The late Yitzhak Rabin used to say that the only problem with dancing with a bear is that once you start, you can never let go.
Watching the current Hamas-Fatah unity circus, I can’t help but think of Rabin’s comment. For the former Israeli prime minister, Yasir Arafat was the bear and the Oslo process was their choreographed dance. Rabin was no sentimentalist and he recognized Arafat’s many weaknesses as a partner, but he continued to engage with him because he believed his counterpart had taken tough positions. Oslo was a good faith effort to achieve a goal.
The Hamas-Fatah unity gambit signed on Wednesday in Cairo isn’t about good faith, consequential agreements, nor is it about peacemaking. The forging of Palestinian unity is a product of narrower calculations of two key parties — Fatah and Hamas — who are looking for a way to improve their respective positions during a very turbulent and uncertain period. This is an instance of two bears dancing with one another. Israel is right to be wary.
There’s a certain logic to this diplomacy. But the problem of course is what the CIA calls blowback — unintended consequences that return with unpredictable and usually negative results. The Fatah-Hamas accord is unlikely to produce either unity or improve prospects for peacemaking; indeed, along the way it could actually make serious negotiations and a settlement harder to achieve.
Hamas’s calculations in seeking unity are perhaps the easier to read than those of Fatah. They’re driven by a mix of motives: In Gaza, despite improved order and security, Hamas hasn’t delivered economically. Gaza remains for a million and half Palestinians a variation of what it’s been for some time now — a small and confining prison where economic, political, and movement horizons are constrained by Israeli border closures and poor Palestinian governance.
As for Hamas, a nominally revolutionary organization, its message has grown old and tired. Against the backdrop of a largely young and secular Arab Spring, its Islamist trope isn’t all that compelling any more. Nor was armed struggle ever a terribly resonant tactic if the goal was to improve the lives of Palestinians in Gaza. In fact, quite the opposite — it had a Kevorkian death-wish quality to it, as revealed by Hamas’s willingness to risk Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009. Hamas’s leaders could have taken advantage of tensions with Israel along the border last month to go back to the battlefield. They wisely chose not to — they know better now. You can’t eat or pay for food with myths and symbols of struggle. Hamas’s leaders are now worried, looking in the rearview mirror, and wondering how long it may take the Arab Spring to come to their portion of Palestine.
And then there’s the Syrian angle. One of Hamas’s two major patrons is now confronted with potentially regime-changing turmoil. Not only are there now reports that Hamas’s external leadership is looking for a new home outside of Damascus, but their association with two regimes (Syria and Iran) that are gunning down their own citizens in the streets isn’t an endearing image for the Palestinian public. Unity with Fatah and making nice with Egypt (which brokered the agreement) is a strategic move for the short term — at least until it is clear where the dust is settling in Syria.
The calculations of Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah are somewhat harder to read, but still transparent. According to those close to him, the Palestinian Authority (PA) president was surprised by Hamas’s decision to go for unity — and he made sure the deal was done on his terms. (Abbas remains as president of the PA and head of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization.) But Abbas also had a stake in keeping the new Egyptian government and perhaps also the Saudis — long fans of unity — happy too.
More to the point, Abbas has concluded that no negotiations with Israel are likely now, and that U.S. President Barack Obama isn’t going to do much to support him. So he’s broken out on his own with a U.N. statehood gambit geared for September. But it’s hard to go the international community and claim virtual statehood over the West Bank and Gaza when a rival Palestinian faction is controlling the latter half and using the territory to shoot rockets at Israelis.
Whether Abbas thinks Hamas would actually support such an initiative is dubious, but for now it buys him some domestic political space and temporary acquiescence from Hamas. The peace process and the U.N. statehood gambit weren’t part of the intra-Palestinian negotiations. Abbas is still in charge of both portfolios and can do what he wants — if only because neither side truly believes they’ll amount to much.
All of this seems so logical — and yet the traps are as compelling as the seeming advantages. First, it’s not clear how any real power sharing can work. These political rivals, with their bloody history, are now somehow supposed to establish a technocratic government, prepare for national elections, and assume joint responsibility for security — even though they don’t share any real trust or ideology. This isn’t just a matter of competition over seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas and Fatah have different visions for what and where Palestine should be.
Second, Abbas is also sacrificing his longstanding goal of winning the hearts and minds of the international community. Shackling himself to Hamas and its extremist, anti-Semitic statements undermines his international credibility. Abbas will try to resist this association — Hamas’s Prime Minister Ismail Haniya praised Osama bin Laden this week as a martyr, while Abbas took the opposite tack — but that equivocation won’t be sustainable when the two are actually governing together.
The same problem will occur with regard to armed struggle. Hamas will have to abandon its violent political platform or risk putting Abbas into the position of having to condemn his governing partner. The moment of truth is likely to come soon. It’s almost inconceivable the Israel-Gaza border will be free of violence over the next six months, given the track record.
Third, there’s the pesky problem of the international assistance. Even if, on the American side, the legal hurdles of assisting the PA (with Hamas supporting the government) can be finessed, it’s unlikely the politics will be manageable. The Obama administration will be in a position — like Abbas — of having to explain away every Hamas statement and action. That’s just not tenable.
Finally, there are the Israelis. This unity deal is not just a birthday present to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and those to his right, but a gift that will keep on giving. How can anyone say to Israelis that they have to negotiate with — much less make concessions to — a Palestinian government, half of which won’t recognize Israel or lay down its arms? Yes, it’s fair to point out that the current peace process wasn’t going anywhere anyway; but what Abbas is doing now is helping the Israeli delegitimize Palestinians as putative partners. Guilt by association is still a very effective conceit in Middle Eastern politics.
For now, Palestinian unity seems like the right play for the parties involved; but it has a sense about it of being too clever by half. We’ll see as the anomalies and contradictions of this latest marriage of convenience play out. One thing is clear: Anyone who wants to even touch the peace process during this period better be prepared for a dangerous dance. It’s going to require some very fancy footwork to avoid some serious stumbles with the new Palestinian dancing partner.
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