Commentary

The Ins-and-Outs of Palestinian Unity

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Following a very public and violent falling-out, and several failed attempts over the years to bring the two parties together, Fatah and Hamas have agreed to put their differences aside and to work together in a unity government. The news has been welcomed in most diplomatic circles, with many hoping that both groups will make significant efforts to ameliorate the conditions on the ground for the Palestinian people who have had to carry the consequences of their disagreements. If there is a loser in this scenario, it could be Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who appears to have been caught wrong-footed and who has also been criticized for having mishandled the reaction to the announcement.

One of the main questions in most people’s minds has to do with the motivations for Fatah’s rapprochement with Hamas. Asharq Alawsat’s Ali Ibrahim believes the timing has much to do with unfavorable geostrategic reality with which Hamas leaders are faced, including the loss of important support structures: “The change that has now imposed itself on Hamas—prompting it to make compromises and accept the formation of a joint government, elections after six months, and the return of the Presidential Guard to the border crossings with Egypt—echoes the developments the region has witnessed since the wave of change hit Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Both the balance of political power and regional alliances have now shifted, and Hamas’s leadership has been ejected from Damascus....But it was the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt that was the biggest factor pushing Hamas toward reconciliation.... faced with clear signs of unrest among Gaza’s public, Hamas eventually decided to follow Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Movement, which had to relinquish power in order to avoid a confrontation with its opponents like the one that occurred in Egypt.”

The National editorial, on the other hand, suggests that the unity deal was only possible due to Hamas’s declining popularity in the Gaza Strip, but then goes on to suggest that regardless of the reasons, the Palestinian leadership ought to seize this rare opportunity to improve the lives of the Palestinians: “This rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas was only possible because of collapsing support for Hamas from the 1.8 million people living in dire conditions in the besieged Gaza Strip. While ending the schism is clearly in the interests of the vast majority of Palestinians, the focus needs to remain on the ultimate goal: the creation of a Palestinian state. Not even the most optimistic advocate of Palestinian statehood believes this will happen quickly, so the unity government must also pursue the intermediate goal of improving the lives of ordinary Palestinians....Without the economic tools of a sovereign state, the unity government’s ability to improve its citizens’ lives is limited. But not wasting energy on infighting has to be a good way to start.”

The reaction from the Israeli side has been predictable, with many seeing the unity agreement as proof of their suspicion of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. There is also, however, a sense of deep unhappiness with the way the Netanyahu administration has handled this recent development. For example, Jerusalem Post’s Caroline B. Glick, takes the prime minister to task for playing a very good hand weakly: “Abbas’s unity deal with Hamas renders the entire Palestinian Authority a terrorist organization. Modeled on Hezbollah’s deal with the Lebanese political leadership, the unity agreement formalizes the PLO’s role as Hamas’s protector and defender on the international scene. And it enables Hamas, as a member of the PA, to receive open assistance of every kind for its terrorist operations in Gaza and Judea and Samaria alike....The time has come for Israel to stop playing this game, where the PLO gets to materially breach its agreements and so render them effectively null and void, while Israel, the sucker, keeps upholding them. The time has come for Israel to stop collecting tax revenues for the PA. All of the money Israel collects and transfers to the PA is now serving Hamas directly.”

Haaretz’s Barak Ravid and Jack Khouri are also unhappy, but for a very different set of reasons, decrying political ‘malpractice’ by Netanyahu, a sentiment echoed by opposition politicians: “Yitzhak Herzog (Labor) criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's handling of the new Palestinian unity government on Wednesday, saying that his policy has led to ‘a complete collapse of Israeli foreign policy.’ According to Herzog, Netanyahu failed to understand that Israel's status in the international arena is weakening, and has ‘let the Hamas into the West Bank through the front door.’

Others outside of Israel have expressed frustration and concern that the Israeli PM does not seem to be driven by objective concerns, but rather from political expediency. Writing for the Palestinian daily Ma’an News, Daoud Kuttab laments the fact that: “Israeli leaders, especially Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, do not appear to care about the consequences of their position, nor if it will work. Netanyahu's only preoccupation appears to be pandering to his right-wing constituency in the hope that this will carry him to an unprecedented fourth term....It appears that the influence of the settler ideology is so strong that no Israeli politician can survive elections without speaking their ideological lingo. As a political animal, Netanyahu probably made the calculation that he can easier withstand international or even US pressure than pressure from his own right-wing politicians. It seems that Netanyahu must choose between peace with Palestinians and the world or peace with Israeli settlers and the right-wing ideologues.”

Then there are those who wonder what implications the formation of a Palestinian unity government will have on a peace process that has been left in tethers after the events of the last few months: “John Kerry must be an extremely frustrated man. The US secretary of state must be wringing his hands in abject frustration over the swearing in of the Palestinian unity government of technocrats in Ramallah by President Mahmoud Abbas as it might pour more mud over the buried Middle East peace process....In all this mess, the biggest casualty is the Middle East peace process. Kerry’s year-long efforts to keep the peace process alive have been completely washed down the sinkhole. And there is no way that he will be able to resuscitate it in the near future. These developments will only lead to increased tension and it is possible that a section of the frustrated Palestinians may resort to extreme measures that would signal the start of another Intifada.”

Finally, there is the question of unity dividends, i.e. the potential improvement of the economic conditions for the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. According to a Haaretz report, there are signs that the intra-Palestinian accord has already convinced the Egyptian authorities to reconsider the Rafah border closing: “Egypt is willing to permanently reopen the Rafah Crossing to the Gaza Strip as long as the border is under the supervision of the Palestinian unity government, an Egyptian official told the Palestinian news agency Ma'an on Saturday....According to the Egyptian official, the recent reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas has put the opening of the crossing, mostly sealed since Hamas overtook the Strip in 2007, back on the table....The Egyptian official also said Egypt would request Abbas to re-open the Palestinian presidential headquarters in the Gaza Strip.”

Still, much remains to be done, which is why the Saudi Gazette’s editorial calling for more support from the international community is so important for the future of the Palestinian economy: “The Israel narrative is that it itself is a democracy and Hamas is a terrorist organization with which it will have no truck. Hence the immediate rejection by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the new Palestinian Unity government sworn in this week....Now is the time for the EU to repair the damage and recognize the new Palestinian unity government for what it is — a key step on the road to a peace deal and the end of violence. President Barack Obama simply cannot be allowed to maintain America’s sterile and counterproductive rejection of Hamas.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.