The Israeli media is correctly calling the deal between Hamas and Fatah “historic.” We don’t yet know which direction history will take the Palestinians or whether the deal has any hope of reaching the basic goals the Palestinian leaders seem to have set: the establishment of a legitimate transitional government, elections within a year, and probably ultimately, the advancement of a viable Palestinian state. But here are a few points about what the apparent reconciliation could mean for Palestine and for Israel.
1. Some believe that the Palestinian state the PA seems likely to declare in September will be a non-viable entity, torn into two, with no monopoly on the use of force and little legitimacy. With the September deadline for unilaterally declared statehood, there have been questions about whether such a declaration will have any meaning at all. A united government will certainly be better poised to earn statehood following declaration (on the condition, of course, that Hamas refrains from violence). That state, with a united government, in turn stands to become the object of both domestic and international legitimacy. In that situation, Israel will be increasingly left out in the cold.
2. I sense that the breakthrough sprung partially from the very deep fears about what’s happening in the Middle East. It was not an accident that the Palestinian Authority called elections soon after the revolutions broke out – like other Arab leaders, the Palestinian are scurrying to show the people that they are being responsive to local discontent. Palestinian surveys repeatedly show that the split in Palestinian society is among the top two concerns of the Palestinian public. It seems that no serious political contender wants to be blamed for the split anymore, and the regional crisis may have spurred the Palestinian factions to display domestic responsiveness.
3. The reconciliation seems clearly orchestrated with September in mind. That makes it look like Hamas too is throwing its weight behind the Palestinian state project. Pessimists (like Netanyahu and Lieberman) will say this is a first step toward Hamas taking over the West Bank, as part of its master plan of taking over Israel. Optimists (like me) will say this is a Hamas-style admission that there will be a Palestinian state that is distinct from the Israeli state – in effect giving up on the notion of a total Palestinian takeover.
4. Israel has been cozily entrenched in a very solid narrative for four years now (since the 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza): Even if Israel wanted to make peace, “who is there to make peace with on the Palestinian side? Who?” One hears this refrain constantly in Israeli life. In fairness, it was a real problem, one I feel the left never truly managed to answer except to lament that Israel largely contributed to the situation. The Fatah-Hamas agreement tears down this towering argument and Israel loses one of its strongest foundations for justifying the status quo. That’s why the deal already has the Israeli leadership worried. Netanyahu thinks he’s being real clever by setting up a false dilemma for the Palestinians:
“Palestinian Authority needs to choose between peace with the people of Israel and peace with Hamas. You cannot have peace with both, because Hamas aspires to destroy the State of Israel, and it says so openly… I hope the PA makes the right choice – to choose peace with Israel. The choice is hers.”
5. The next dilemma Israel will face is whether to negotiate with this creation that it did not want. Of course, if Israel had been more effective at reaching peace through negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, we might not be in this situation. But if the agreement lasts and at some point negotiations are an option again, here’s my prediction: The Israeli leadership will try to use Hamas as an excuse to avoid negotiations with the Palestinians in perpetuity.
That’s a shame, because the Israeli public has long demonstrated its grudging willingness to negotiate with a government that includes Hamas, for the sake of advancing peace. A Truman Center survey from March 2007, for example, showed an absolute 55% majority of Jews who said Israel should negotiate with a coalition that includes Hamas, in order to reach a compromise on the conflict – and 59% of all Israelis (poll #19). In June 2010, just after the traumatic flotilla events, 49% of all Israelis still supported negotiating with Hamas (42% of Jews – still high, considering that tensions were perhaps at their highest level – poll #32). In the most recent Truman Institute survey from March 2011, 47% of Jews support negotiating with a Hamas government, and 53% of all Israelis.
Those questions tested the notion of negotiations with a Hamas led government; it’s likely that there is even higher support for negotiating with a Hamas-Fatah coalition for the sake of peace.
One final qualification: Hamas is nobody’s ideal partner for peace. Nobody knows if this can really work. But a unified Palestinian leadership is probably the best hope for moderating extremists. And the more viable a Palestinian state becomes, the higher the chances of progress in the future.