Palestinian unity could force Israel’s hand

Israel may be forced to negotiate with Abbas, or at least make a more serious effort to dialogue with the PA before September and a unilateral declaration supported both by Fatah and Hamas.

Hamas Fatah cartoon (photo credit: Barry Hunau)
Hamas Fatah cartoon
(photo credit: Barry Hunau)
On March 26, PA President Mahmoud Abbas made a bold push to reconcile with Hamas. The move was significant, for there has been a politically debilitating, internal rift between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas since 2007, when the latter forcefully took control of the strip and expelled PA loyalists. This rift, this lack of unity between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah, has been a major stumbling block for the Palestinians in their push to secure statehood in both territories.
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Now, it appears, Abbas is attempting to reconcile with Hamas before pressing forward with plans for a unilateral declaration of statehood by the United Nations in September, a move Israel has warned would be met with serious unilateral decisions of its own.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, clearly troubled by the prospect of unity between the PA and an organization in Hamas that is recognized by both Israel and the United States as a terror outfit, warned Abbas, saying, "You can't have peace with both Israel and Hamas."
However, Palestinian unity could end up being the card that forces Israel’s hand. Since coming to power in 2009, Netanyahu’s dedication to the peace process might best be characterized as lukewarm during a time of Palestinian political paralysis. With the prospect of unity on the Palestinian side and the threat of a unilateral move in the United Nations, Israel may be forced to negotiate with Abbas, or at least make a more serious effort to dialogue with the PA before September and a unilateral declaration supported both by Fatah and Hamas.
Of course, such dialogue, if it occurred, would be done behind closed doors, given that few Israeli politicians in today’s climate – with rockets falling from Gaza and Gilad Shalit still missing – could politically survive talks with a leader in Abbas who recognizes Hamas as a legitimate partner.
Now, Netanyahu has a justifiable reason not to be coaxed back to the bargaining table should Palestinian reconciliation occur: Hamas’ Israel doctrine. The organization’s continued refusal to recognize the State of Israel’s right to exist – to say nothing of its terror activities – give Netanyahu plenty of political and moral cover not to negotiate with Abbas should reconciliation occur. However, if the internal rifts dividing Gaza and the West Bank – dividing Hamas and Fatah – are bridged, Netanyahu may be forced to the bargaining table.
Why? Netanyahu has been leaning heavily on Palestinian disunity while nonchalantly brushing off serious investment in peace talks. In fact, he’s been relying upon such disunity, for without consensus on the Palestinian side, no final-status consensus can, in reality, be achieved through dialogue. This disunity is also partially responsible for why Netanyahu, in the past, has largely ridiculed the idea of a unilateral declaration of statehood by Abbas, who doesn’t yet have the backing of those controlling Gaza. However, if reconciliation actually occurs – if a true, unified political front can be erected by the PA and Hamas – the UN date in September will suddenly acquire much more weight. And Netanyahu knows it; hence his recent, testy remarks that any unilateral moves on the Palestinian side will be met by swift Israeli action.
Upon learning of Abbas’ meeting with Hamas, a senior Israeli official stated, “If [Abbas] chooses peace with Hamas, it will bury the peace process.”
However, such reconciliation might actually have the opposite effect, for if Abbas makes amends with Hamas, Israel will know this: there will be one last chance to reach an agreement with the Palestinians before September. After that? All bets are off.
Whether or not the PA and Hamas can reconcile remains uncertain. Abbas knows that doing so would result in lost funding from the PA’s largest donor, the United States. Recognizing this, Abbas’ aide, Azzam Ahmad, stated, "The Palestinians need American money, but if they use it as a way of pressuring us, we are ready to relinquish that aid.”
Is such boldness on the part of Abbas a bluff or an honest position? The answer may determine whether Palestinians can create a united front in their quest for statehood. The answer may also determine whether or not Israel will face a pressure to negotiate it has not felt since the splintering of Palestinian society in 2007.
The writer is the author of Shrapnel: A Memoir.