Any agreement without Hamas would have failed miserably. The reconciliation can be seen as a breakthrough – that is, if the Israeli government was indeed interested in ending the occupation.
Prime Minister Netanyahu must be feeling lucky today. With the deadline on the talks between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the U.S. approaching, Netanyahu was finding himself increasingly cornered. Even Secretary Kerry, who did all he could to meet Israel’s demands, ended up placing most of the blame for the impasse on the Israeli side, which refused to honor its commitment on the release of prisoners, and sabotaged the process with record-breaking settlement construction.
But as soon as news of a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah broke, it was back to the old Bibi. “Abu Mazen prefers unity with Hamas over peace with Israel,” the Prime Minister’s Office tweeted, along with a “Please RT.” (As I finished up this post, Israel also attacked Gaza and canceled meetings with Palestinian negotiators.)
With the deal, Netanyahu had a perfect alibi: after all, if Abbas is back to doing business with an organization that refuses to recognize Israel and believes in armed resistance, one cannot blame the Israeli government for abandoning the peace process. There must be some disappointment this evening inside the Israeli-American “peace camp,” and I am pretty sure that soon enough we will hear rants about “the Palestinians not missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
Please RT this important message: Abu Mazen prefers unity with Hamas over peace with Israel pic.twitter.com/YPiJofw4No
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) April 23, 2014
However, for those truly interested in an end to the occupation and in an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, the Hamas-Fatah deal is great news, especially for supporters of the two-state solution. Here is why:
In recent years, the Palestinian Authority suffered from a major problem of legitimacy. Often, critics of the process – the most notable being Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – complained that Abbas doesn’t represent even half of the Palestinian people. Of all of Lieberman’s observations, this was probably the most accurate. Any agreement that Abbas would have reached was bound to leave Hamas a major opponent of the process, repeating some of the Oslo dynamic on the Palestinian side.
The PA has also had a serious accountability problem – at times it isn’t clear whose interests Ramallah is representing. Hamas is not the popular movement it was 20 years ago, but the reconciliation deal will make the PA a better representative of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories – another pre-condition for a good agreement. Oslo ended up serving the interests of a small elite, while making the lives of average Palestinians much worse. One cannot afford to replay this scenario again.
Even from the perspective of the Israeli government alone, the accord is a good thing. (Netanyahu knows that, but he will never admit it.) The worst problem for Israel is a lack of a sovereign authority to deal with. This is when things get complicated – in South Lebanon, in the Sinai Peninsula, and most of all in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel understood long ago that an effective regime on the other side is in its own interest even more than it is in the Palestinians’; this is why this government has been negotiating with Hamas for several years now – first on ceasefire agreements, then on prisoner release. Now Jerusalem won’t need the Egyptians to broker such agreements (anyway, relations between Hamas and Cairo are at their lowest point ever) – they’ll have Abbas for that.
So if Israel was really interested in an accord, this was a major step forward and probably the best opportunity in years (something almost any serious observer understands). But this government has very different objectives – parts of it want to further colonize the West Bank so a Palestinian state can never be formed; while other, less radical elements simply want the status quo to be left as is so they can deal with other issues. Netanyahu, Lapid and Lieberman want the Palestinian issue off the table for as long as possible, and they will use whatever opportunity they have to fend off any pressure for change. (Read Lapid’s Passover prayer – he actually asked for the Palestinians to be made to disappear.) The Fatah-Hamas agreement, which could have been a breakthrough on the road for peace, is for them nothing more than a propaganda moment.
One last comment: The Quartet – a mediating body consisting of representatives of Russia, the EU, the U.S. and the U.N. – has put forward certain preconditions for Hamas, if it is to join the diplomatic process: to renounce violence, to recognize Israel and to accept previous agreements. In recent years, Israeli officials also cited the Quartet terms as reasons to rule out any prospect of negotiations with Hamas.
Fair enough. But what’s not clear is why these terms only apply to one side. How about making the Israeli coalition, and all those in it, recognize previous agreements, recognize the rights of Palestinians to their own state, and stop settlement construction? After all, no Israeli government – ever – has even adopted the idea of the two-state solution; Netanyahu’s senior coalition partners want to institutionalize apartheid, and his patron doesn’t even believe that there is a Palestinian people.
The international community has always accepted any leader Israelis chose, regardless of his or her record on the Palestinian issue. It made sense – in order for an agreement to hold, the true representatives of both peoples must be made part of it. But this goes both ways. If you want to have peace, Hamas must be part of it.