The seven-year feud between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas has – at least on paper – come to an end. A reconciliation deal, signed on Wednesday, calls for an interim government of independents and technocrats, with general elections to follow. The State Department immediately deemed the agreement “disappointing” and expressed concerns over its potential impact on Middle East peace negotiations. Whatever its concerns, Washington must realize that healing this internal rift is a national necessity for Palestinians and a precondition for any future political settlement with Israel. Washington should therefore support the deal, building its strategy to accommodate rather than confront Palestinian unity should this latest deal hold.
Certainly, no one knows for sure how likely the parties are to deliver on their commitments. Fatah and Hamas have signed two agreements in the past two years – in Cairo and in Doha – yet failed to follow through. Nevertheless, this deal is significantly different from its predecessors. Most importantly, it was actually signed in Gaza itself, in the Al-Shati refugee camp, not in a foreign capital. Unlike previous accords, this one was initiated, negotiated, and signed by the parties themselves – a home-grown reconciliation process without the pressures and mutual suspicions of a process brokered by external powers. This indicates real ownership of the reconciliation process by the two parties. The accord is widely supported and defended by the Palestinian people, who have long been waiting for Fatah and Hamas to settle their differences. The Palestinian people’s experience of this bitter division over the past seven years – adding tremendous frustration to their existing deep pain and suffering under the Israeli occupation – means they are ready to support and defend this step no matter how much this is going to cost them.
Washington should not underestimate the overwhelming public support in Palestine for this agreement. U.S. opposition will put them in conflict not just Hamas but with the entire Palestinian people. This reconciliation brings an end to one of the darkest chapter in the history of their conflict with Israel. The U.S. positio – working against the legitimate demands of the Palestinian people for unity and reconciliation – would be acutely felt in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, where publics have taken center stage and demanded a new way forward from their leaders.
Furthermore, the reconciliation deal calls for general elections within six months of the signing. This represents a clear commitment to the peaceful transfer of power and the foundations of democratic governance. Given all the troops and resources the U.S. has committed to what it called “democracy promotion” in Iraq and Afghanistan, can it really afford to oppose a deal for home-grown democracy in the Palestinian territories? At least for its image in the region, the US should be cautious about fighting a deal that unite people, end their conflict and division, and set them on a path to democratic elections.
Equally importantly, the agreement stands to boost the legitimacy of any peace agreement the US aims to broker. While Fatah’s Abbas enjoys a high level of popularity in the Palestinian territories, he is not in control of the Gaza strip. Thus, any future peace agreement would deal with only part of the Palestinian territories (the West Bank) while ignoring Gaza entirely. U.S. support for this reconciliation would promote a more inclusive peace agreement, which a greater chance of acceptance. Signatures mean little – especially with only one party – if the agreement goes unfulfilled. Despite the signing of Oslo Accords over 20 years ago, the situation is worse off than it was in 1993.
President Obama should not let Israeli threats determine his position on Palestinian reconciliation, nor on how best to move peace efforts forward. The Netanyahu-Lieberman government will come up with new demands to keep negotiations locked in their status quo as long as their colonial project of grabbing more Palestinian lands and constructing more settlements is not yet completed, no matter how long this takes. The U.S. administration will never hear the end of their demands – the insistence that the Palestinian side recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” and attempts to annex the Jordan valley settlements are only two examples of demands that have materialized since the 2008 negotiations between Abbas and then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It might be true that Abbas signed the agreement with Hamas because he did not have many other alternatives but the U.S. should keep in mind that Washington-led negotiation the past nine months have given Abbas nothing but a doubling of new Israeli settlement construction in the Palestinian territories. The US administration has not been able to curb the Likud party’s appetite for Palestinian land and cannot do so by fighting a deal for reconciliation among Palestinians.