Palestinian reconciliation and negotiations

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Even before news of a new reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas broke, US efforts to extend the deadline for bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) looked to be on shaky ground. Few expected a smooth transition; but nor did they expect talks to collapse so quickly, revealing just how little progress was made over the last nine months.

Now that their nine-month deadline has expired, are the negotiations dead? In truth, they were dead before they even started. This is not to say that the US may not succeed in getting both parties back to the negotiating table over the coming weeks. Even if it can revive current negotiations, however, this will not solve the more fundamental problem of their failure to produce a lasting agreement over the last two decades.

Particularly damaging has been the failure of US diplomacy to address the imbalance of power between Palestinians and Israelis. Like clockwork, successive US administrations have committed the same mistakes for which their predecessors were criticised: adopting Israeli red lines as the starting point for US mediation, while pressuring Palestinians to make further concessions to accommodate continued Israeli settlement construction, which Washington has shown itself impotent to stop. Over time, these concessions have inched ever closer to precluding the very possibility of establishing a sovereign Palestinian state (a charge recently levelled by some against US Secretary John Kerry’s proposed framework for continuing negotiations).

For its part, Europe needs to be more discerning in its support for negotiations. Counterintuitive as it may sound to European ears, the takeaway lesson from the last nine months is that negotiations are not always the best option all of the time. Under certain circumstances, they can do more harm than good, particularly when they stand little to no chance of success. This is arguably what we are witnessing today, as both sides threaten to escalate tensions should negotiations fail.

What then of the latest reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas? Welcomed by Palestinians as ending seven debilitating years of national disunity, and denounced by Israel as spelling the end of negotiations, does Palestinian reconciliation do either, and will it last? Can it bring about positive change?

The deal reached between the rival Palestinian factions allows for the formation of a technocratic government of national consensus – essentially a government whose members have no direct political affiliations, as distinct from a national unity government made up of both Fatah and Hamas officials – whose principal task will be to prepare for new Palestinian Authority (PA) elections to be held within the next six months. New elections for the Palestinian National Council (PNC) of the PLO, as well as discussions over Hamas’ inclusion in the PLO – both potentially far more significant – are also included in the agreement.

Such arrangements are intended to avoid a repeat of the international boycott that followed Hamas’ election victory in 2006 by ensuring that aid does not reach Hamas. The boycott itself has had little positive effect, instead helping to precipitate the split between Fatah and Hamas and the establishment of two rival authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip respectively, both of which set about instituting increasingly authoritarian forms of rule with little regard for basic civil and political rights.

Reconciliation offers a way to roll back some of these developments. It offers international interlocutors an opportunity to engage with Hamas, even if indirectly, and should add momentum to international calls for Israel to end its crippling siege over the Gaza Strip (though this should happen with or without reconciliation). And it also has the potential to set the stage for a rethink of negotiations. In particular, it is hard to see how a two-state agreement would have any chance of success in the absence of Palestinian unity, or how a divided Palestinian leadership could ever negotiate a comprehensive peace deal with Israel, let alone oversee its implementation on the ground.

Is it a reason to suspend negotiations? No, given that it is the PLO conducting negotiations with Israel, not the PA. Will the reconciliation agreement last? This is a harder question to answer, not least because promises of reconciliation have been made in the past. More to the point, this is not reconciliation in any substantive sense of the word, where political differences are reconciled against an agreed set of national goals and strategies. Its foundations are instead procedural, resting on the temporary suspension of politics as the condition for forming a new consensus government.

Indeed, right up until its announcement, reconciliation with Hamas looked the less likely of several options floated by PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas should negotiations fail, including a return to the United Nations, the dismantlement of the PA, as well as Abbas’ own exit from politics (essentially by staging new PA elections while not running for president). The UN clearly remains Abbas’ preferred option – something he has used in the past as much to counter political gains made by Hamas as to gain leverage over Israel and the US.

More than any internal drive for reconciliation, external factors have largely brought both factions together. Isolated and weakened and reeling from the closure of Gaza’s tunnel economy along the Rafah border crossing, reconciliation promises Hamas some measure of reprieve. Aware that elections scheduled to take place in Egypt look unlikely to make its life any easier, the movement is desperate to improve its relations with Cairo. Keen to rule out any possibility of Gaza providing shelter to the Muslim Brotherhood, and eager to regain control in the Sinai, support for Palestinian reconciliation on the part of the military-backed government in Egypt is likely to be premised on Hamas severing all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, and its hope that the return of the PA to Gaza will allow for renewed co-operation to facilitate/control movement across the Rafah border (reducing the incentive to build tunnels).

For Abbas, the reasons for reconciliation are less compelling given the comparative advantage he currently enjoys over Hamas by virtue of his close alliance with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Faced with the prospect of yet another round of failed negotiations, however, reconciliation should strengthen his hand when dealing with the US and Israel, as well as boost his popularity back home. Beyond this, however, there is little evidence of genuine soul searching or political reform on the part of either faction.

The shallower its roots, the more easily any reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas can be upended. There will be no shortage of counterveiling forces keen to see it fail. The PA remains particularly vulnerable to US and Israeli pressure given its inability to function independently. A question mark also remains over how long support for Palestinian reconciliation will last, or how deep it really runs, among Abbas’ key regional allies given their ongoing clampdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. Arguably, elections for the PNC and reform of the PLO should be the starting point of reconciliation, rather than its end goal (though the former is a logistical impossibility, while talk of the latter has long been just that, talk).

The worst case scenario would be for Abbas to use Palestinian reconciliation much in the same way that he has used the UN, namely as a tactic intended to leverage additional pressure against the US and Israel within the context of negotiations. Used in this way, reconciliation would allow Abbas to impose something of his own timeframe – five weeks for Israel and the US to respond before a government of national consensus is formed and six months to conclude an agreement before new PA elections are held. As a tactic, however, it is likely to backfire, primarily by failing to tackle the structural asymmetry that has long plagued the peace process. 

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