Can Palestinians make peace with themselves?

Fatah and Hamas can’t agree on when, how or even whether to hold elections they say they want for the legislative council and president.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN 370 (R) (photo credit: Lucas Jackson / Reuters)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN 370 (R)
(photo credit: Lucas Jackson / Reuters)
Palestinian election officials began a week-long voter registration drive in the West Bank and Gaza Monday in preparation for elections that probably won’t be held. Rival factions Fatah and Hamas can’t agree on when, how or even whether to hold elections they say they want for the legislative council and president.
That split will be one more factor if, as expected, President Barack Obama offers no new major peace initiatives or proposals for resumed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations when he visits the region next month. And any Hamas-Fatah reconciliation could be the final nail in the coffin of once-promising peace talks.
The latest attempt at reconciliation failed this weekend in Cairo, as have all previous efforts despite mutual declarations of commitment to a unified Palestinian leadership, and the outlook for the future is bleak. Reconciliation is popular on the Palestinian street but not at the leadership level, despite all their brotherly rhetoric. The two competing movements have opposite viewpoints, fear the other seeks control over its territory (true) and their leaders dislike and distrust each other.
Fatah, the moderate and secular party that dominates the West Bank, recognizes Israel, supports the two-state solution and maintains relations with the Jewish state, most importantly on security matters. Hamas, the militant Islamist group which controls Gaza, vehemently opposes any cooperation or compromise with Israel, whose destruction remains its central goal, as it is of its Iranian patrons.
For all their talk of brotherhood and dedication to the Palestinian cause, Fatah and Hamas would each like to see the other destroyed. Hamas seized control of Gaza from Fatah in a bloody coup in 2007 and has been plotting a West Bank takeover ever since, which helps explain why elections remain elusive.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and president of the Palestinian Authority, wants to appoint an interim government of nonpartisan technocrats to prepare for elections within three months. Hamas wants to put some of its own people in the interim government and opposes setting a date for elections.
That leads to concern that once Hamas becomes part of the government there will be no elections and it will use its new position to try to take over the PA.
Israelis remember that when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 Hamas soon took over and turned the area into a base for sending suicide bombers, missiles and rockets into Israel, and they expect the same thing would happen if Hamas achieved its goal of controlling the PA and the West Bank.
Abbas has refused Hamas’ demand that Fatah end security cooperation with Israel, which has led to the arrest of many Hamas terrorists by both the PA and Israeli forces. That cooperation, with American funding and training – along with construction of Israel’s controversial security barrier – has kept Hamas terrorists from operating inside the West Bank and infiltrating into Israel. A better-trained and professional security force, replacing Yasser Arafat’s corrupt and inept policy, has also made life safer for West Bankers.
Abbas was elected president in 2005 and the parliament the following year, each for a four-year term. There have been no national elections since. The legislature hasn’t even convened since the 2007 Hamas coup.
They have been postponed repeatedly not only because the two sides can’t agree on basic terms, but also because Fatah fears another Hamas victory like the one in 2006 that gave it control of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Hamas also has reason to fear a Fatah victory, which may help explain its similar reluctance to agree on terms and conditions for new elections.
Hamas blames Abbas for the failure of the latest round of reconciliation talks, saying he is stalling to see whether President Obama will arrive next month with a plan to restart peace talks with Israel. Fatah denies that and has rejected holding a three-way meeting with Abbas, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Obama.
Obama’s visit is another reminder of how the past seven years have been disappointing for Hamas. It expected by now that the western powers would grant it recognition but they still refuse, demanding the organization first accept Israel’s right to exist, agree to abide by all Palestinian-Israeli agreements and renounce the use of violence.
Hamas’ roots are in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as are those of that country’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, so it had expected he would come to its defense when Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense three months ago in response to escalating rocket attacks from Gaza.
Instead, Morsi helped broker a cease-fire and, adding insult to injury, said he intended to abide by the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
Abbas, who will be 78 next month, has said he does not plan to run again, but Fatah sources say he could change his mind, possibly depending on who else is running.
Hamas and other militant groups are considering lifting their refusal to recognize the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians and join.
That has led to speculation in Palestinian media that the leader of Hamas could become the next head of the PLO, which would create a schism with the United States, Israel and the Europeans, all of which consider Hamas a terrorist group and refuse to recognize it.
Abbas knows that a reconciliation agreement with Hamas will have severe repercussions.
American funding is likely to dry up and so could much of the money from the Arab world since the Saudis and others often need a lot of pressure from Washington to honor their pledges. More immediately, Israel would react harshly.
Hamas being part of the PA or taking over the West Bank security forces would be intolerable.
Reports out of Ramallah and Cairo say Abbas may soon unilaterally dissolve his government, name an interim cabinet and order new elections, but that is highly unlikely because he knows Hamas would not only boycott them but could try to disrupt and prevent them.
As the Fatah-Hamas rift widens, you can’t blame Israelis for asking how the Palestinians could make peace with Israel when they can’t even make peace with each other.
©2013 Douglas M. Bloomfield [email protected]