Why Israel and Obama should welcome Hamas-Fatah reconciliation

The Arab Spring has inspired young Palestinians to protest for an elected, unified government. Hamas has agreed – a hint that its moderates may be gaining influence. Don't dismiss the pact too quickly.

The Arab Spring for freedom that first bloomed in Tunisia last December just keeps unfolding. And each new blossom in the Middle East and North Africa raises this difficult question:

What will Arabs demanding liberty eventually do with the liberty-denying Islamists in their countries?

In postrevolution Egypt, for example, leaders are trying to work with any democracy-loving member of the Muslim Brotherhood they can trust. Both Libya’s anti-Qaddafi rebels and Syria’s street demonstrators are sorting out the jihadists in their midst. In Yemen, pro-freedom protesters are keeping the local Al Qaeda group at arm’s length.

But then there is Hamas.

The extremist Palestinian Muslim group has ruled the tiny Gaza Strip with an iron fist since 2007. It still often rains rockets down on Israeli civilians, earning it a US label as a terrorist group. But in the past two months, Hamas’s world has become very unsettled.

Egypt, which allows the only border access for Gazans, has clearly chosen democracy. Syria, which supports Hamas by providing exile to some leaders, appears on the verge of revolution.

Most of all, both Hamas and its rival group in control of the West Bank, Fatah, have recently felt the heat from young Palestinians inspired by the Arab Spring.

In protests in March, tens of thousands of young people in both Palestinian territories demanded a democratic government that can unite the West Bank and Gaza. Police in Gaza used violence to suppress the protests. In the West Bank, the demonstrations were directed at Mahmoud Abbas, the head of Fatah, who is also the Palestinian Authority president.

This public pressure helps explain the surprise deal reached Wednesday by Hamas and Fatah. The tentative reconciliation pact, brokered by Egypt and scheduled to be formally signed May 4, aims to set up an interim government of independent technocrats that would hold presidential and parliamentary elections by the end of the year.

If the accord holds – and that’s a big if, given the failure of two similar deals since 2007 – it might allow Palestinians to again speak as one.

That’s important to solve one of the region’s most intractable problems. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only a drag on the Middle East but, as Gen. David Petraeus warned last year, “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples.”

Mr. Abbas appears to have given up on President Obama’s ability to mediate a peace deal. Instead, he now plans to ask the United Nations General Assembly in September to grant international recognition of a Palestinian state. But his goal almost requires Palestinian unity, even if tenuous.

But for Abbas, an alliance with a Hamas that still doesn’t renounce violence and doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist would probably result in the United States cutting off millions in foreign aid and retaliatory moves by Israel.

His only hope is that the moderates within Hamas – sensitive to young Palestinians yearning for unity, freedom, and jobs – gain the upper hand against hard-line extremists. Otherwise, Palestinian unity will be elusive.

Israel and Mr. Obama need to be open to such a possibility rather than dismiss this Hamas-Fatah alliance, as they already have.

Obama has kept an open hand to Islamists in many conflicts, hoping to turn them away from anti-democratic jihadism. He’s not ruled out talks with Taliban factions in Afghanistan. He tried but failed to hold talks with Iran. And he’s still sorting out which detainees at Guantánamo should be tried and which can be rehabilitated.

In that sort of open-mindedness, he is not like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who prefers a divided Palestinian people in order to keep them weak.

Is Hamas capable of reform? The uprisings for democracy in the Middle East remain a powerful force against Islamists like the leaders of Hamas. And Hamas cannot really stand in the way of an independent Palestine being accepted by the United Nations.

Israel and the US, too, should see that the wave toward democracy in the Middle East is upsetting old assumptions. The Arab Spring was a surprise. Perhaps the next surprise is peace for Israel and a unified Palestinian people.

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