Peace Talks or Not, Both Abbas and Hamas Need the PA

Besides being a national asset, the Palestinian Authority is the pipeline for international aid.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Abbas, listening to Saeb Erekat, April 9, 2014.
Abbas, listening to Saeb Erekat, April 9, 2014.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“The reconciliation train will be setting out on its journey. This is a special national day. No one should back away, and everyone must do all they can to make sure the train reaches its destination.” Thus wrote Palestinian political analyst Dr. Mazen Safi about the reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas that began Tuesday in Gaza.

Around 80 kilometers from the reconciliation conference, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, issued a warning − or a threat − about possibly giving Israel the keys to the PA and letting it take responsibility for daily life in the West Bank. One could read about that in the sharp article by Nabil Amr, a former adviser to Abbas who became his bitter rival. In the piece, Amr ridicules the idea of dismantling the PA.

“The PA is a national achievement ... It cannot be regarded as a rented house in which disputes between the renter and the landlord lead to giving the keys back to the landlord and finding a new place.” This is also the position of chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who on Tuesday dismissed the notion of dismantling the PA.

The Palestinian Authority, which was established under the Oslo Accords and approved by the PLO Central Committee, is indeed a national asset and the Palestinians’ representative body in the international arena. This entity is also authorized to receive foreign aid and tax payments, and the formal framework with which Israel cooperates in the realms of security and civil affairs. Its dissolution would require the approval of Central Committee, which will decide this Saturday on the future of the peace negotiations, including the terms of extending the negotiations, as well as on elections for the Palestinian legislative council and the presidency. Therein lies the relationship and dependence, at least formally, between the reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas, and Abbas’ decision on continuing the process and the future of the PA.

At first glance it might seem that Abbas’ terms for continuing the talks − a total cessation of building in the settlements (including East Jerusalem) and devoting the next three months to a discussion on borders − are aimed at trying to torpedo the negotiations. So, at least, claims Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But these are not new conditions. The United States is also demanding a halt to settlement construction, while the order of the discussion is indeed a procedural matter but also comes to clarify Abbas’ objection to Israel’s demand to discuss all the core issues at once. The parties can continue to negotiate while eventually folding an agreement on borders into an overall agreement.

But Abbas’ very willingness to continue negotiating indicates that he intends to continue heading the PA and not bring about its dissolution, which is also the principle on which the reconciliation depends. Hamas is not demanding that the PA be dismantled as a condition for reconciliation, since the PA is the body that can continue to negotiate with Israel, even if there are changes in the PLO’s structure and Hamas and the Islamic Jihad become members.

Hamas is also interested in seeing the PA continue because that’s the pipeline for receiving aid from the West, particularly from the U.S., which has made it clear it strongly opposes breaking up the PA. While American or European funding could in theory be replaced by money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, if Abbas wants to promote full international recognition of the Palestinian state he will need Western support. That’s another reason that Abbas can’t really be interested in dismantling the PA.

The paradox is that if true reconciliation comes about and Hamas joins the PLO, with which Israel signed the Oslo Accords, Israel can argue that it rejects any dealings with the PA if Hamas is a member, so long as that group continues to support an armed struggle and rejects the principles of the Quartet, which are recognition of the State of Israel, abiding by previous diplomatic agreements and renouncing violence.

Thus, this reconciliation could allow Abbas to be blamed for sabotaging the diplomatic process and Israel could wash its hands of the matter. What’s more, a substantive clause in the reconciliation agreement is the establishment of a unity government even before new elections are held. Back in 2006 Israel refused to cooperate with a Palestinian unity government, and even now it’s hard to envision that it will agree to such cooperation. Without it, it’s hard to see how the PA can continue to function, whether talks continue or not.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in Cairo, April 9, 2014.Credit: Reuters

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