the supporters of peace. This is a chance where peace or continued conflict can be chosen in the ballot box, unlike the elections in which Hamas won as a result of a protest vote against the corrupt Fatah. In order for that to happen, it is essential that no one empower the extremists by engaging in policies that will push the Palestinian people against the wall. Clear Israeli intentions to make peace with the Palestinians, to end the occupation, to accept Palestinian statehood on the basis of the 1967 borders with agreed territorial swaps (which legitimize the settlement blocks) and two capitals in Jerusalem would bring victory to those who want to live in peace with Israel.

But Israel has already taken steps that will directly empower Hamas. Netanyahu’s knee-jerk statements in response to the Cairo agreement, along with the unilateral decision of the minister of finance to withhold tax transfers to the PA will feed the extremists. The taxes collected by Israel (by agreement) do not belong to Israel. This is Palestinian money, and without it, the PA will go bankrupt. The PA will begin to collect taxes in Gaza, but with the high unemployment there, the tax base is quite low.

If the US and other Quartet members also freeze donations to the PA, the economic successes which have paved the road of stabilization will collapse. All the achievements of the past several years will fade, replaced by a new round of violence.

Now is the time for diplomatic finesse and strategic thinking, both of which seem lacking in Jerusalem. Hopefully the Quartet will be wiser.

The writer is co-CEO of IPCRI, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (www.ipcri.org) and is now in the process of founding the Center for Israeli Progress (http://israeli-progress.org).

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