The domestic and external politics of Palestinian reconciliation

In theory, the unity agreement announced in Doha by Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and the outgoing Khaled Mashaal of Hamas is still going forward, now that Hamas’ Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has accepted the provision that will make Abbas the interim prime minister of the unity government. Abbas and Mashaal have further agreed to meet in Cairo later this month to set a date for a presidential election and new legislative elections for the Palestinian National Council. This would be third major attempt by the two parties to pursue a reconciliation agreement since their violent split in 2007. An effort announced in 2008 never materialized, and another round of talks that began after Operation Cast Lead collapsed in November 2010; this current round of talks comes from a May 2011 agreement.

The political calculus that has led to this latest handshake between Mashaal and Abbas is succinctly summarized by the Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqbal: Abbas “is now convinced that the negotiations with the Netanyahu cabinet are nothing but a waste of time,” while Mashaal “believes that his political future is now directly connected to the implementation of the reconciliation.” Or, as Tobias Buck simply puts it, Hamas is grasping at a chance for “international legitimacy and leadership of the Palestinian movement.”

Mashaal is, in this view, likely to stake his career on how this unity agreement proceeds and will not formally step down until he is satisfied it will succeed. Still, as part of the agreement he is set to step down from his post at Hamas in favor of his deputy, Mousa Abu Marzouk, an arrangement that the Gazan leadership of the Islamist organization is by no means happy about. This succession would preserve the primacy of the organization’s “Damascus Politburo,” that has far more of a presence in the international community than the Gazan leadership. Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zahhar, Hamas’s top men in Gaza and possible contenders for Mashaal’s job, have criticized Mashaal for his statements on both the two-state solution and the Arab Spring. And Hamas’s Shura Council has not, according to the Financial Times, yet voted upon the policy prescriptions put forward by Mashaal.

The fact that the unity agreement would, however temporary, put non-Hamas (and ostensibly, non-Fatah) bureaucrats on a governing council while giving Abbas the top leadership spots across the board still rankles important people in Gaza who resent their isolation from the rest of the Palestinian nation, an isolation that is sometimes reinforced by their colleagues abroad: Haniyeh is still said to be upset over Mashaal’s decision to have signed the agreement in Doha without bringing anyone from Gaza over for consultations or public appearances. Though Haniyeh and Mashaal seem to have smoothed over their differences to allow Hamas to accept Abbas as interim prime minister, much work – and backroom dealing – remains to be done. Zahhar, meanwhile, is still openly opposed to giving Abbas this position and is now apparently trying to exploit tensions regarding the deal within Hamas’s armed forces wing to undermine Mashaal’s position. Ismail al-Ashkar, head of Hamas’s Gazan delegation in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), has been leading an effort to push back against Mashaal’s concessions, though according to at least one report, the PLC is now going to work on implementing the agreement. In contrast, some Hamas legislators in the West Bank have come out in support of the agreement.

There is also the matter of proxy patronage for Hamas’s leaders to consider if this unity agreement goes forward. The Gazan leadership has to contend with the influence of Islamic Jihad in its territory and is seemingly trying to head off the group’s golden-boy status in Iranian eyes by trying to bring it under Hamas’s umbrella. As the Associated Press notes, with Iran facing new international sanctions and Syria now consumed by violence, Hamas is trying to reach out to Turkish, Egyptian, and Gulf sources for funding and diplomatic support. Domestic rivalries are also still present – unsurprisingly so, given how brutally Fatah was evicted from Gaza in 2007 by Hamas. The two organizations are still harassing each other’s supporters in their respective enclaves, a situation exacerbated by Israeli arrests of Hamas parliamentarians and alleged armed infiltrators. And since both Fatah and Hamas have built up their own political apparatuses in their respective domains, any transfer of power to Abbas will represent a daunting challenge to manage simmering rivalries. The proposed Palestinian elections are a ways off: several months, at the very least.

Much of the debate that was going on among Hamas’s leadership is probably aimed at getting Mashaal to make concessions to the Gazan leadership in exchange for letting Abu Marzouk succeed him over Haniyeh and Zanhar. The unity agreement provides a convenient means to debate the intraparty tensions over how Hamas will continue to challenge Israel in full view of Palestinian voters and sends a message to Abbas, and also to the Israelis, that Hamas expects to be treated at the very least as an equal partner in any new Palestinian government.

This message will certainly not be lost on the Israeli government. Israel’s Prime Minister has warned Abbas that he must now choose between “peace” or Hamas. As an editorial in the Baltimore Sun puts it:

The Catch-22 [for the Palestinians] is that Israel used the split in territorial control between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas as an excuse to not negotiate. Now that this has resolved, the very resolution is a reason to not negotiate.

Has Hamas found a way to “recognize” Israel without actually giving Tel Aviv what it most wants to hear, the words “we recognize the State of Israel’s right to exist”? South Asian News Agency reports that it has: “Hamas Chief Khalid Mashal has said that the new independent Palestinian state consisting of pre-1967 borders should be established, adding that the acceptance of Israel consisting of post-1967 borders is like recognizing [the] Israeli state.” This will be a very interesting development to watch, for as Karl Vick notes, “when the reconciliation was announced [in May 2011], Netanyahu angrily slammed the door on talks that would include Hamas while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointedly did not,” though this presumes that the Obama Administration would be willing to risk severe Congressional displeasure over changing its position towards Hamas. And, as noted before, Hamas has clearly not reached an intraparty consensus on how to deal with Israel, a consensus that would absolutely have to come about if the Palestinian National Authority is to continue receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid annually. In theory, “Hamas might be willing to proceed with a dual course: letting the PLO conduct negotiations with Israel while avoiding recognition of Israel.”

While Abbas could stand for election in the new unity government, by far the most acceptable man for the job, Marwan Barghouti, is still being held in an Israeli prison. Though still nominally committed to the Accords, Netanyahu has privately expressed his opposition to them. He refuses to accept one of the Palestinians’ main demands for resuming negotiations, the demand of freezing settlement construction, not least because Netanyahu’s coalition partners have been pushing for increasing settlement construction. It still seems very unlikely that Netanyahu would be willing to commit to negotiations with a unity government, let alone one that Hamas members might dominate after elections take place, not least because there are those in the Israeli government and the defense establishment itching for a fight.

Given Israeli intransigence, Palestinian leaders will, as Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad to Ma’an News Agency last month, need to be concerned with developing a programme that goes beyond deciding how they will work out a power-sharing agreement, or who their new patrons will be if Syrian and Iranian assistance dries up: “Hamas, Fatah and the other powers should tend to the more important and dangerous issue, i.e. that of liberation,” Hamad opined, “while the government could be handled by a group of experts capable of securing progress in the health, education, agriculture and security sectors among others.” Hamad thus supports the agreement, but the issue of “liberation” remains a bone of contention. It has come up repeatedly in comments from Hamas officials in Gaza, and Haniyeh, before making a show of support for Mashaal’s agreement with Abbas, had made a trip to Tehran, telling his audience that “the resistance will continue until all Palestinian land, including al-Quds (Jerusalem), has been liberated and all the refugees have returned,” goals that the US and Israel will absolutely not accept.

“The people who are supposed to represent Palestinians seem entirely consumed by strange priorities, futile ‘peace’ and power-sharing ‘unity’ agreements,” Palestinian-American journalist Ramzy Baroud fumes, and Khaled Amayreh, a controversial West Bank journalist, was recently reprimanded by the Palestinian National Authority for questioning Abbas’s legitimacy. These charges are part of a larger discussion within Palestinian civil society: on whether Abbas, Hamas and the institutional systems they represent are really “fit” to lead the Palestinian people anymore. Baroud, explains why he regards this Doha deal as proof that both parties’ leaderships are out of touch with Palestinian realities:

No achievement of the so-called Arab Spring and no Gulf power can have much of a bearing on Palestinian reality without a self-possessed, truly representative Palestinian leadership — one that is neither fishing for money nor political favours.

Ultimately, Hamas-Fatah unity based on halving the spoils of whatever imagined power they may have over occupied and oppressed people will in no significant way alter the fate of hunger-striker [Khader] Adnan1. Neither will it reclaim one inch of the Occupied Territories, or revive the long-dormant Palestinian national project around new, truly unifying and all-encompassing priorities.

Frankly it is absurd to witness Palestinian factions lobbying among and seeking exclusive approval, funding and backing of countries near and far, while millions of Palestinians carry on facing the reality of sieges, walls, barbed wires and machine guns.

Abdel-Beri Atwan, editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, has expressed similar reservations, noting that “the priority of the Palestinian people is to liberate their violated land and regain their legitimate rights in full” and that “implementation remains essential as we have grown sick and tired of the repeated signatures and handshakes in front of the camera lenses.”

“We fear that the new agreements will generate new disputes without solving the primary one,” he added. It remains to be seen just how the two parties can turn their handshake into meaningful reconciliation that could change the present stalemate in the “peace process.” Mashaal will have to prove that he can maintain the political will and capital to bring his organization to that point, to elections in 2012, and perhaps, by the end of the year, he can. Yet 2012 is also an election year in both Israel and the US. “Recognition” of a new unity government including Hamas, even a “reformed” Hamas that’s decides to follow the example of Sinn Fein, and the post-1997 Provisional IRA - and not that of the Real IRA — would require a great deal of political will and capital in both countries’ capitals. Those things are just not there today, and will probably not be there in 2013, either. The ball is indeed in Hamas’s court, but the rules haven’t changed.


  1. Adnan, a former Islamic Jihad spokesman, has been on a hunger strike for 62 days to protest his “administrative detention” by the Israeli authorities. Under this practice, the detainee does not have to be charged with committing a crime while held in custody. Adnan claims he has been tortured by his jailers as well. His actions have now made him an iconic figure among Palestinians and human rights activists calling for his release. ↩