An Israeli View: Israel and the US should learn the lessons

Most commentators were caught by surprise by the announcement on April 27 of a Fateh-Hamas reconciliation agreement. The conventional wisdom had held that while the two movements were going through the motions of trying to reach an agreement, they did not really mean it; the gaps separating their positions were too wide and they did not trust each other…

by Shlomo Brom

What caused the change is apparently the combination of recent turmoil in the Arab world, the complete deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and frustration over the international community’s lack of will and capacity to facilitate a solution.

Not all the details of the agreement are known. But it seems that Hamas was the party that made most of the concessions to enable it. The agreement is based on an Egyptian proposal from October 2010 that repeats the basics of an offer made previously by PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Fateh accepted the Egyptian proposal last October 14, while Hamas rejected it vehemently.

The change in Hamas‘ position reflects the fact that Hamas is not as confident that the upheavals in the Arab world are going to strengthen it as its spokesmen would have us believe. The Hamas leadership is quite concerned lest the unrest overflow into Gaza and threaten its rule; this was manifested not too long ago in the brutal suppression of demonstrations there. The Hamas government suffers from a problem of legitimacy and faces a decrease in public support because of its past refusal to hold new elections and the fact that its rule is based solely on security organs, like the other authoritarian Arab regimes. This is reflected in public opinion polls that show that Fateh enjoys much more support than Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas is also concerned that changes in the Arab world may not necessarily prove favorable from its point of view. True, the hostile Mubarak regime in Egypt is gone. But events in Syria may threaten a very important support base and there are many lingering uncertainties concerning Egypt. These factors generated renewed interest in cooperating with Egyptian efforts to achieve Palestinian reconciliation. On the other hand, negotiations with Israel did not serve as an obstacle because in any event they are at a standstill.

Fateh’s motives are both similar and different. Although it dealt with limited protests in the West Bank in a more sophisticated and effective way then Hamas, Fateh is also disturbed by its perceived lack of legitimacy and the difficulty of carrying out elections that could endow its rule with legitimacy. Like Hamas, Fateh well understood that protests among the Palestinian public center around the wish for reconciliation and reunification of the Palestinian people. Fateh could hardly say no when Hamas accepted a proposal that is basically its own.

Fateh had another motive as well. Behind its facade of confidence in the success of the Palestinian campaign for international recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, there is much concern that the campaign will end in a fiasco. Undoubtedly, a large majority will vote for this resolution at the General Assembly in September. But what happens if nothing changes on the ground once the resolution is approved? Disappointment among the Palestinian public could exact a heavy political price from Fateh and its leadership. The agreement gives Fateh a way out of this embarrassment.

It is too early to certify that Fateh and Hamas have really succeeded in bridging the gaps separating their positions. The devil is in the details: when they have to agree on the composition of the government of experts and of the central elections committee, the format of elections, the details of Hamas‘ accession to the PLO and all the other issues–Fateh and Hamas may still run into trouble and the whole agreement could collapse once again.

As to Israel and the international community, the reconciliation agreement demonstrates the final bankruptcy of their policies vis-a-vis the Palestinian split. These policies were based on embracing the Abbas government and rejecting and punishing the Hamas government as long as it did not accept the three conditions of the Quartet. It was assumed that this strategy would lead to a better situation in the West Bank in comparison to the Gaza Strip, thus bringing about an increase in support for the Abbas government and a reduction in support for Hamas. That indeed has occurred.

Another important element at least for the United States and the international community was effective negotiations leading to a permanent status agreement. The assumption here was once again that this would lend legitimacy to the Abbas government and create enormous pressure on Hamas to yield to international demands and join in. In fact, these policies were bankrupt even before the reconciliation agreement. For one, it was not clear how the decrease in support for Hamas would lead to the downfall of the Hamas government or to a dramatic change in its positions. Then too, the Obama administration failed in jumpstarting effective negotiations. The flotilla fiasco also served to reduce pressure on Hamas. The reconciliation agreement is merely the last nail in this policy’s coffin.

Now, Israel and the US should learn the lessons and make up their mind. Does this agreement present only risks (mostly the risk that Hamas will take over) or also opportunities? Abbas himself hinted at these opportunities when he said the negotiations are the responsibility of the PLO, which he leads, and not the government. It may be possible, based on what appear to be Hamas vulnerabilities, to continue the dialogue with Israel and the good relations between the organs of the two governments of Israel and the Palestinian Authority while Hamas finds itself in a situation whereby it has to cooperate with these policies. Hamas will also probably now come under stronger pressure to maintain the ceasefire in Gaza.

There may be elements in the Obama administration that accept such a concept. It is difficult to expect this of a Netanyahu government that fell back on the Pavlovian reflex of issuing threats aimed at Abbas and that probably is not really interested in effective negotiations regarding a permanent status agreement.-Published 2/5/2011 ©

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv.