It's an ill wind

The reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas could present new opportunities for Israel.

Palsetinian security forces watch reconciliation 311 (photo credit: ABED OMAR QUSINI / REUTERS)
Palsetinian security forces watch reconciliation 311
(photo credit: ABED OMAR QUSINI / REUTERS)
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.
The 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.
Now, they’ve 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 changes).
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.
To Egyptian 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 Gaza.
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 standing.
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 state.
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 contend.
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.
While the 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 government.
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 terrorist organization.
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 that, either).
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.
SO 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 refuge.
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 regime.
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 proportion.
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.