Six takes on the Palestinian unity deal

Rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah agreed Wednesday to create a unity government within five weeks, which could help Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas politically at home but could throw up yet another roadblock in the Mideast peace process, some analysts say.

The agreement, which has been struck before and failed, is an attempt to heal a seven-year rift between leaders of Hamas, who have governed the Gaza Strip since 2007, and those loyal to Abbas, who maintain control of the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the deal before it was formally announced, saying Abbas could have peace with Hamas or peace with Israel, but not both.

The following Middle East analysts gave us their reactions to the deal:

Rashid Khalidi, professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University:

The rift between the two sides is very old: it goes back to the rivalry between the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the secular groups that formed the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1960s, and was concretized when Hamas was founded by the MB in 1987.

These negotiations may have produced an accord that will be implemented (they have agreed on accords and failed to implement them before) because both sides have been pushed closer to one another by recent events that affected them differently.

The negotiating strategy of Fatah and the PLO has been stymied progressively for over two decades by Israeli intransigence about halting, let alone dismantling, its colonial project, which was designed to destroy the possibility of a two-state solution, and has all but done so (nearly 600,000 Israeli settlers now live in occupied Palestinian territory on stolen land). U.S. acquiescence in, and financing of, the settler enterprise has put further nails in the coffin of the Fatah/PLO approach and of the two-state solution, which as a result are at a dead end. This was revealed in the fruitless Kerry talks over the past nine months.

Hamas meanwhile has been squeezed by loss of support from Iran and the disappearance of the MB regime in Egypt last summer, as well as by the widely perceived bankruptcy among Palestinian public opinion both of its governance project in the Gaza Strip and of its strategy of “resistance.” This has amounted to no more than pin-pricks to Israel, which produced devastating Israeli reprisals.

This reconciliation may not work, because of American-Israeli sabotage of a deal (in the past both have done everything possible to prevent an inter-Palestinian reconciliation) and other factors, but for the reasons I mentioned, it also might take place.

Daoud Kuttab, Al-Monitor columnist based in Amman, Jordan:

I think the results announced in Gaza today are a big gain for Mahmoud Abbas and a near total capitulation of Hamas. While this agreement will help reunify Palestinians, it will not do much to restart the broken up peace talks that failed because of Israeli overstretching and changing the goal posts. Netanyahu’s attempts to push Palestinians to recognize the Jewishness of Israel (a new demand that was not made before and was not made to Jordan and Egypt) has been the most obvious sign that he was not ready to make peace despite the verbal words.

The U.S. also needs to understand that it can’t just allow the conflict to go while it supports one side financially and politically yet try to claim that the parties have to find a solution. The U.S. needs to have a much more effective strategy.

Hisham Melhem, bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, D.C.:

The history of “unity agreements” between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Hamas does not signify that this particular agreement will be fully and honestly implemented by both parties. Both sides are under pressure, although Hamas is almost on the ropes given the dire economic conditions in Gaza as a result of unprecedented punishment from Egypt, not to mention Israeli pressure.

I believe that domestic considerations are the driving force behind this initiative. Both sides need to appear as serious leaders trying to address their public opinions, and also for President Abbas, he needs to improve his immune system when the inevitable incoming fire from Israel (and maybe the U.S.) in the wake of the likelihood of the collapse of the U.S.-sponsored peace talks. Hamas, needs the PLO now more than ever, given the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) rule in Egypt, but President Abbas is gambling with this agreement which is not likely to be welcomed by the Gulf states, particularly the UAE and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia, which have supported Egypt’s harsh crackdown against the MB, since Hamas belongs to the same larger Islamist family.

Abbas is using the agreement to pressure Israel to show more flexibility, and to nudge the U.S. government to lean on Israel, I think that such tactics will backfire both in Israel and the U.S.

The agreement is very vague and broad, and it contains the seed of an eventual collapse, since it does not address the serious political splits (on peace efforts with Israel, as well as the conflicting social/political agendas of both sides).

That said, there is always the faint hope that, given the turmoil in the Middle East: a civil war in Syria, an Iraq facing more crises, with Egypt likely to remain under indirect military rule; and Gulf states focused on Iran and shoring up Egypt’s new ruler, maybe the Palestinians are beginning to realize that they have to change course, radically and quickly.

Hussein Ibish, senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine:

The most striking thing about the new Hamas-Fatah agreement is that it is virtually indistinguishable in all of its principal features from several earlier agreements between the two groups, most notably in Cairo and Doha, that were signed to great fanfare but remained utterly unfulfilled. Therefore, it’s very hard to know whether this will prove another false start or a real step forward towards Palestinian national unity. The earlier agreements were prompted by Palestinian public pressure for national unity. And that’s almost certainly a crucial factor now, too. In addition, the earlier agreements responded to pressure from Arab states that are close to the various Palestinian groups. The Palestinian factions may well be again attempting to please their allies in the rest of the Arab world.

And finally, both sides now find themselves under more pressure than ever. Hamas is in an unprecedented crisis, particularly since the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the meltdown facing their Muslim Brotherhood allies throughout the region. Fatah, too, is in a very difficult situation regarding the negotiations with Israel, which have proven enormously frustrating. There is a very serious public backlash which they have to deal with politically.

Moving now on gestures towards unity with Hamas might be an effort to shore up Fatah’s reputation, in advance of a potential face-saving way to keep negotiations with Israel going after the deadline of April 29th. It also might be an effort to demonstrate to Israel and the United States that Palestinians still have options beyond the negotiating process, in a similar way that the PLO recently joining the 15 international treaties recently was intended to convey.

For Hamas, it’s probably an exercise in demonstrating that they are still relevant, given how isolated they have become. It may also reflect a power struggle within Hamas between those who wish to integrate more with the prevailing Arab order versus those who want to remain strongly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood work or Iran. Those divisions within the group appeared evident last week when certain Gaza-based leaders praised anti-Israel violence, but externally based Hamas Politburo figures remained silent.

Different forms of Palestinian national “reunification” require varying degrees of compromise. It is always possible for the two groups to establish some kind of “unified” cabinet, but that won’t mean real national reconciliation. Actual Palestinian reunification will require holding elections, which are promised in the new agreement, but are very unlikely to take place. Even more essential, and difficult to imagine, is a merging of security forces. This is the sine qua non of real national reconciliation, and neither party has a real incentive for stake in sharing power in the parts of Palestine (Gaza and the West Bank, respectively) in which they have de facto control.

So it is still completely uncertain as to how far this agreement can possibly go. A great deal depends on many external factors as well as internal Palestinian ones. The Israeli reaction, especially regarding the transfer of Palestinian tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority, will be crucial. Similarly, the question of American aid in the event of any implementation of this kind of an agreement will be very important, as even in the event of a simple “national unity cabinet” — short of new national elections or emerging security services — will raise new issues for U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority. Every minister will be scrutinized carefully, and Congress may be difficult to placate. However, if the agreement were to be welcomed by Egypt and/or financed by the Gulf states, the development of such a “unity” cabinet is possible.

Precedent suggests that little will come of this agreement. But it’s possible, and the factors are readily identifiable that could facilitate this, that some genuine steps towards Palestinian reconciliation might emerge. The outcome is deeply uncertain.

David Pollock, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

For Abbas, this is a clear sign he sees the current peace talks going nowhere. And, unfortunately, that he cares less about relations with the U.S. or Israel than about his hardline rivals.

We’ve seen very similar Palestinian unity deals before, only to watch them crash ever since Hamas won the 2006 election. The terms now are much like the previous, Qatari-sponsored attempt — which ran aground when they couldn’t even agree on a short-term “unity government.” But this one has a better chance of getting started, because Hamas is much weaker now due to shifts in Egypt, Syria, Gulf Cooperation Council, and its own lower appeal in Gaza. Also, a bit easier now because Hamas bête noire Salam Fayyad has already been replaced as Palestinian Authority prime minister.

Even if they do implement the first steps, the next step — an election in six months — will be very hard. That’s an eternity in the region and Hamas knows it will almost surely lose big, according to all the polls, so it may well raise obstacles.

For Israel, this is a good rationale for avoiding any new peace steps. Netanyahu has already said “Abbas can have either peace with Hamas, or peace with Israel.” And Israel just canceled the next scheduled meeting with the Palestinian Authority and U.S. envoy Martin Indyk.

So, for U.S. negotiators, this is one more big uncertainty and complication.

Still, Hamas is now on record (again) as accepting Palestinian Authority-Israel talks (though not peace with Israel). This time, the deal says the talks can continue “under clear conditions” — presumably a settlement freeze, prisoner release, and early discussion of borders. These are too much, but there may be some room for maneuver.

Therefore, the U.S. could and should keep trying to revive the peace talks. It will be harder than ever, but probably even worse to stop trying. True, there is now a clearer U.S. option to walk away by saying “well, the Palestinians chose unity over peace” — and to hope the unity deal quickly falls apart. But I think that’s a riskier option, because it could invite unilateral provocations by either side as well as further criticism from our remaining Arab friends.

Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center’s Middle East program:

If this were about real unity — one gun, one authority, one negotiating position — in a process that would ultimately bring a unified Palestinian national movement into a negotiation with Israel, then I think unity could actually be a plus. But that’s not what this is. This is a tactical response to a difficult situation for Abbas. It’s very popular on the Palestinian street and what’s it’s going to lead to, I’m afraid, is no real unity and a major complication when it comes to negotiations with the Israelis.

I see almost no benefit in this if you look at it from the perspective of the overall negotiating process. If you look at it from Abbas’ perspective it could be very popular. It could send a powerful signal to the United States that we have other options. That unity with Hamas under these circumstances is the key to an empty room. It is neither going to advance the kind of unity that the Palestinian national movement needs, which is one gun, one authority, one negotiating position, nor is it going to do much, frankly, to benefit the negotiations. In fact, Abbas could find himself in a situation where both Congress and the administration end up restricting additional assistance.

Support PBS NewsHour: