Wednesday’s joint announcement in Cairo by representatives of the Palestinian political factions Fatah and Hamas that they had reached a preliminary agreement on the contours of a unity government, with new elections to be held after a year, marks an important new chapter in the Palestinian peoples’ quest for statehood. It also presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the Obama administration that should be understood against the backdrop of the broader challenges and opportunities that have arisen as part of the Arab revolutions that have swept the Middle East over the past months.
Inspired by events in Egypt and Tunisia, thousands of young Palestinians demonstrated across the West Bank and Gaza on March 15 in support of unity between Fatah and Hamas. Polling by Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Survey and Policy Research reported overwhelming support (92 percent) among Palestinians for the reform efforts in Egypt and Tunisia, and majority support (51 percent) for ending the split between Fatah and Hamas.
While the announcement came unexpectedly, it’s not hard to understand why Fatah went for this deal. The group is facing a legitimacy crisis over its inability to achieve tangible progress toward Palestinian statehood and end the Israeli occupation. It is also gravely disappointed in the United States’ inability to change Israel’s calculus over the last two years. Fatah’s leaders have apparently decided, therefore, that they have more to gain by setting their own political house in order and moving away from a process controlled by the United States and thus dominated by Israeli concerns.
As for Hamas, the key question is why now? Hamas’s strategy thus far has been to sit back and watch Fatah fail, let the peace process crumble, and remain standing as the only viable Palestinian alternative. Going for this deal now indicates that they feel they have something to lose by continuing to stand aloof. The change to an Egyptian government less willing to rigidly enforce the United States and Israel’s red lines was also almost certainly a contributing factor.
Further, Hamas has seen its support among Gazans drop considerably. Shikaki’s polling shows “50% of Gazans are ready to participate in demonstrations to demand regime change in the Gaza Strip,” where Hamas rules, while only 24 percent of those polled in the Fatah-ruled West Bank said the same. It’s also likely that Hamas feels vulnerable with its key Arab ally and patron Bashar al-Assad facing serious unrest in Syria. The growing challenge to its rule in Gaza by even more extreme Salafist factions may have Hamas worried about its future.
Independent Palestinian activist Mustafa Barghouti told the BBC:
I think both sides have realized that the alternative is horrible and both sides have realized that if they continue to talk about the old divisions and the old differing problems, they will only continue to lose their popularity with the Palestinian people and they will cause the Palestinians a lot of suffering, more suffering than before.
Barghouti also stressed that “the new government which will be formed will be formed from independents from both Fatah and Hamas, which means that both sides are also sacrificing something to have unity.”
The United States has not, to say the least, looked favorably on Hamas in the past. It has been listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department since 1993. It won a parliamentary majority in 2006, a result rejected by both the Israeli government and the Bush administration even though the latter had supported holding the elections. The short-lived Palestinian unity government under the Saudi-brokered Mecca Accord ended when Hamas fought Fatah in a brief but brutal civil war—with the Bush administration covertly arming Fatah’s cadres—in June 2007, leaving the former in control of the Gaza Strip and the latter in control of the West Bank.
In response to Hamas’s 2006 electoral victory, the U.S.-led Quartet—which also includes the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia—imposed, under heavy pressure from the Bush administration, three conditions on Hamas in order to rejoin the Palestinian government: Renounce terrorism, recognize Israel, and honor past agreements signed between Israelis and Palestinians. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor reiterated those conditions yesterday in response to the news of reconciliation.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for his part, was quick to reject the move. “The Palestinian Authority has to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement issued even before the Palestinians had officially announced the deal. “Peace with both of them is impossible, because Hamas aspires to destroy the state of Israel and says so openly.”
The United States should continue to condemn Hamas’s terrorist actions against Israeli civilians and its refusal to recognize Israel. But Hamas has also demonstrated that its internal divisions might open avenues for it to adapt and moderate its views. Hamas’s decision to participate in the 2006 elections was the result of pragmatic calculation based on a number of factors, among them Hamas leaders’ belief that they could credibly compete with Fatah in elections. A combination of Israeli measures—including a campaign of assassinations—had also successfully degraded Hamas’s capacity to carry out terrorist attacks. Both of these things bolstered the arguments of those within Hamas who argued it was time to relinquish terrorism, if conditionally, and embrace the political process.
We’ll never know whether or not this shift was conceived as purely tactical or could have resulted in a genuine change in Hamas’s approach. By simply rejecting the results of an election it had encouraged, the Bush administration chose not to take advantage of the opportunity created by Hamas effectively endorsing the Oslo Accords by participating in elections held under its auspices. The Obama administration should not repeat this mistake.
While the Obama administration still supports the Quartet conditions—and should of course continue to insist on an end to terrorism—it should also consider a wider range of options in light of the recent agreement. U.S. law currently allows aid to a Palestinian unity government whose ministers have individually pledged adherence to the Quartet conditions even if Hamas the party has not. Congress, however, is likely to resist sending any aid to a government that includes Hamas.
The Obama administration could make clear that it will not prevent Arab allies such as the Saudis and other Gulf countries from contributing funds to keep the Palestinian Authority government operating. Palestinian unity is essential for any genuine, lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and while the United States should be extremely cautious about engaging with Hamas, it should nonetheless explore the implications that this new unity agreement might have for the goal of two states for two peoples, Palestine and Israel. Given the role the conflict continues to play as a driver of resentment and violence in the region, it would be a tragic mistake to dismiss any possibility out of hand.
Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst and Director of Middle East Progress at American Progress.