The United States Should Welcome the Palestinian Unity Deal

No sooner had reports surfaced of an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation agreement between Fateh and Hamas than congressional calls for cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority began. A statement by House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen described PA president Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to end the four-year rift with Hamas as a sign that his leadership was “not a partner for peace” and accused him of “standing with those who want only death and destruction for Israel.”

Such sentiment is not surprising given Hamas’s designation in the United States as a terrorist organization and the general antipathy on Capitol Hill to most things Palestinian. While Palestinian reconciliation would pose some serious political, diplomatic, and legal challenges for U.S. policymakers, the Obama administration should think twice before heeding such calls. American opposition to Palestinian unity, particularly at a time when the peace process and the entire region are in a state of flux, would be both futile and counterproductive. Details remain sketchy, but the deal seems to center around the formation of an interim government comprised of independents and technocrats not affiliated with either faction — but approved by both. New parliamentary and presidential elections would then be held after one year.

Though it is not yet clear how — or even if — it will be implemented, the agreement is a major breakthrough for the Palestinians, whose four-year split has paralyzed domestic politics, hindered peace efforts, and demoralized ordinary Palestinians. Notwithstanding the humiliation inflicted by Israel’s occupation, the self-inflicted nature of the Palestinian division was a source of intense collective shame. At a time when the United States is calling on Arab governments to be more responsive to the demands of their people, U.S. opposition to national unity, which has been a central demand of the Palestinian people for many years, would send all of the wrong messages to the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that Palestinians must choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas is irrational, short-sighted, and ultimately self-defeating. The notion that Palestinians must either remain at war with each other or with Israel is of course no choice at all. While Israel’s distaste for Hamas, which has carried out numerous attacks against Israeli civilians, is understandable, a divided and permanently weak Palestinian entity is of little value to Israel, its security, or the peace process. Making “peace” with only part of the Palestinians cannot be sustained for very long.

One of the main outcomes of the Palestinian division, the continued blockade of the Gaza Strip, is equally untenable. An impoverished and besieged population of 1.5 million Palestinians that is cut off from the rest of the world — three-quarters of whom are under age 25 — on Israel’s borders is not in the long term security interest of Israel, the United States, or anyone else. The emergence of radical, violent Salafist elements, such as those who murdered Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni, should serve as a warning of what the future may hold for Gaza if it remains an isolated and destitute enclave.

Both the United States and the broader international community have consistently decried the untenable situation in Gaza and other adverse effects of the ongoing Palestinian schism, but have failed to pursue any policies that could challenge the status quo. A Palestinian unity deal provides an opportunity to do just that. While the new arrangement undoubtedly entails risks for the U.S., other western powers, and Israel, they are not insurmountable. Rather than clinging to the failed and outdated policy formulas of the past, the Obama administration should seek to demonstrate that it both understands and is capable of adapting to the dramatic changes in the region. Moreover, the risks of ignoring Hamas or isolating Gaza — as though they were both somehow separate from the peace process — may prove even more costly.

The unity deal is also a major breakthrough for the new government in Cairo, which is intent on reclaiming its leadership role in the Arab world and on pursuing a more independent foreign policy. Egypt’s success in brokering the deal, accomplishing in just a few weeks what the former Mubarak regime had failed to do over the course of several years, highlights the extent to which both Egypt and the region have changed since the onset of the “Arab Spring”. It confirms long-held suspicions that the mediation efforts by the former Mubarak regime, which made no secret of its preference for Fateh or its contempt for Hamas, were less than serious. Openly rejecting the deal would thus also complicate relations with Egypt’s new government and risks alienating the Egyptian people at a particularly delicate moment in the country’s transition.

With sufficient political will and foresight, the Obama administration can and should find creative ways to accommodate the Palestinians’ basic need for national unity without compromising its own legal and political position. The Palestinian unity deal will be a major test of the administration’s handling of the Arab Spring as well as the moribund peace process. How it responds will help shape Arab public perceptions about the United States and its ability to adapt to the new regional order.