The Seven-Year Itch

As if the Israeli-Palestinian peace process were not in enough trouble, Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestine Liberation Organization has gone and signed a reconciliation deal with the militant Islamist group Hamas. This latest move comes just weeks after an earlier Palestinian decision to join various international treaties had thrown a wrench into U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to rescue the peace talks from imminent doom. Now, this round of talks seems well and truly dead: Israel officially suspended talks with Abbas in the wake of the deal, and the United States has expressed disappointment at the deal, adding that it could jeopardize Kerry’s efforts to extend the negotiations.

The U.S. Congress will likely respond to the deal by considering cuts to American assistance to the Palestinians, which totals over $400 million per year. U.S. lawmakers have already reiterated their perennial threats to cut financial assistance should the Palestinians move ahead with reconciliation. Such reactions are not surprising, given Hamas’s history of violence and its designation by the United States as a terrorist organization.

However, both American and Israeli hostility to Palestinian reconciliation is ultimately misguided. While this week’s deal does pose some political, diplomatic, and legal challenges for U.S. policymakers, continuing to oppose Palestinian unity is far more problematic — and ultimately self-defeating. The fact that the United States and Israel see efforts to bring about Palestinian unity as “troubling” is itself troubling.

It is important to clarify what the new Palestinian reconciliation deal does and does not do. The deal centers on the formation of an interim government to be headed by Abbas and formed on the basis of “national consensus” — building on previous reconciliation deals in 2011 and 2012 by laying out an implementation mechanism for this process. The main task of the new government would be to prepare for legislative and presidential elections to be held after six months.

Contrary to most media characterizations, the agreement does not call for a “unity government” between Fatah and Hamas. Unlike the short-lived Palestinian national unity government of 2007, which included members of both Hamas and Fatah, the new “government of national consensus” envisioned in the deal would not include members of any political faction but would instead be made up of independents and technocrats who have been approved by all political groups. This subtle but important distinction was deliberately designed to avoid a repeat of 2006, when Hamas’s participation in the government triggered an international boycott of the Palestinian Authority.

For most Palestinians, any attempt to heal the debilitating and humiliating seven-year split between Hamas and Fatah is long overdue. In addition to paralyzing Palestinian politics and weakening Palestinian institutions, the self-inflicted nature of the divide has been a source of intense collective shame. Ending the division would bring an end to one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Palestinian national movement.

In virtually any other context, attempting to overcome such a debilitating national schism would be seen as a welcome development. This is exactly the sort of development the United States hails elsewhere in the region: how striking, for instance, that Washington has explicitly and repeatedly called for political inclusion and national reconciliation in Egypt — while actively opposing the very same for Palestinians.

The fact that no Hamas members would be included in the new government has also done nothing to diminish Israel’s hostility toward the deal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that Palestinians must choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas is cynical and self-defeating. It is completely untenable to present Palestinians with a choice of remaining at war with Israel or remaining at war with each other. Israel’s distaste for Hamas is understandable, but it remains a political reality that cannot be wished away or boycotted out of existence. In any case, it is hard to see how a divided and dysfunctional Palestinian entity would be able to make peace, much less enforce the terms of any future deal.

In the end, American and Israeli objections to Palestinian unity go beyond fears of violence and terrorism. After all, Israel and Congress leveled the same threats after Abbas’s recent decision to have the Palestinians join international conventions — and before that, when the Palestinians sought statehood recognition from the United Nations. These Palestinian actions are not only compatible with a two-state solution, but in the case of Palestinian unity, the need for a coherent, unitary Palestinian polity is practically a prerequisite for the goal of achieving two states.

In fact, the only real impact such actions have — apart from annoying Israeli and American officials — is to enhance the Palestinian leadership’s legitimacy domestically and internationally, and perhaps to strengthen its negotiating position. The fact that they are also deemed harmful to the “peace process,” despite being perfectly compatible with the goal of two states, suggests that the United States and Israel believe the process’s success is somehow predicated on continued Palestinian weakness.

If Palestinians engaging in international diplomacy and domestic politics are threats to the “peace process,” then perhaps it is time to reconsider the process altogether. Although the new arrangement undoubtedly entails challenges for the United States, they are not insurmountable. If President Barack Obama’s administration is serious about peacemaking, it should find creative ways to accommodate the Palestinians’ basic need for national unity without compromising its own legal and political position.

No political leadership should be forced to choose between national cohesion and international acceptance. Indeed, any credible peace process must allow the Palestinians to have both.

This article was originally published by
Foreign Policy