Why Abbas reconciled with Hamas
A week before the deadline expired on the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks sponsored by John Kerry, the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas announced an end to their seven-year split. The announcement paved the way for the formation of a Palestinian unity government in the coming weeks, with elections following at least six months later.
The unity deal was greeted in Palestinian circles with a mixture of joyous relief and caution. The split has proved harmful to Palestinians, and has increased their collective suffering over the past seven years. It has also distracted them from major issues like ending the Israeli occupation and establishing an independent state. Indeed, for seven years, ordinary Palestinians have demanded that the two factions reconcile.
Despite the optimism, there is a pervasive fear that this latest deal will be reconciliation in name only. After all, the latest announcement doesn’t contain anything new; it merely declares that earlier agreements will be upheld. This has led many to wonder: Why now? Is this latest agreement more serious than earlier ones? Does it signal a change in strategy on both sides? Or is it merely a necessary tactical step whose effects will soon fade away?
All the apprehensiveness has been exacerbated by Palestinian leaders’ political flailing and bumbling. Since the breakdown of the Kerry-sponsored talks, a current of opinion has emerged demanding that the Palestinian leadership stop negotiating and approach the United Nations, which has led to Palestinian moves to join several international agreements and treaties. Meanwhile, there are ongoing attempts to save the negotiations and extend them.
To add to the tension, there is a discrepancy between growing hints that the Palestinian Authority will be dissolved and calls to hold Palestinian general elections.
After all, what would be the point in agreeing to form a national unity government and holding elections a few months from now if there’s a plan to dissolve the Authority?
Many analysts believe that the unity agreement is a necessary way out of the dire straits that both the Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas leaders currently find themselves in. The tightening of the siege on Gaza and the concomitant drying up of Hamas’s international financial pipelines, as well as the closing of most of the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, have forced Hamas to accept this deal. From its viewpoint, even if the agreement doesn’t achieve much, the group doesn’t stand to lose anything. The situation is more complicated for Abbas. He had firmly believed that the negotiations were the only way to reach a settlement with Israel, and he stood against armed struggle, sticking to his position even during the armed intifada that broke out in 2000.
Abbas now finds himself in a sticky situation. The negotiations that he worked so hard for have reached a dead end, due to Israeli recalcitrance. Abbas would have been prepared to continue the negotiations process, as long as it achieved the barest sliver of acceptable gains for the Palestinians. But it has become clear that the current Israeli government is not prepared to cede even that bare minimum. As a result, Abbas has reached a conclusion he’d long refused to accept: that the negotiations process won’t bear fruit. Of course, this is hugely disappointing on two levels. First, because the negotiations haven’t achieved what he expected of them. Second, because internal dissent has mounted and he has been personally blamed for setting back the national cause, the legitimacy of his leadership has eroded.
This may explain why Abbas has endorsed Palestinian applications to join international treaties, as well as his recent recurrent statements that he wants to step down. He appears to have embarked upon two divergent paths simultaneously, despite the fact that they are contradictory. He has done so in the hope, perhaps, that one of them will stick.
Reconciliation with Hamas means that the option of dissolving the Authority has been dropped. Furthermore, a general election after several months gives Abbas a final opportunity to find a way to resume negotiations - his preferred option - or finally quit. His tactics are rather obvious, but Israel and the United States are ignoring his signals.
Instead, the unity deal has created a furor within the Israeli government. Because of the agreement, the bitterest vitriol has been poured on Abbas, who has been portrayed as someone who doesn’t want peace with Israel and as a terrorist. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the members of his government seem to have forgotten that Israel itself made a deal with Hamas (to free prisoners) not so long ago. They also seem to have forgotten that they once refused to recognize Abbas as an acceptable negotiating partner, claiming that, due to the schism with Hamas, he didn’t represent all Palestinians. Now they consider him unacceptable for the opposite reason.
It’s clear that the Israelis and Americans want to leave Palestinians with no choice but to acquiesce to Israeli demands. However, it’s also clear that the Palestinian people will no longer accept the ongoing continuation of absurd, fruitless negotiations.
The reconciliation agreement with Hamas will ensure that the Palestinian Authority continues to exist after Abbas steps down. However, Israeli and American threats could lead to the Authority’s eventual collapse. Is this what Israel and the United States really want?
The author is a political scientist at Birzeit University and a former minister of the Palestinian Authority. This article was translated by Ghenwa Hayek from the Arabic