Was the Palestinian Reconciliation Deal a Mistake?

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by Mitchell Plitnick

At +972 Magazine my friend and colleague, Larry Derfner, a former columnist for the Jerusalem Postsays he believes that by deciding to go forward with a third unity agreement with Hamas at this time, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “has shot the cause of Palestinian independence in the foot.” Put bluntly, I disagree completely, and I told Larry so publicly on his Facebook page.

Larry basically argues that the recent collapse of the peace talks has been almost universally blamed on Israel, and that this created an opportunity for Abbas to build some real support in the international community, including from major powers. But the distaste for Hamas’ policies undermines that opportunity, so why couldn’t Abbas have waited until after he made some hay out of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s obstructionism?

Larry is correct in saying that a unified Palestinian government, if that is what results from this agreement (far from a sure thing) carries certain problems, and most of them are based on how the world sees Hamas. The Saudis and the al-Sisi government in Egypt certainly don’t care for Hamas, and neither does much of Europe or Russia. But when Larry says that Hamas is considered “anathema” he is vastly overstating the case outside of Israel and the United States, two parties which most Palestinians have realized are working day and night to keep the occupation going. Abbas may have finally acknowledged that reality as well.

In any case, my argument here is an edited and somewhat fleshed out version of what I said to Larry on Facebook, which involved a brief dialogue.

The reconciliation move was not primarily about Israel, it was about Palestine, and the very drastic need there for a legitimate government. That tank has just about hit zero for both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas.

Secondarily, it is also about the long-delayed realization that Israel will never sincerely pursue peace with the Palestinians, and that this is not because of Netanyahu-Bennett-Lieberman, but because of simple political realities wherein Israel has little compelling reason to make peace and tons of political pressure not to. It is also about the fact that U.S. President Barack Obama has demonstrated, in a more overtly “pro-Israel” way than George W. Bush did, that the United States will never, ever be a help in this regard, and rather only a hindrance.

However, the Israel-U.S. part, remains secondary. Their obstructionism is why considerations of Israeli and U.S. reactions aren’t stopping Palestinian reconciliation — but that is not the reason reconciliation is happening. This reconciliation is a dire Palestinian necessity. That is so primarily for reasons of having a legitimate and representative leadership, which Palestine has not had since 2006, when the elections and their aftermath robbed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) of that legitimacy and left both Fatah and Hamas without it. A unified Palestinian leadership will involve what is currently missing from both parties in terms of how they work on the international stage — popular support.

For Fatah, the timing is particularly advantageous because the shift in Egypt has weakened Hamas and, combined with Iran’s growing rapprochement with the West and the loss of Hamas’ base in Syria, Abbas finds himself in a position where he believes he can bring Hamas into the PLO but maintain Fatah’s superior position in that organization.

The US may well cut off funding. The Saudis have indicated in the past that they will boost their own support in such a case, but Saudi pledges to the Palestinians are notoriously unreliable, and they are also deeply unfriendly to Hamas. But the intra-Palestinian conflict is also one of several stages where the Saudi-Qatar rivalry plays out, with Qatar backing Hamas and the Saudis supporting the PA. This surely leads Abbas to believe that the Saudis are more likely than usual to make good on their promises to the PA.

But even if the Saudis fall short on funding, the risk here is what? That the PA will collapse? If that comes about due to reconciliation, but is also accompanied by a stronger PLO, Fatah is better off, and quite likely in the long run (though certainly not the short), so are the majority of the Palestinians. Hamas, for its part, recognizes that it is very isolated and the horizon only looks worse for it in the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood has suffered a huge setback, focused in Egypt but also throughout the region, and its opponents are pressing their advantage.

Obviously, Hamas is a target in this regard, being generally viewed as a branch of the Brotherhood. It therefore desperately needs to reinforce its identity as the Palestinian resistance movement. It also needs to renew its connections and focus on other Palestinians movements as opposed to other Arab movements.

These are all reasons for Palestinian reconciliation, and why this moment is a good time for it. Meanwhile the reactions of Israel and the United States don’t really figure into Palestinian motivations for this decision. Indeed, given the visceral, and, it should be noted, not unmerited hatred for Hamas in Israel (and this is not at all confined to the right-wing) and the hysteria it receives in the United States, where Congress has legislated far stronger measures against any dialogue with Hamas than Israel, the reactions from Washington and Jerusalem would be the same whenever an agreement was signed. The European Union and United Nations have always expressed support for Palestinian reconciliation. After all, it was Israel itself that argued that Abbas couldn’t make a deal that would stick because he didn’t represent all Palestinians. So, everyone outside of the US and Israel wanted this to happen. But it happened for Palestinian reasons. The moment was helped along by the United States reaching new heights of prevarication and fecklessness under John Kerry’s watch, and by Netanyahu’s refusal to even pretend to be interested in an agreement; those events merely made it easier for reconciliation to happen.

All of this pre-supposes that this deal will actually be implemented, which is by no means certain. I think there’s basically a 50-50-percent chance that Abbas was sincere about this (I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that Hamas is serious for the reasons I just stated, and also because this involved the Gaza-Hamas leadership rather than the Khaled Meshal, exile branch). If Abbas wasn’t sincere, and if he does not intend to move forward with implementation and with elections in due course, he has forever sacrificed any chance of reaching a deal with Hamas, because they will never trust him again. Of course, at 79, Abbas won’t be there much longer in any case.

So, that would be one outcome. If Abbas does not intend to implement, then this is likely a strategy to try to convince the US and EU that he will take steps in the international arena, specifically at the UN and the International Criminal Court (ICC), if the West doesn’t exert serious pressure on Israel. If that is what he’s doing, that’s not very wise, because he will have burned the Hamas bridge, which he needs to cross at some point, and because no matter what the Palestinians threaten to do, there is no circumstance where they can ever hope to see serious positive action from the U.S. until the domestic political waves shift. The U.S. isn’t likely to change any time soon and it can’t be realistically affected by Abbas anyway.

In either case, Israel and the U.S. have made their own positions on Palestinian freedom clear: they will only impede it. Therefore, such concerns only need to be taken into account due to the balance of power, but allowing those concerns to stop action will only deepen the problems faced by the Palestinians.

On the most basic level, if we agree that ending the occupation in the near future is, for whatever reasons, not going to happen, then shouldn’t the Palestinians take a long-term step toward that possibility? The criticisms have mostly centered on timing, but anyone who wants to see a peaceful resolution of this conflict must agree that at some point, the Palestinians must have one clear leadership. Therefore, I can’t see how this hurts the goal of ending the occupation.

Any step the Palestinians take is going to be met with Israeli financial reprisals. But should they do nothing? There is a clear and obvious benefit here: No deal, even if one is reached, can possibly hold unless it includes agreement by legitimate representatives of the Palestinians. Just like in Israel, where its legitimate representatives are representing both those who want peace and those who want Greater Israel, the Palestinians’ body politic must also be legitimately represented. So, what better time is there to take such a step than now, when the Israeli government has clearly shown that it’s not interested in a 2-state solution and the US has also made it clear that it will (or can) do nothing to aid a sustainable solution no matter how obnoxiously Israel behaves?

If this is truly the beginning of Palestinian reconciliation, and that is a very big “if,” then this move will also push the Palestinians away from dependence on U.S. mediation and Israeli “largesse.” That’s a completely positive outcome. The problem in the talks, ultimately, is not Bibi’s obstructionism or the lack of a U.S. backbone. It is the fact that making peace is a huge political and ideological risk for both Israelis and Palestinians. While Palestinians have a compelling reason to take that risk, the potential benefits for Israel do not nearly match the potential risk, both perceived and actual. Israelis, even many who support a mutual peace, feel they are risking their very lives with a two-state solution. In that situation they will certainly be making territorial compromises, losing some water resources, and compromising their historical narrative.

In order to make those risks politically worthwhile, there must be carrots for positive action and sticks for failure. Both exist for the Palestinians, but Israel only sees some carrots, and even those are rather abstract and uncertain. The U.S. is not going to provide the sticks for the Israelis, as Yasir Arafat and, later, Abbas, once hoped. If Palestinian reconciliation makes way for another path in the international arena for them to find a few sticks, anyone who supports peace should support this move. The EU and UN know it. Even the Obama administration seems to hold some glimmer of this thought. More than a few in Israel understand that Palestinian reconciliation is a good thing for Israel as well. Only the Israeli right thinks otherwise, and the fact that they think this is a victory for them only reveals the bankruptcy of their analysis.

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Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He is the former director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and was previously the director of education and policy for Jewish Voice for Peace. He is a widely published and respected policy analyst. Born in New York City, raised an Orthodox Jew and educated in Yeshiva, Mitchell grew up in an extremist environment that passionately supported the radical Israeli settler movement. His writing has appeared in the Jordan Times, Israel Insider, UN Observer, Middle East Report, Global Dialogue, San Francisco Chronicle, Die Blaetter Fuer Deutsche Und Internationale Politik, Outlook, and in a regular column for a time in Tikkun Magazine. He has been interviewed by various outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor and CNBC Asia. Plitnick graduated with honors from UC Berkeley in Middle Eastern Studies and wrote his thesis on Israeli and Jewish historiography and earned his Masters Degree from the University of Maryland, College Park's School of Public Policy.

5 Comments

  1. Good post Mr Plitnick, just what the Israeli right wing deserve. After all, how long has this KABUKI been going on? I know some will say I’m anti Sematic for saying this, but how different is the apartheid, walled in ghettos, Gaza especially, too much different then what other atrocities that have been/are inflicted upon other Human Ethnic groups throughout history?

  2. I entirely agree a unity Palestinian government is necessary, to resolve Israel/Palestine problem.

  3. I couldn’t agree more with this analysis. The Palestinians badly need unity. They might have been able to preserve after the last elections if the US hadn’t worked so hard to have them exclude Hamas in a unity government. Perhaps the UN could get Israel to give the Palestinians the rightful money due them from tax revenues, but then I am probably dreaming to think that.

  4. Yes, the problem is that Israel is not interested in a deal. They have everything they want, all of Palestine without having to give the non Jews in the occupied territories the right to vote. They are happy with the status quo. Apartheid doesn’t bother them, and life is great for the Israelis. And best of all they have most US Jews and the american congress in their pocket. Why change a thing? Justice, human rights, equal rights. They don’t care.

  5. I fully agree with your assessment. Desperate times call for desperate measures. What have the Palestinians got to lose? They have been taken for a ride for the past few decades, so any measure that may provide the hope of a change in their circumstances is welcome. It should also be pointed out that in addition to his age, Abbas has long outlived his term as PLO chairman. If Hamas can moderate its stances and say publicly what it has already said implicitly, namely recognition of Israel within 1967 borders and the renunciation of violence, and then hold a nationwide election involving both Palestinian groups the outcome would strengthen them and would give the new government legitimacy in the eyes of the world, if not in US and Israeli eyes.

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