Washington Watch: Palestinian irreconciliation

If Fatah and Hamas can’t make peace with each other, how can they be expected to make peace with Israel?

Fatah Hamas reconciliation 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)
Fatah Hamas reconciliation 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)
Fatah and Hamas signed another power sharing agreement this weekend in Cairo, but if experience is any guide it is doubtful this one will be any more successful than the previous attempts at reconciliation between the rival Palestinian factions.
The new pact calls for voter registration in Gaza and consultations on formation of an interim government of technocrats to begin May 27. The new cabinet, to be agreed upon within 10 days, would operate for six months, during which time it would set a date for presidential and parliamentary elections, probably sometime next year.
The new cabinet is to replace one sworn in just last week by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and immediately branded illegitimate by Hamas. Abbas said the yet-unformed interim body will not include Hamas because “everybody in the government should recognize Israel, denounce terrorism.”
The last legislative election was in 2006, which Hamas won. Abbas’ term as president ended in 2009, but he has repeatedly postponed new elections, worried Hamas could sweep the presidential, legislative and long-postponed municipal votes.
Fearful of a popular uprising, Abbas has been tightening his grip on power, including jailing bloggers, social network users and journalists on charges of offending him or other PA officials.
The secular nationalist Fatah and the Islamist Hamas have dramatically opposing philosophies, particularly relations with Israel – one supports peaceful coexistence between two states and the other seeks the “liberation of occupied land via armed struggle.”
Abu Marzouk, Hamas’s No. 2, said his group doesn’t object to Abbas negotiating with Israel, but that any peace agreement will only be a temporary truce – a hudna – and “We will not recognize Israel as a state.”
PRIME MINISTER Binyamin Netanyahu has said Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization, as does the United States. Both countries won’t deal with Hamas, an Iranian ally that seized control of Gaza in a 2007 coup, until it recognizes Israel’s right to exist, accepts prior Palestinian- Israeli agreements and renounces terrorism – all of which it rejects.
Netanyahu uses these unity agreements to accuse Abbas of “turning his back on peace” and “join[ing] up with the Hamas terrorist organization.” The Palestinian leader, he added, must choose between the “path of Hamas or the path of peace.”
Abbas’s problem is that reconciliation between the two factions is more popular on the street than among the groups’ leaders, who are loath to share power. In fact, Hamas itself is split between the leadership in exile, headed by Khaled Mashaal, and the Gaza leadership, led by Ismail Haniyeh.
An analysis in Lebanon’s Daily Star said, “Palestinian frustration towards a leadership seen as inept, out of touch and repressive is rising to dangerous levels.”
A stumbling block in reconciliation has been Hamas’s objection to Salam Fayyad continuing as prime minister. It considers his appointment illegal because it was never approved by the Legislative Council, which it controls. He is a secular, political independent and internationally respected economist who has done much to bring order out of the chaos and corruption of the Palestinian government left by Yasser Arafat. His presence in government is considered essential to maintaining the confidence of donor nations that keep the PA financially afloat.
There is a great gap between signing reconciliation agreements and implementing them. Each side has good reason to fear the other wants to eliminate it.
Some in Fatah see power sharing giving Hamas freer hand to challenge it in the West Bank and replace it, while Hamas worries letting Fatah security forces into Gaza could lead to its overthrow.
The Jerusalem Post reported most Palestinians “reacted with skepticism” to the latest reconciliation attempt, particularly in light of an ongoing PA crackdown on Hamas supporters in the West Bank.
While the latest attempt at reconciliation limps ahead, the likelihood of resuming peace talks with Israel becomes even more remote.
In a personal letter to Abbas last week, Netanyahu – who is clearly pleased about the ongoing Palestinian political chaos – said his new unity government represents a new opportunity for peace talks and offered to resume negotiations without any preconditions, and for the first time he put in writing his commitment to a two-state approach.
Abbas quickly rejected it, according to aides who said he does not trust Netanyahu or consider his offer genuine. Abbas continues to refuse to meet the Israeli leader until Netanyahu agrees to a total construction freeze, including in Jerusalem, acceptance of the 1967 border with limited land swaps as a reference point to begin negotiations, and the release of prisoners.
If Abbas thinks Netanyahu is not serious, there’s an easy way to find out – unless the Palestinian leader is afraid to call Netanyahu’s bluff and expose his own.
The big mystery is whether either one is ready for serious negotiations.
But that is on hold while Palestinians negotiate among themselves. First the rival Hamas factions have to make salaam with each other before they can come to a power-sharing agreement with their rival Fatah. And if they ever achieve that, which one’s approach to peace with Israel will prevail?
If Fatah and Hamas can’t make peace with each other, how can they be expected to make peace with Israel?
The history of Palestinian reconciliation agreements is one of repeated failure to consummate a marriage of inconvenience.