Give the people what they want: Palestinians take a step toward unity

By Menachem Klein


October 3rd, 2017

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With Russian involvement, American support, and Israel’s tacit agreement, the Palestinians are taking active steps toward national reconciliation.

While all eyes were on the horrific massacre in Las Vegas on Monday, an interesting development took place in the Gaza, whose magnitude goes beyond reconciliation between the rival Fatah and Hamas factions.

As opposed to previous attempts at national reconciliation, this time the Russians are involved. A Russian representative is taking part in reconciliation talks in Gaza. Not long ago, a Hamas delegation visited Moscow, and it is likely that what we are currently seeing was spoken about in Russia’s capital. Both Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have a long-term relationship with Russia, whose involvement in reconciliation should be seen as part of its increased presence in the region. It turns out that Russia is involved not only in Syria, which it has viewed as a strategic ally since the days of the Cold War. Israel has no leverage in Russian politics, like it does in America; with a lack of American involvement in the region, Israel won’t be able to take advantage of the competition between the powers.

Israel tacitly agreed to the reconciliation efforts, certainly in its first stages, and allowed a Palestinian delegation to travel through its territory on its way to Gaza. One can assume that the reason is the dire humanitarian condition in Gaza, which Israel is prominently responsible for. Israel worries that the harsh reality in Gaza will bring about a violent conflagration. One can imagine tens of thousands of Palestinians marching to the border with Israel, or crawling out of a tunnel dug from Gaza into Israel with signs reading “Bread — work.” The Israeli government has rejected proposals to relieve the situation in the Strip through projects that Hamas can take credit for, such as building a major seaport under international oversight. Israel has long ago learned that the price of re-occupying Gaza will be too high, and that Abbas will never agree to come riding in on an IDF tank. Israel has no choice — it must agree to allow Abbas into Gaza as part of national reconciliation efforts.

The U.S. is also among the supporters. Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East advisor, published a message of support for a national unity government, writing that it will ease the dire situation in the Strip. He also repeated the Quartet’s conditions, laid out a decade ago: every Palestinian government will have to refrain from using violence against Israel, to recognize it, to accept the Oslo Accords, and to put an end to the conflict through peace talks. It is likely that the message was published in conjunction with Israel. We will have to wait and see which conditions, published following Hamas’ election victory in 2006, the Quartet will stand by, and how it will be able to cut corners and match them to 2017.

Abbas changes positionsIn the past, Abbas was willing to consider signing a final-status agreement with Israel, which would be first implemented in the West Bank with Fatah, and afterward would be expanded to Gaza and Hamas. On Monday, in an interview with Egyptian television, Abbas said that elections to PA institutions were part of reconciliation, and will take place after a unity government is formed and takes effective action. Elections to these institutions will shift discussions away from a final-status agreement to political and human rights. Elections would be the kind of game changer the Palestinians need in order to propel their political system. Abbas understands as much. Abbas previously announced that he would not run in the next elections. Now he is saying that he doesn’t want to run, but if the people want him to he will answer their call. His personal rivalry with Mohammad Dahlan is reenergizing the ill and elderly president.

Thirdly, Abbas announced on Monday that a Palestinian state is not likely anytime soon. He recognizes that the current Israeli government is no partner for an agreement and the establishment of a Palestinian state. He is waiting for an American decision, yet seems skeptical of the willingness and ability of the Trump administration to push Israel toward a final-status agreement that is acceptable to the Palestinians. One must move toward it step by step. Abbas carried out this policy in the past when he turned directly to international institutions to accept the State of Palestine as a member. He reiterated the need to gradually move toward a Palestinian state. It is possible that he hinted about his willingness to talk about an interim agreement. It is interesting to note that Abbas has adopted the Quranic motto “Allah is with the patient,” which was used by Hamas at the end of the ’90s in order to try and imbue the Palestinian public with hope that Israel would, one day, be vanquished through armed struggle. Now Abbas is deploying this motto for the purpose of gradually building Palestine through political means, including a national reconciliation deal with Hamas.

Give the people what they wantAbbas insists that Hamas is an Islamist movement, although Egypt would not have changed its position vis-a-vis Hamas had it not disavowed its links to the Muslim Brotherhood and rebranded itself. Egypt’s involvement in promoting reconciliation is completely acceptable to Abbas, who needs the support of a strong Arab country. After all, he cannot prevent Egypt from supporting Dahlan. All he can do is run against his rival and hope to unite Fatah behind him.

Egypt and Hamas need each other in order to fight ISIS-linked groups in the Sinai Peninsula, and Egypt wants to make clear to Israel that it is not solely dependent on the Jewish state in its struggle against Islamist extremists. Egypt’s active involvement positions it squarely between the Palestinians, Israel, the U.S., Russia, Iran, and the Qatar-Turkey axis. Egypt will have a key position in formulating the reconciliation deal and putting pressure on Israel should it torpedo it.

Hamas is not undergoing a process of depoliticization. As opposed to what Israeli commentators claim, transferring civil responsibilities to a unity government does not mean Hamas has admitted its political mission has failed and will go back to being an armed resistance organization. On the contrary, national reconciliation is part of Hamas’ further politicization. The warm welcome that greeted the Ramallah delegation in Gaza reflects how reserved Gazans are about the paralyzing split between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas was always attentive to its public — that it agreed to take steps toward reconciliation stems from the fact that it understands what its public wants.

Menachem Klein is a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University. He was an advisor to the Israeli negotiating team during the 2000 peace talks, and is one of he leading members of the Geneva Initiative. His book, Lives in Common: Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron, was selected by The New Republic as one of 2014’s ‘best books for understanding our complicated world.’ This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.