Suddenly the papers and the internet are full of articles and analyses announcing that Hamas and Fatah have reached a deal for a unity government and new Palestinian elections. Israel has broken off the already moribund “peace negotiations” with the Palestinian authority and the US has denounced the reconciliation while the EU has welcomed it. Skeptics point out that we’ve seen reconciliation attempts several times since Hamas and Fatah dissolved their short-lived unity government in a series of bloody confrontations in 2007, when Hamas took over Gaza and Fatah held onto the West Bank. This attempt at reconciliation may blow up in days or weeks. But what if it doesn’t? What are the likely implications? Is this a step forward or, as the Israeli government asserts, proof positive that the PLO has embraced terror rather than peace?
Regular readers of this blog may remember that I’ve been arguing for years that a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is likely to be in Israel’s interest (a 2009 paper published by the USIP which is, sadly, still relevant, is here). But, given the timing of this move, it has the possibility of transforming the collapsed peace process for the better though, unfortunately, political complications on the part of all the parties make that rather unlikely.
As all have recognized by now, the current (Kerry) phase of negotiations has collapsed, even before Israel officially pulled the plug. Israel was unwilling to release the last batch of prisoners it had promised to free or freeze settlements, which were basic conditions for the PA. Abbas tentatively moved towards the UN option, which the US and Israel saw as a deal-breaker. Though unlikely, Palestinian officials even floated the possibility of the demise of the PA, since if it wasn’t able to negotiate statehood, what would be its raison d’etre? The latter is unlikely to happen since everyone needs some Palestinian entity to deal with, but all of this, plus the PA’s financial crisis and Abbas’s general inability to improve the Palestinian condition, has made a change of course essential.
The other major Palestinian force is Hamas, still supported by 30-40% of Palestinians. It is, if possible, in even worse shape than the PA. As the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, it felt obliged to side with the Brotherhood-supported Syrian rebels and thus perforce had to break its longstanding relationships with the Syrian state and its supporters, Iran and Hezbollah. This was more than compensated for by its relationship with President Morsi of Egypt, until he was overthrown by the Egyptian Army in July 2013. Since then, the hundreds of tunnels through which Gaza obtained many of its supplies have been destroyed, and Hamas is isolated, friendless, and broke. It has attempted reconciliation with Iran’s new leadership but that has not nearly made up for what it has lost. Hamas has never been at such a low ebb but, perhaps surprisingly, its political support, though somewhat diminished, is still substantial.
I am not a fan of Hamas, but that is neither here nor there. As many have frequently pointed out, even if Israel reached a deal with the PA – which appears more unreachable than ever – Hamas’s assent to it would be essential. Otherwise it could not be implemented. Thus, it is clear that there can’t be a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace without Hamas at least tacitly consenting to it.
But is that a fantasy? Isn’t Hamas irrevocably committed to the destruction of Israel? How can the PA join in a government with Hamas and still claim it wants peace?
The fact is – and this has been reported endlessly from numerous credible sources and makes sense – that Hamas, like most complex organisms, is not single-minded. It proclaims itself dedicated to Israel’s destruction, but has indicated numerous times that it would accept a two-state solution and has – almost desperately – tried to enforce its truces with Israle and to stop more radical groups from launching rockets. As suggested in my 2009 article and repeated by the PLO now, Hamas appears prepared to allow the PA to negotiate peace so long as it is ratified by a Palestinian popular referendum. It hates Israel but indications are that it recognizes the reality that it will have to coexist with it.
But can Israel or anyone trust Hamas? What if it’s lying?
Of course Israel can’t trust Hamas; trust is totally lacking among all parties to the conflict, and is probably the greatest factor in the unattainability of peace. Hamas has to implement what observers and the PLO say it will do. It has to cooperate with the PLO in arranging new elections – now 5 years overdue – and agree to negotiations being conducted by the new government, as well as a referendum. Meanwhile Israel will not be disarming itself. If Hamas’s conduct doesn’t comport with moving towards a peaceful resolution, Israel has shown innumerable times that it knows what to do.
If Hamas really wants peace, why doesn’t it accept the three quartet conditions, namely recognize Israel, disarm, and agree to abide by past agreements?
I must reemphasize that it is not my intention to defend Hamas nor advocate for it. I am pro-Israel and to me, that means being pro a reasonable peace. But as an analyst and historian I have often seen parties and nations wedded to ideologies that they insist on holding onto after they have become unviable for a variety of reasons, usually involving domestic politics. Hamas’s organizational viability is of no concern to Israel or the US, but it is very much of concern to Hamas’s leaders, who have no more trust in Israel’s desire for peace than Israel has in theirs. So they will not give up essential parts of their ideology (or narrative) until Israel’s actions convince them otherwise. That is how organizations usually work. And the PLO’s experience with accepting Israel – and still trying to establish a state twenty-one years later, no matter whose fault it is – does not inspire Hamas’s leaders with confidence.
But how can Israel deal with a PA government in which some of the members refuse to recognize Israel and declare it illegitimate? Isn’t that absurd?
The answer is that it is no more absurd than the PLO dealing with an Israeli government in which the majority of its members express skepticism or outright opposition to the two-state solution, which is the case now. And there is no case in which I’m aware that a political movement or party has been asked to “recognize” a foreign state as a condition of negotiations. Recognition is a state-to-state act that is irrelevant to a non-state actor and no one, including Hamas, asserts that Hamas is a state.
But will any of this work? Will the reconciliation deal actually be consummated? Can Hamas actually accede to a two-state solution and, more important, live with it?
Those, of course, are the great unknowns. Even with trust and goodwill, political operations of this delicacy and complexity often fail. In their complete absence, the likelihood of success is correspondingly smaller. But if they do fail, it is hard to imagine that the situation could be more dire than it is today. No one will give up their weapons or strategic positions without a process moving forward in a verifiable and mutual way.
Unfortunately, I do not expect much – or any of this – to happen, at least not soon. Though the EU is taking a positive stance, the US and Israel see reconciliation as treason to the peace process – even though it is a peace process that seems to have collapsed. But the fact remains that Hamas is indispensable to a genuine peace – and unless the implications of that are recognized and dealt with we will continue with the same stalemate that we see today.