What Matters, and What Doesn’t, About Palestinian Unity

The sudden announcement Wednesday of an agreement to mend the rift between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas appears to have thrown a wrench into the Middle East peace talks at a very delicate time. Already, the Israeli security cabinet has voted to suspend talks with the Palestinians, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has warned that his Palestinian counterpart can have peace with Israel, or with Hamas, but not with both.

There is much cause for skepticism that reconciliation will move forward, and crucial issues about Hamas’s entry into the Palestine Liberation Organization remain unresolved. But an agreement on Palestinian reconciliation, assuming it is actually implemented, need not necessarily sound the death knell for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Done right, Palestinian reconciliation could strengthen Mahmoud Abbas’s hand in negotiating with Israel, constrain peace-process “spoilers” and even, potentially, bring about a historic shift in Hamas’s resolutely violent, antagonistic stance toward the Jewish state.

Of course, it’s also possible that reconciliation would move forward, but in a way that would not produce these salutary effects. But the agreement is a fact and, rather than either dismissing it or declaring it a disaster, the United States government should make clear the conditions under which Fatah-Hamas reconciliation could work to advance the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is at the heart of U.S. policy. Here are some guidelines:

1. The objective of American policy is to achieve a two-state solution, not to get the two sides back to the table.

The Israeli decision to suspend the talks-about-talks is not the end of the road – and U.S. officials must right now focus on their desired outcome, not on the peace process. Israelis have long noted that the West-Bank-Gaza division means Israel’s not negotiating with a fully authoritative partner; reconciliation offers an opportunity to overcome that obstacle – IF reconciliation is carried out in a manner that strengthens, rather than undermines, the Palestinian commitment to a two-state solution with Israel. Helping to shape the terms of reconciliation to make it a net plus for the two-state solution must be the focus of U.S. diplomacy in the coming weeks. Complaints about poor timing, when the formal negotiating process was already teetering on the brink of failure, ring hollow. Moreover, the Israeli cabinet decision clearly leaves the door open, and Washington should seek to exploit every opening to an agreed-upon solution.

2. Focus on the Palestine Liberation Organization, not the Palestinian Authority government.

To understand the ways in which Palestinian reconciliation might harm or help Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, note the difference between the agreement’s impact on the Palestinian Authority – the local entity created by the Oslo Accords that governs Palestinians in the West Bank (and until 2007 in Gaza) – and its impact on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Israel’s recognized negotiating partner in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. (Fatah is the largest faction of the PLO, and Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah, is also the president of the PA as well as the chairman of the PLO.)

The agreement signed in Cairo includes provisions for establishing a “technocratic PA government” – one made up of experts with no partisan identity on either side. PLO leaders insist that the new government will recognize Israel and abide by the Oslo-era agreements. Meeting these conditions will be essential for that government to win recognition and financial support from the United States and Europe.

But the PA government’s attitude toward Israel is not nearly as significant for the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace as the attitude of the Palestine Liberation Organization. It was the PLO’s acceptance of Israel’s right to exist in 1988 that opened the door to the Oslo Accords, and the first Oslo agreement in 1993 was accompanied by mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO as the sole legitimate representatives for their respective peoples – crossing a Rubicon in Israeli-Arab relations that ultimately moved the goal of “two states for two peoples” from the idealistic platform of peace activists to the cornerstone of policy for the global superpower.

The big unanswered question, then, is under what terms Hamas will join the PLO. Reportedly, the reconciliation agreement set up a committee to “study” this issue, and to make recommendations within five weeks. In the current environment of fraught Israeli-Palestinian ties, that’s an eternity. While the two parties apparently wrangled in Cairo over the size of Hamas’s representation in PLO executive bodies, the more central issue for peace prospects is whether Hamas accepts the PLO’s commitments under the Oslo-era accords, and accepts the PLO’s stated goal of a peaceful, negotiated two-state solution.

3. Think again about what reconciliation means.

One reason past reconciliation efforts ultimately came to naught is that Hamas was unwilling to yield on its fundamental hostility to recognizing Israel, and thus its unwillingness to treat as binding on itself commitments the PLO had previously made to Israel. Creative wordsmithing could never resolve these gaps in basic ideology and political program. And the United States, therefore, never regarded Hamas joining the PLO as anything other than a dangerous Trojan Horse that could undermine, if not explode, all that had been achieved in Israeli-Palestinian relations since 1993.

4. The power dynamic between Fatah and Hamas has shifted in Fatah’s favor, making Hamas accession to coexistence with Israel more likely than in the past.

From 2007, when Hamas humiliated the Fatah-run Palestinian security services and overran the Gaza Strip, the militant group has had the upper hand in Palestinian society and regionally. While Palestinian blame both parties for the divide, Hamas benefits from sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza, which has been subject to highly restrictive Israeli rules on the entry and exist of people and goods. The Strip is overpopulated, impoverished, starving and running out of fresh water.

But the past year or two has been hard on the militant movement. Hamas, a Sunni movement long supported by Shia Iran, broke with Tehran over support for Bashar al-Assad’s butchery of his own, largely Sunni, citizens. As a result, Hamas abandoned its Damascus headquarters, lost funding and a alienated a powerful regional ally. Last July’s ouster by the Egyptian military of President Mohammed Morsi was a further blow to the Islamic Resistance Movement – Hamas had grown out of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Morsi had proved a warm neighbor, brokering a crucial cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in November 2012. But the Egyptian military had never felt sanguine about Hamas rule in Gaza, worked to destroy smuggling tunnels and block terrorist infiltrations from Gaza into Sinai, and after the coup in Cairo took steps to ban Hamas from Egypt and otherwise choke off the group’s access to regional support.

The power shift in his favor enabled Abbas to move forward to peace talks with Israel – but as he faced compromises on fundamental issues like refugees and Jerusalem, his fading domestic legitimacy got in his way. Reconciliation with Hamas in this new environment offers him a chance to bridge the gap on his terms, win public plaudits for the achievement, restore the legitimacy of Palestinian leadership through new elections, and present a more coherent and credible Palestinian partner to Israel in the negotiations.

It’s the logic laid out above that makes PLO leaders and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat insist that the reconciliation accord announced this week is good news, not bad, for the peace process. A unified, empowered Palestinian negotiating partner is certainly better than a divided, weakened one. But Israelis fear, with some justification, that Hamas’s reentry into Palestinian governance threatens a takeover of the PLO by Hamas, rather than a takeover by the PLO of Hamas. Hamas’s forceful takeover of the Gaza Strip after deals with Fatah broke down in 2007 does not inspire confidence. So allowing Hamas to join in PLO decision-making about peace with Israel, when Hamas has not clearly acceded to the PLO’s commitment to two-state coexistence and peaceful resolution of the conflict, seems to many in Israel and the West like starting down a dark road that could well lead over a cliff.

In reacting to the reconciliation announcement, many in Washington and Jerusalem seem more focused on its timing than on its substance – coming, as it did, while Israel and the Palestinians were trying to walk back from a cliff of their own, the expiration of their agreed-upon negotiating period on April 29. Already, some analysts are warning that the Fatah-Hamas deal could be a “body blow” for the peace talks, and others are calling on President Obama to abandon Middle East peace efforts altogether.

But the United States should refrain from drawing such conclusions, or indeed from passing judgment on a deal whose terms are still so unformed. Rather, this is the time for the Obama administration to reiterate that its goal is a two-state solution, and that it will support any move that advances that goal, and oppose any move that undermines it.

The U.S. government should therefore lay out clearly, in quiet conversations with both sides, the conditions under which Palestinian reconciliation could meet with American acquiescence or even support: 

  • In joining the PLO, Hamas must accept as binding all PLO decisions reached prior to its accession to the organization – most importantly the agreements reached with Israel in 1993 and after. This means that Hamas must refrain from actions contrary to those PLO commitments, or the organization as a whole will face consequences. This would require Hamas to abjure violence; and it would also hold a single, unified Palestinian leadership accountable for the actions of all factions under the PLO umbrella. This would be consistent with U.S. policy since it opened talks with the PLO in 1989, and would give Israel what it has complained since 2007 that it lacks: a single address for authoritative Palestinian leadership.
  • In joining the PLO, Hamas would ostensibly also accept the PLO’s authority as the sole legitimate, and internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people. This acceptance would also suggest that Hamas would no longer conduct independent diplomacy with regional governments, and would no longer be eligible to receive aid directly from those governments.
  • The decision-making bodies of the PLO would have to reiterate, after Hamas joins the organization, the PLO’s commitment to a two-state resolution of its conflict with Israel.

The Obama administration should also make clear that U.S. acceptance of Hamas presence in the PLO does not obligate the United States to remove Hamas from its own list of designated terrorist organizations. Hamas still, in rhetoric, formal ideology and behavior up until today, embraces violence against civilians for political purposes. Any decision on a terrorism designation must accord with specific criteria in U.S. law. In other words, Hamas’s status in the eyes the U.S. government will depend entirely on Hamas’s behavior. This is consistent with the U.S. government’s treatment of other Palestinian factions under the PLO umbrella.

Such an American approach might not succeed in inducing sufficient change in Hamas’s position to allow reconciliation to move forward on terms that would advance, rather than undermine, the prospects for a two-state solution. But it rests on the recognition that negotiating partners like Israel and the PLO always represent diverse constituencies that may have divergent preferences for the conflict’s resolution – but that, for a negotiation to be effective, there must be clear terms of reference, and each side’s leadership must have authority to commit to agreements on behalf of their side as a whole. Should the PLO be able to enforce these terms, both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships would represent constituencies, some of which oppose a two-state solution, but all of which agree to be bound by the commitments of their leaders, including to nonviolent resolution of their conflict. That should be a sufficient foundation to negotiate peace.