By Tony BadranIn the past couple of weeks, the dormant inter-Palestinian “reconciliation” process was said to be stirring again. Representatives of the rival Fatah and Hamas movements met in Damascus, where they are scheduled to meet again in a week to continue talks. However, from the vantage point of the US and its allies and clients – most notably the Palestinian Authority and Egypt –“reconciliation” will not advance the key US strategic objective in the region: the weakening of the Iranian alliance system.This new act in the ongoing “reconciliation” play reportedly began after a brief encounter in Saudi Arabia between Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal and Egypt’s head of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, last month. Up to that point, the process had been stuck on Hamas’s refusal to sign the Egyptian memorandum outlining the terms of the reconciliation, without first making amendments to it. After the meeting with Suleiman, Hamas and Fatah scheduled a sit-down to resolve outstanding differences in order to then proceed to sign the Egyptian document in Cairo. Hamas, however, stressed one condition: the understandings achieved during these meetings would become a binding, written agreement that would not merely serve as an annex to the Egyptian document, but that would also govern its implementation. In other words, Hamas would effectively replace the Egyptian document with its own – a ploy that Hamas attempted in June, and Egypt rejected.The Egyptian daily Al-Masriyoun reported on Tuesday that while Cairo may have been willing to entertain an annex of Hamas’s “remarks” on the Egyptian document, it did not approve of turning the annex into the referential document. Even when putting aside the Egypt-Hamas complication, it is hardly clear if inter-Palestinian “reconciliation” on Hamas’s terms is feasible. Quickly after the meeting in Damascus, which was followed by announcements that agreements were reached over three out of four points of contention (namely pertaining to elections and reforming the Palestine Liberation Organization), it emerged that the two sides remained quite at odds over a central point: the fate of the security services, which is scheduled to be discussed in the upcoming meeting in Damascus on October 20. One unnamed Hamas source told Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, “the security file is complicated, and I believe it might torpedo the talks. We want a role in the West Bank just like they want a role in Gaza.” In other words, Hamas wants to reinstate its presence in the West Bank’s security apparatuses. It has also demanded the Palestinian Authority cease all security cooperation with the Israelis. Furthermore, Hamas has stressed that the doctrine of these joint security forces, as well as of any national-unity government, should be based on “resistance.” Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has described this as an insurmountable obstacle: “Are we, all Palestinians, ready to behave on the basis of a security doctrine that is in harmony with the concept of a Palestinian state, or not?” It is no wonder then that this point could torpedo the whole process. For one, security in the West Bank has been guaranteed not only by the close cooperation between the PA and Israel, but also by US training programs administered to PA forces. Needless to say, it would be impossible to maintain these programs were Hamas to become part of these security forces. That would not only leave Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the PA vulnerable to another armed Hamas takeover, à la Gaza, but it would also pave the way for renewed conflict with Israel and an Israeli return to the West Bank. With Hamas already calling for the end of negotiations with Israel, this would shelve any notion of Palestinian statehood for the foreseeable future. It was hardly surprising then to hear one Hamas official dismiss the possibility of handing over Gaza to PA security forces, while adding, “Reconciliation would be political, but geography will remain the same.” Such a statement indicates that, regardless of whatever pro forma “political” agreement the two may end up signing, the status quo on the ground is set to remain unchanged. Accepting Hamas’s terms is nothing short of suicide for the PA. In that light, it is quite easy to understand why Syria and Iran have been backing Hamas’s position. Back in March, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Abbas that he must accept the “resistance” platform (and the Syrians even tried to have the Arab League Summit adopt the “option of resistance.”) In the Syrian calculation, “reconciliation” on Hamas’s terms would likely result in the total eclipse of Abbas and Fatah, as well as the sidelining of Egypt, all while Hamas avoids accepting the Quartet’s conditions (recognition of Israel, renunciation of terrorism and violence, and acceptance of the PA’s previous agreements and obligations). Naturally, Syria would then step in to sell the illusory proposal that it is the primary state interlocutor on behalf of the Palestinians, not to mention on behalf of the Lebanese – an old and persistent Syrian ambition. In the end, for Damascus, the peace process is merely a tool to serve Assad’s pursuit of regional primacy, which is otherwise grossly incommensurate with Syria’s actual weight. As matters stand, the chance of the reconciliation process actually bearing fruit is minuscule, because the chasm between Palestinian factions increasingly has “the look of permanence,” as one astute analyst put it. But quite apart from whether or not reconciliation is possible, we must also ask if it is at all desirable. Palestinian unity is only attractive if it forces Hamas to make concessions that weaken the “resistance alliance” led by Iran. An agreement on reconciliation that strengthens Hamas and weakens Fatah should be strongly resisted by the US. It is absurd to believe that the current process, hosted by Syria, can lead to anything good. Therefore, the fact that reconciliation remains unlikely is not at all a bad thing.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article first appeared on NOW Lebanon.