If Palestinian rift is healed, does that help US aims in Middle East?

Analysts see some good news for the US, but mostly bad in a Palestinian rift-ending accord. The deal is also seen as a hint of things to come in the increasingly democratic Middle East.

By , Staff writer

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    Chief Fatah negotiator in reconciliation talks Azzam al-Ahmed (r.) and Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzoug (l.) look on during a news conference in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, April 27.

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The surprise rift-ending accord reportedly reached in Cairo between the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas Wednesday is potentially both good and bad news for the Obama administration’s stated goal of forging some kind of Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by September.

But the bad largely outweighs the good, many Middle East analysts say.

And beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they add, the accord may offer a glimpse of the more politically complex region the US will have to deal with in the wake of the Arab Spring.

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“We’re very possibly looking at a hint of things to come in a more democratic Middle East,” says Daniel Levy, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation in Washington. “Either America figures out how to deal with a general opening up of politics in the region,” he adds, “or it is going to be left behind.”

One thing a Fatah-Hamas accord would accomplish is a pulling of the rug from under the argument that Israeli-Palestinian peace was impossible because Palestinian divisions made reaching any agreement impossible. For years the sharp divisions between the two main Palestinian groups – which went so far as warfare and led to a separate Hamas government in Gaza – have allowed Israel to rightly claim it did not have one Palestinian government with which to negotiate.

So much for the good news.

Hamas as partner in government

The bad news starts at the fact that, if the accord holds and the two factions do indeed form an interim government before eventual elections, the Palestinian government will include a partner – Hamas – that rejects the existence of Israel.

“If anything, this allows the Israelis to say with some authority and legitimacy that they cannot and will not engage in a peace process with a government that is partially headed by Hamas,” says Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.

The official White House reaction to news of the accord appeared to address that point.

"The United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace. Hamas, however, is a terrorist organization which targets civilians," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement. "To play a constructive role in achieving peace, any Palestinian government must accept the Quartet principles and renounce violence, abide by past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist."

The "Quartet" refers to the United Nations, Russia, the European Union, and the US.

A former State Department Middle East expert, Mr. Miller says a government in which Hamas holds major ministerial portfolios is hardly going to be one to encourage a conciliatory approach from the Israelis. “If it’s an accord that allows Hamas to shoot, as it were, and play politics at the same time, no Israeli government will respond by easing up,” he says. “It puts the US in a very difficult position to say the least.”

Israel condemns accord

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to condemn the reported accord, saying that it would doom the peace process if carried out.

“You can’t have peace with both Israel and Hamas,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement issued by his office and apparently directed at Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas. “Choose peace with Israel.”

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Yet as pithy a “sound bite” as that may be, says Mr. Levy, it ignores the new reality of a neighborhood that is under momentous change that can’t simply be dismissed. “It may be a great PR line, but it’s of no use to an America that has to engage with the real world,” he says.

Many regional analysts were quick to underscore the fact that the Fatah-Hamas accord was apparently negotiated with an Egypt in full political transition as the go-between. It is the same Egypt-in-political-transition that vows to honor its peace accord with Israel, even as it decides to reestablish diplomatic relations with Tehran.

“Is America going to have frostier relations with a democratic Egypt because it doesn’t like all the choices it makes, in the same way that it already has frostier relations with a democratic Turkey?” Levy says. “If that’s the response, it bodes ill for America’s role in the region.”

A pro-Israel US Congress is not likely to simply accept a Palestinian unity government including Hamas as a reality in a changing region, however. In fact, the Wilson Center’s Miller says congressional reaction to a Hamas role is likely to be the “first practical problem” the Obama White House faces if the accord announced Wednesday holds.

Impact on US aid to Palestinians

“If Hamas formally participates in a [Palestinian] government, Congress will act on its own, and the administration will have a tough time responding,” he says. “Congress isn’t going be sending hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to Hamas.”

The Palestinians receive more than $450 million in financial assistance from the US, the largest single donor. But the US cut off the funding when Hamas was briefly part of a unity government, and most analysts believe the same would occur now – unless Hamas agreed to a set of conditions laid out by the international community including the US.

Those conditions include a full renouncing of violence as a means of accomplishing goals, and recognition of Israel’s right to exist.

But Miller says that if anything, the Palestinian accord suggests that not just Hamas but Fatah as well may be turning its back on an international process it has concluded did not deliver.

“This is one more step in a series now,” Miller says, “that suggests the Palestinians have decided to go unilateral.”

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