Palestinian Reconciliation, in the Hands of Israel

October 31, 2017 Topic: Israel Palestinian Territories Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Palestinian Reconciliation, in the Hands of Israel

The latest attempt at reconciliation between the competing Palestinian parties Fatah and Hamas has produced a preliminary agreement that Egypt brokered and was announced earlier this month.  The reasons for movement on this subject at this time involve motivations of the Egyptians, who want to use improved relations with authorities in the Gaza Strip to help defeat extremists who are active in the Sinai Peninsula.  Egypt, which has taken the side of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in their dispute with Qatar, also hopes to reduce Qatari and Turkish influence among the Palestinians.  The evolving motivations of Hamas also are pertinent.  The group has come to realize how thankless a task is the governing of the Gaza Strip, which is beset by an Israeli semi-blockade and unrepaired damage from Israel’s military assaults.

The preliminary agreement is little more than a joint statement of aspirations and a timetable for resolving outstanding issues.  The main substantive advance has been Hamas’s declared willingness to turn over administration of the Strip to the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA).  Laborious negotiations lie ahead to resolve questions such as how to integrate two separate cadres of civil servants.

Historically based ill will and mistrust also must be overcome.  Palestinians, just like other nations, have politics characterized by ideological and generational divides, some of which can be sharp.  Anyone familiar with U.S. politics, with its considerable ill will and sharp divides, ought to find this easy to understand.  An additional complicating factor of late is the ambition of Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief in Gaza who has been leveraging his friendship with the UAE (where he has lived in exile) to re-insert himself in Palestinian politics and whom PA president Mahmoud Abbas considers a rival for power.  Complete Palestinian reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas would be uncertain even if the matter were left entirely to the Palestinians themselves.

But reconciliation will not be left to the Palestinians themselves, just as it has not been left to them in the past.  Israel has actively and repeatedly thwarted reconciliation.  In addition to everything Israel has done to undermine the authority and credibility of the PA and to sustain dire extremism-breeding conditions in Gaza, it has taken more direct action to derail previous efforts at reconciliation whenever they showed any promise of success.  Israel has employed one of its favorite ways of punishing the PA, withholding taxes that it is supposed to pass on to the PA, to pressure the PA into dropping previous efforts to reconcile with Hamas.

For the right-wing government of Israel, derailing intra-Palestinian reconciliation helps to sustain the theme that Israel “doesn’t have a negotiating partner for peace.”  If that government really wanted such a partner, then it would be supporting rather than derailing steps toward developing a unified Palestinian leadership that could speak most credibly for all Palestinians and to negotiate on their behalf.  But the government of Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want such a partner.  It instead wants rationales for indefinitely kicking the prospect of meaningful peace negotiations into the future, while Israel’s colonization project cements its hold on the West Bank.  The “no negotiating partner” meme has become sufficiently entrenched in Israeli public perceptions to make the government’s strategy politically sustainable.

For now, Netanyahu’s government appears to have concluded that there are enough obstacles in the way of full Fatah-Hamas reconciliation that active derailment measures such as use of the tax weapon can be kept in reserve.  Meanwhile, Israel is voicing old familiar demands (along with some new ones), which are highly unlikely to be met, as preconditions for negotiating with any unified Palestinian leadership that results from reconciliation.

One of those demands is an explicit Hamas recognition of Israel.  This has always been an odd demand in that recognition of states is something that comes from other states, not from parties or movements.  And if parties and movements were to be considered part of the recognition business, why shouldn’t recognition be reciprocal?  Where is the Israeli declaration affirming a right to exist for Hamas?

In any event, the leadership of Hamas has long made it evident that it aspires to political power in a Palestinian state that would live side-by-side, and in an indefinite truce, with Israel. Earlier this year Hamas issued a new political statement making clear that it accepts a Palestinian state limited to the 1967 boundaries.

The Israeli government likes to point to more extreme hortatory language in Hamas’s earlier charter, but this is really no different from charter-related matters that everyone went through a quarter century ago with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which had a similar-sounding charter.  As the Oslo process in the 1990s demonstrated, such hortatory documents are no barrier when there is a will to negotiate on both sides.  Besides, if we are to worry about charters, then there is at least as much of a problem with the charter of Netanyahu’s Likud party, which categorically rules out any right to exist for any Palestinian state, no matter who leads it.