Assessing Palestinian unity


The agreement reached April 23 by Fatah and Hamas apparently caught both the United States and Israel off guard. But with Israel-Palestinian negotiations sputtering to a disappointing ending last month, the “unity accord” gave everyone something to talk about.

Under their agreement, the rival Palestinian groups will form a unity government in five weeks. Since a brief 2007 civil war, Hamas has controlled Gaza and Fatah has ruled parts of the West Bank through the Palestinian Authority.

In responding to the news, the U.S. and Israel restated why Hamas is an unacceptable negotiating partner: The Islamist group is considered a terrorist organization by both countries, it doesn’t recognize Israel’s existence and its aim is the destruction of the Jewish state. Any Palestinian government that includes Hamas is therefore unacceptable.

Although Israel and the United States issued denunciations, they shaved off the hard edges of complete rejection. Israel “suspended” peace talks, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held out the possibility of reviving them should the deal with Hamas fall through. And in a contentious Cabinet meeting, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is lead negotiator in the peace talks, reportedly persuaded the government to impose “measured sanctions,” rather than pursue a nuclear option that would bring about the Palestinian Authority’s collapse. Perhaps part of the reason why a more measured approach prevailed is because economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority could ultimately hurt Israel’s security by threatening the paychecks of Palestinian security forces whose cooperation is a bright spot in existing bilateral relations.

For its part, the Obama administration is officially “disappointed” in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ embrace of Hamas. And on the Hill, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) called for an immediate suspension of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, with other Israel supporters of both parties not far behind.

Yet, as of this writing, nothing has changed on the ground. And it might not.

Perhaps that’s because the announced unity effort has a distinct element of deja vu: Fatah and Hamas have announced unity agreements before only to scuttle them over turf and ideological differences. Many pundits are betting that will happen again.

Nonetheless, to the optimists, the Fatah-Hamas unity effort may present an opportunity to help the moribund peace effort. Until now, Hamas has always been viewed as the wild card in the peace process. But, as observed by Hillel Frisch of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, the involvement of Hamas in a unity government that reached some agreement with Israel “would be much better, because any peace talks could possibly result in a peace agreement with all the Palestinians, rather than half the Palestinians.”

But first, of course, Hamas would have to learn to say the word “Israel.”

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