USIP’s Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen discusses the significance of the reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas.

May 3, 2011

USIP’s Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen discusses the significance of the reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas.

Was the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas expected?

Many observers were taken aback at the announcement of a deal – most significantly, it would seem, the Israeli and U.S. administrations. There was certainly awareness that the two factions were once again exploring reconciliation; however, there have been several unsuccessful attempts at such a deal since Hamas ousted Fatah forces from Gaza in 2007. Consistently, the distance to bridge between the two sides has appeared great enough that, despite the recent groundswell of Palestinian popular pressure calling for the two rival groups to mend the rift, agreement did not seem to be an immediate-term proposition.

The official signing is not scheduled until May 4, so the terms of the deal are still uncertain and have yet to pass implementation. But, what is known is that the agreement calls for the establishment of an interim unity government that will set a date for presidential and legislative elections. However, it is important to recall that the last attempt at a unity government – in 2007 – was extremely short-lived and ended with the two parties in the state of civil war that had endured until this announcement last week. Likewise, commitment to an agreement brokered and signed in Yemen in 2008 barely lasted long enough for the ink to dry. It remains to be seen whether or not the changed and constantly shifting regional context – specifically the ongoing wave of revolutions around the Arab world – will contribute to giving this deal a longer shelf life.

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What is the relationship between this sudden reconciliation agreement and the broader changes sweeping the region?

The relationship exists on at least two counts, I believe. First, in the wake of the watershed success of protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, the Palestinian leadership – both in Gaza and the West Bank – has been concerned about how Palestinian popular disgruntlement would be channeled. An answer came in mid-March when, as thousands of protesters took to the streets in Gaza and in the West Bank, the focus was not the Israeli occupation but rather demands for unity between Hamas and Fatah. In other words, the occupation was not enough to deflect popular calls for domestic accountability on the part of the Palestinian leadership. In that context, Palestinian leaders have undoubtedly felt pressure to be rapidly responsive to popular grievances, and neither side wishes to be seen as perpetuating the highly unpopular split. Senior Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar has in fact stated that the deal was the direct result of the uprising in Egypt and the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.

Secondly, the change in leadership in Egypt, and the uncertainty regarding the leadership’s fate in Syria, may have played a role here. With the fall of Mubarak, Fatah lost a leader who – while having served as a mediator of this conflict for years – clearly favored Fatah over Hamas. At the same time, Hamas has long found its own external support in Syria where Bashar Al-Assad and his regime currently find their position threatened by protests that are swelling by the day.

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What are the implications of this unity deal for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

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That reconciliation is a likely death knell to the peace process may be the one issue on which the Israeli government of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Hamas leadership can agree. The Israeli government has been unequivocal in stating that it will not negotiate with a government that includes Hamas. Netanyahu stated that “the Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas,” while senior Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar has said that the terms of the unity agreement do not “… involve negotiations with Israel or recognizing it,” and that "it will be impossible for an interim government to take part in the peace process with Israel." Following a meeting with Quartet Envoy Tony Blair, Netanyahu released as statement calling on Abbas to reconsider the deal and “…choose the way of peace with Israel.”

Compounding the complications for getting a peace process back on track is the challenge that the Obama administration and the Europeans now face in light of the announced reconciliation. Both are now in the uncomfortable position of having to reconsider financial support for the Palestinian Authority, including millions of dollars the United States has spent to train and equip Palestinian security forces. In 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Congress that the U.S. would not cooperate with the Palestinian Authority if it incorporated Hamas – a fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu wasted no time in highlighting in the wake of the announcement.

Both the U.S. and the Europeans have been cautious in their reaction to the deal. The Obama administration has reiterated that it considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization but, like the EU, has suggested that reconciliation would be welcome should it be on terms that can promote the cause of peace. So far, however, Hamas has shown no indication that it is willing to renounce its charter that calls for the destruction of Israel: a sine qua non for Israel considering it a tenable negotiation partner. Further, less than a week after the deal was announced, Ismail Haniyeh, Prime Minister of Hamas’s Gaza government, condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden, characterizing bin Laden as a “true believer and martyr,” and describing the United States operation that killed him as a “…continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood.” Underscoring the vast ideological differences that remain between Hamas and Fatah, President Abbas simultaneously hailed the killing as “good for the cause of peace.”

From President Abbas’s perspective, the unification now puts the Palestinians in a stronger position to push for a United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood come September as he has been pledging to do. In fact, the deal coming at this time seems strongly to have been forged with this deadline in mind. However, there is speculation that the terms of the agreement include a commitment to replace Salam Fayyad as prime minister. If so, this could prove a sticking point for members of the international community who largely credit Fayyad for the significant progress made in readying the West Bank for independent statehood. Absent further clarification on the terms of the proposed reconciliation deal that may address the forgoing concerns, it is difficult to see how Palestinian unity -- in this way, at this time --would augur well for the prospects of a negotiated end to the ongoing conflict.

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