Hamas and Fatah back to the grind, for now

 The fourth round of the Palestinian unity talks in Cairo is set to kick off tomorrow (after a last minute one-day delay).  Nobody on either side expects the discussions to succeed. Hamas officials call this round the hardest yet, while an unnamed PLO official warns that if this round fails it will be the last.  ...

 The fourth round of the Palestinian unity talks in Cairo is set to kick off tomorrow (after a last minute one-day delay).  Nobody on either side expects the discussions to succeed. Hamas officials call this round the hardest yet, while an unnamed PLO official warns that if this round fails it will be the last.  If the talks end, Mahmoud Abbas reportedly plans to take some unspecified alternative action (update: this morning's al-Quds reports that his highly original plan is to announce a new Salam Fayyad government before traveling to Washington). Good luck with that.... because the truth is that nobody seems to have any good ideas about where to go if they do fail. My sense is that the window of opportunity for a Hamas-Fatah deal has likely closed, but nobody really seems to have much of an idea where to go without one. 

 This fourth round takes place in a deteriorating atmosphere, marred by mutual recriminations between Hamas and Fatah and an escalating round of arrests of one another's supporters in the West Bank and Gaza. The visit to Gaza by Fatah figures a few weeks ago does not appear to have prompted any breakthroughs. Nor does common fears about the implications of a Netanyahu-Lieberman Israeli government. These talks are meant to focus tightly upon the Egyptian proposal for a transitional government under PNA auspices.  Hamas has already firmly rejected that proposal, but has thus far found few takers for its alternative proposals. There are various calls to get other Arab countries besides Egypt involved, but thus far those don't seem to have gotten any real traction -- perhaps because no other player wants to be associated with an expected failure. 

  The situtation on the ground was always going to make any Fatah-Hamas deal difficult, but the external incentives have not helped. The Egyptian mediation has always been overtly anti-Hamas, with the negative American attitude reinforcing the Egyptian stance sealing the deal. Despite considerable Arab and European desire for more flexibility, and months of intense Palestinian and Arab scrutiny for such signals, Hillary Clinton and other U.S. officials have repeatedly insisted that the U.S. will not deal with any Palestinian unity government which includes Hamas unless it meets the Quartet pre-conditions.  While some Arabs saw a sign of flexibility in her mention to Congress of the precedent of America's dealing with a Lebanese government which included Hezbollah members, this does not seem to have been intended to signal any significant change. Without the prospect of international willingness to work with the new government or serious pressure to achieve it, neither Hamas nor Fatah likely saw reason to make the painful and risky compromises which a deal would entail. 

 The fourth round of the Palestinian unity talks in Cairo is set to kick off tomorrow (after a last minute one-day delay).  Nobody on either side expects the discussions to succeed. Hamas officials call this round the hardest yet, while an unnamed PLO official warns that if this round fails it will be the last.  If the talks end, Mahmoud Abbas reportedly plans to take some unspecified alternative action (update: this morning’s al-Quds reports that his highly original plan is to announce a new Salam Fayyad government before traveling to Washington). Good luck with that…. because the truth is that nobody seems to have any good ideas about where to go if they do fail. My sense is that the window of opportunity for a Hamas-Fatah deal has likely closed, but nobody really seems to have much of an idea where to go without one. 

 This fourth round takes place in a deteriorating atmosphere, marred by mutual recriminations between Hamas and Fatah and an escalating round of arrests of one another’s supporters in the West Bank and Gaza. The visit to Gaza by Fatah figures a few weeks ago does not appear to have prompted any breakthroughs. Nor does common fears about the implications of a Netanyahu-Lieberman Israeli government. These talks are meant to focus tightly upon the Egyptian proposal for a transitional government under PNA auspices.  Hamas has already firmly rejected that proposal, but has thus far found few takers for its alternative proposals. There are various calls to get other Arab countries besides Egypt involved, but thus far those don’t seem to have gotten any real traction — perhaps because no other player wants to be associated with an expected failure. 

  The situtation on the ground was always going to make any Fatah-Hamas deal difficult, but the external incentives have not helped. The Egyptian mediation has always been overtly anti-Hamas, with the negative American attitude reinforcing the Egyptian stance sealing the deal. Despite considerable Arab and European desire for more flexibility, and months of intense Palestinian and Arab scrutiny for such signals, Hillary Clinton and other U.S. officials have repeatedly insisted that the U.S. will not deal with any Palestinian unity government which includes Hamas unless it meets the Quartet pre-conditions.  While some Arabs saw a sign of flexibility in her mention to Congress of the precedent of America’s dealing with a Lebanese government which included Hezbollah members, this does not seem to have been intended to signal any significant change. Without the prospect of international willingness to work with the new government or serious pressure to achieve it, neither Hamas nor Fatah likely saw reason to make the painful and risky compromises which a deal would entail. 

 Why does this matter?  A few weeks ago, I laid out the reasons for concern over the failure of the unity talks, including the likely escalation of intra-Palestinian conflict, the collapse of the remaining legitimacy of Palestinian institutions, the humanitarian impact on Gaza, and the excuse it offers for Israel to avoid negotiating with the divided, leaderless Palestinians.  That still sounds about right to me. 

 Where next?  I would just like to quote at length from this typically incisive Crisis Group report:

There is good reason for concern. If the siege [of Gaza] is not lifted, Hamas risks launching large-scale attacks. If weapons transfers are not halted and rocket fire persists, Israel could mount a new offensive. Without some form of Palestinian understanding, the international community is unlikely to permit Gaza’s recovery for fear it will benefit Hamas. As tensions surrounding Gaza persist, the regional cold war could heat up. Without a stable ceasefire and broadly representative Palestinian leadership, prospects for peace – already made difficult by the nature of the new Israeli government – will prove more elusive still.

In the conflict’s immediate aftermath, many in the region and further afield seemed at last to comprehend these stakes. Egypt mediated between Israel and Hamas for a more specific and clear ceasefire. In Sharm al-Sheikh, donors pledged vast amounts of money to help rebuild Gaza. Prodded by the same Western countries that in 2007 had pulled the rug from underneath the last unity government, Palestinians discussed a new Fatah-Hamas understanding. Yet, with time elapsing and no results in sight, urgency has given way to complacency and complacency to neglect. The result is that Gaza once again is an explosion waiting to happen.

The deadlock has many explanations, but a principal one is reluctance by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA), the U.S. and Israel to grant Hamas anything resembling a reward for provoking the war. That is understandable but makes sense only if one believes the previous policy of seeking to weaken Hamas by isolating it and to bolster Abbas by focusing on the West Bank worked. It did not, and the correction of misguided policies should not be mistaken for weakness or pointless concessions. The challenge is not humanitarian – though opening Gaza to commerce would do wonders for its people. It is, as it has always been, political, so political choices – about how to deal with Gaza, Hamas and the possibility of a new Palestinian government – will have to be made.

The formula for a ceasefire has always been straightforward. Hamas must stop firing rockets and stop others from doing the same, while Israel must lift the blockade. A prisoner exchange also is overdue, but Israel’s insistence that it be part of a ceasefire package complicated both matters and made resolution of neither more likely. Breaking this linkage will be politically costly for Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s new prime minister, who will be loath to appear softer on Hamas than his predecessor. But it is essential, as the U.S. and Israel’s other allies must make plain. Evidence from Gaza suggests anger is rising, as residents realise their conditions are not about to improve. Some might hope they will turn their anger toward Hamas. More likely, Hamas will turn its anger toward Israel.

On reconstruction, if a middle ground cannot be found between Hamas’s insistence on being involved and much of the donor community’s desire to bypass it, and if Israel is not persuaded to open the crossings, lofty commitments will remain essentially theoretical. Here, too, is need for collective compromise. The Islamists control the situation on the ground for access, security, land use and construction permits. They thus should not fear a mechanism directed by others – whether the PA or some other entity – as long as they are consulted. Likewise, donors and the PA must accept that if reconstruction is contingent on barring all contact with Hamas and denying it all credit for the recovery, it is better not to think of it at all. And while Israel has legitimate security concerns about Hamas diverting imported material for military use, holding Gaza’s population hostage is not a legitimate response. It should be satisfied with end-use verification by an independent body with international membership.

Chances at first appeared most promising on the final issue, Palestinian reconciliation. Among broad segments of the public, the split generated heightened resentment, as its costs – most vividly the inability to act coherently before, during and after the recent conflict – become more apparent. Yet, three rounds of Egyptian-mediated talks have failed, and few hold hope for the fourth. Neither Fatah nor Hamas is willing to relinquish its assets – its position in the West Bank and PLO for the former; its dominance of Gaza for the latter. A full-scale agreement to reunite both territories geographically and politically, unify and de-factionalise security services and broaden the PLO appears out of reach. But that should not rule out a more limited understanding.

The Islamists can boast of their resolve, resilience and growing regional reach; they are convinced the war – their first genuine battle and the first since its birth from which Fatah was essentially absent – strengthened their legitimacy and vindicated their approach. But they also bumped up against painful realities, notably much of the world’s unwillingness to deal with Hamas even if that means leaving Gazans to fend for themselves. Without an arrangement with Fatah and the PA, Gaza’s crossings will remain closed, Gazans will not receive needed aid, and popular dissatisfaction with Hamas will grow.

Reality dawned on Hamas’s rivals, too. Though absent from the war, neither the Ramallah-based PA nor Fatah was immune from its aftershock. As fighting proceeded, a president who had cultivated relations with Israel and the U.S. could not persuade the former to stop nor the latter to help in that task. Abbas’s inability to prevent war was thus added to his inability to bring about peace. Chastened by the public’s negative reaction, several Fatah leaders realise that some arrangement with Hamas is critical both to redressing its image and eventually returning to Gaza.

This is an opportunity. Efforts should focus on an outcome that meets the parties’ immediate needs. Neither wants to give up the territory it controls, so for now let them keep it. That should not prevent forming a government that helps rebuild Gaza, gives Ramallah a foothold in Gaza and Abbas the greater legitimacy he needs to deal effectively with Israel – and with his own people. The rub has been the political program. Hamas refuses one that recognises Israel; Fatah, arguing it is the price for international legitimacy, insists that it must. Several alternatives have been suggested, including an ambiguous program and no program at all, but this is a sterile debate.

Words matter, but actions matter more. The international community should judge the government on what ought to count if the goal is to move toward a peaceful settlement: willingness (or not) to enforce a mutual ceasefire with Israel, acceptance of Abbas’s authority to negotiate an agreement with Israel and respect for a referendum on an eventual accord. Hamas’s position on whether a Palestinian state would recognise Israel will matter only once that state exists. Prior to that, it is academic.

If nothing is moving, it is in part because all eyes are turned to President Obama. Many in the region and elsewhere like what they see. His administration’s early steps suggest an attempt to shape the environment for a meaningful diplomatic initiative – the repeated pledge to work for a two-state solution; the attention to realities on the ground, notably settlements; and the decision to engage with Syria and, soon, with Iran.

That leaves a significant gap: what about the domestic Palestinian scene and the need for credible, representative leadership? The new U.S. administration has provided few precise clues, let alone indicated a real shift. There are political constraints, plus the fear that softening the position on Hamas would deal more pragmatic forces a fatal blow. Yet even refusal to deal with the Islamists unless they adhere to the Quartet’s conditions need not dictate what Washington would do should a unity government committed to a ceasefire emerge and empower Abbas to negotiate with Israel – particularly if, unlike in 2007, its Arab and European allies both pleaded for flexibility. The U.S. position might well be a function of what the PA leadership, EU and Arab world decide to do. Which makes it all the more dispiriting that, hiding behind America’s presumed inflexibility, they appear for now to have decided to do nothing.

I don’t agree with all of it, but it’s a good starting point for discussion.  

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

Tag: Gaza

More from Foreign Policy

A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Xi’s Great Leap Backward

Beijing is running out of recipes for its looming jobs crisis—and reviving Mao-era policies.

A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.
A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.

Companies Are Fleeing China for Friendlier Shores

“Friendshoring” is the new trend as geopolitics bites.

German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.
German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.

Why Superpower Crises Are a Good Thing

A new era of tensions will focus minds and break logjams, as Cold War history shows.

Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.
Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.

The Mediterranean as We Know It Is Vanishing

From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, the region’s most attractive tourist destinations are also its most vulnerable.