Why Israel may need to rethink its assumptions on Palestinian unity

Israel criticized Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for siding with a terrorist group instead of pursuing peace with Israel. But Mr. Abbas can’t enforce peace without unity.

Hatem Moussa/AP
Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (r.) and senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad meet in Gaza for talks aimed at reaching a reconciliation agreement between the two rival Palestinian groups, Hamas and Fatah, on April 22.

Seven years after the two main Palestinian political factions violently divorced, their leaders announced today a reconciliation deal that they say will pave the way for a new unity government and the first election in eight years.

Similar deals between Fatah and Hamas in 2011 and 2012 foundered over how the rivals would share power. But some say that this pact may represent more a serious commitment because both factions have been backed into a corner by popular discontent and outside pressures.

Israel certainly appears to be taking the deal seriously. Government officials criticized Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, casting his decision as a rejection of peace with Israel as the two sides try to extend talks beyond next week’s deadline.

"[Abbas] must decide if he wants to make peace, and if so, with whom. It is impossible to make peace with Israel as well as with Hamas, a terrorist organization advocating for Israel's destruction," said Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. "Signing an agreement of a Fatah-Hamas unity government is tantamount to [calling off] negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority."

Israel's approach rests on two assumptions: that Mr. Abbas, who is also leader of Fatah, could enforce a peace deal without reconciling with Hamas; and that Hamas would never give up its stated intention to destroy Israel. Both may need rethinking. 

Abbas, elected eight years ago, has consistently marketed himself as a committed peacemaker who will show Palestinians it is better to negotiate than resort to violence. But two rounds of negotiations later, the Israeli settler population in the West Bank has grown by more than 60,000 or 22 percent, and talks with Israel have failed to deliver a single meaningful benefit to Abbas's constituency. 

His legitimacy is wearing dangerously thin, and he lacks the leverage to convince Palestinians to make the sacrifices necessary for lasting peace. Hamas could sabotage any deal he reaches with Israel by sending rockets into Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv. 

Hamas, also known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, still adheres to its founding charter, which declares itself a link in the long chain of jihad against the “Zionist occupation.” It states that liberating Palestine is a religious obligation for every Muslim, and that giving up any part of Palestine would be tantamount to giving up their faith. 

But the organization has evolved considerably since its founding in 1987. Today it includes factions which are considerably more pragmatic. 

While some remain committed to violence, other factions have moderated, especially since winning elections in 2006 and finding themselves facing the challenge of governance, not just resistance. After two devastating conflicts with Israel in 2009 and 2012, Hamas has tried to keep a lid on other militant groups sending rockets into Israel.

And in 2009 and 2010, leaders indicated a willingness to settle for a Palestinian state within 1967 lines – only 22 percent of the territory framed by the Lebanon border, the Jordan river, the Egyptian border, and the Mediterranean Sea. 

Perhaps most instrumental in bringing Hamas to the table was Egypt's crackdown on the smuggling tunnels that have been Gaza's economic lifeline for a decade, leaving the Hamas government severely strapped for cash. In this context, Hamas may need Fatah more than Fatah needs Hamas. 

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