The Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement is a byproduct of the Arab Spring, and the Palestinian chess game to position the public of both the West Bank and Gaza Strip for Palestinian statehood. The questions that the deal raises are numerous -- yet so are the possibilities. Should this new Palestinian understanding hold, and should it serve to advance national aspirations for a Palestinian state living at peace alongside the State of Israel, the Fatah-Hamas agreement could prove to be a critical step toward securing Palestinian independence based on a two-state solution.
The Fatah-Hamas deal comes after more than a year of reconciliation talks and two previously failed attempts (in 2007 and 2009) -- so why now? After all, the agreement calls into question Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and continued aid from donor countries (particularly the United States), just as the Palestinians are gaining momentum for international recognition of a Palestinian state. For Fatah, the agreement serves three purposes. First, it ensures that its agenda, a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip come September, is feasible. Just days ago, Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, the architect of Palestinian institution building in preparation for statehood who will be forced to step down as part of the unity deal, stated that establishing a Palestinian state required an urgent end to Palestinian disunity. Second, it addresses the demands of the Palestinian people in the midst of the radical change sweeping the Arab world. Those who have protested in Ramallah and Gaza have not used "down with the regime" or "down with Israel" as their rallying call, but rather "the people want to end the split." Third, it serves to reconnect Fatah with Gaza, where Fatah's operations have been all but erased by Hamas' grip on the territory.
For Hamas, the reasons are also clear. First, the unrest in Syria threatens Hamas' operations and support base in Damascus, weakening its overall position. Second, Hamas was more comfortable with the mediation of the caretaker government in Egypt after its clear friction with the ousted President Hosni Mubarak, whose alliance with Abbas and opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood were well-documented. Reports that the new Egyptian government will permanently open the Gaza-Egypt border indicate the new tenor of the Hamas-Egypt relationship. Finally, just as Fatah seeks to gain a foothold in Gaza, Hamas seeks to gain a foothold in the West Bank. The next several months will be critical as both factions compete for influence and political power in advance of the general elections for a president and parliament.
To be sure, while announcing that they have reached an agreement on five points -- forming an interim government, convening elections, combining security forces, activating the Palestinian legislative council and exchanges prisoners--- there was no mention of any commitment as to how to pursue peace with Israel. However, there was a clear statement that the agreement would pave the way for the Palestinians to seek recognition of an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 Green Line at September's United Nations General Assembly. In announcing the agreement, Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar stated: "Our plan does not involve negotiation with Israel or recognize it, it will be impossible for an interim government to take part in the peace process with Israel."
The emphasis on an interim government is critical. Officials on both sides have emphasized that the unity agreement is intended to address internal Palestinian governance and set the stage for elections in less than one year, while the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) headed by Mahmoud Abbas would continue to represent the Palestinian people in negotiations with Israel. Yet, should the United Nations recognize a Palestinian state in September, the next Palestinian elections will be those of a state, which will have full authority (and responsibility) for both domestic and foreign affairs. As such, the new Palestinian government will be faced with a choice: negotiate with Israel, or fight it. Many members of the United Nations, especially some of the European countries, are not likely to move forward in recognizing a Palestinian state if they believe that the newly admitted member that includes Hamas is committed to the destruction of another member state: Israel.
Unfortunately, the possibility that a unity government might serve Israel's strategic interests has eluded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His knee-jerk reaction to the Fatah-Hamas deal, stating that Fatah must choose between Israel and Hamas, but that there is "no possibility of peace with both," fundamentally misreads the implications of the agreement. In the past, Netanyahu has pointed to Palestinian disunity as a significant obstacle to a two-state solution. He cannot have it both ways. Just two weeks ago in Tunisia, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas proved yet again that he is a partner for peace when he renounced violence and stated his clear opposition to a third intifada. With over 130 nations prepared to recognize a state under his leadership, and the United Nations, IMF and World Bank all endorsing the PA's preparedness for statehood, Abbas would not risk entering into an agreement with Hamas unless he felt it would advance, rather than hinder this statehood effort, the viability of which depends on continuing Israeli cooperation.
Furthermore, Abbas' remarks against violence were not made to the western media in English, but to the Arab world in Arabic -- he understands that a renewal of violence will inflict a major setback to the Palestinian national aspirations and severely undercut the considerable progress they have made toward achieving them in the past two years. Meanwhile, by entering a unity government, Hamas has indirectly taken on a significant level of responsibility. A renewal of violence from Gaza would seriously impede the Palestinian statehood efforts, in addition to halting international financing of Palestinian projects, to the detriment of Hamas' political standing in Palestine. In this context, the unity agreement is a renewed challenge for Hamas to behave in a responsible way.
But Netanyahu's quick dismissal of the agreement signals that he did not read the agreement for what it is: a potentially significant shift in the Palestinian political dynamic in preparation for independence. Instead, Netanyahu seized the announcement as a political tool to shift away the pressure that had been building on him to announce a peace initiative of his own. Indeed, the pressure for now has shifted to the Palestinians, who are being watched closely by the international community to see if this deal holds and if it will lead to responsible governance.
However, while the sudden shift of attention away from Netanyahu may be welcome to the prime minister now, it may not be long before attention returns to his government. In fact, should the Palestinian unity agreement hold without a renewal of violence, as Khalid Mash'al, Hamas' political guru, suggested during the signing ceremony of the reconciliation agreement, the Palestinians will be in an even stronger position to gain international recognition for state of their own. Although from the Israeli perspective Hamas must first meet the Quartet's three conditions that it renounces violence and recognizes Israel and past agreements before Israel can engage Hamas, it is not likely that Hamas will accept all of these requirements in advance of the Palestinian elections other than informally halting all violent activities against Israel. In fact, Russia's hailing of the agreement, and the European Union's Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton statement that she would "study" the deal, suggests that members of the Quartet may be weakening their demands.
Indeed, only one condition should matter going forward: a complete cessation and permanent renunciation of violence by Hamas as a means by which to achieve Palestinian statehood. This would signal the unified Palestinian polity's willingness to negotiate with Israel, and could ultimately produce the recognition and lasting peace agreement that both sides profess to seek. Instead of dismissing the report of unity, Israel should join other nations in studying it, and should signal its readiness to welcome a change of attitude on the part of Hamas to permanently renounce violence and annul the clause that calls for the destruction of Israel from its Charter. However, just as the Israelis have every right to demand that the Palestinian unity government permanently rules out all forms of violence, they must recognize that such a government should be able to recognize Israel, defined by mutually acceptable borders as the result of a negotiated accord, not as a precondition to talking.
The United States should respond similarly. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the past two years based on a two-state solution was not possible without the inclusion of Hamas -- who could undermine peace talks at any time with renewed violence -- and that the blockade policy of Gaza has worked to entrench Israel's isolation, not Hamas'. The United States should recognize that Hamas is unlikely to accept the Quartet's conditions, although challenging these conditions amounts to a misguided policy. After all, many figures in Fatah today view their own recognition of Israel in 1993, prior to a final peace agreement, as a strategic mistake for which they have paid dearly.
The United States should lead by example, and encourage Israel to follow, by challenging Hamas to utilize unity to demonstrate that a Palestinian state with a unified government will be a responsible member of the international community seeking to coexist in peace alongside Israel.
The reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas -- should it withstand the test of time -- offers Israel and Hamas the opportunity to face what they have denied each other for nearly three decades. Hamas must accept Israel's reality, not only because it will never be able to destroy Israel, but if it ever poses a real danger to Israel, it will be destroyed first, and no one know this better than Hamas. Conversely, Israel must accept a nonviolent Hamas as an integral part of the Palestinian community, because without Hamas' active participation, no Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based on a two-state solution is sustainable.
A version of this article was published in the Jersualem Post on May 6, 2011 and is available online at http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=219393.