Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s festive declaration that the era of intra-Palestinian division was over, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ approval of the understandings reached between Hamas and Fatah are just the beginning of the implementation of the reconciliation agreements that were signed in May 2011 and ratified in 2012.
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It is, first of all, a declaration of intent, meant to make clear to the Israeli and American governments that they can no longer relate to the two parts of Palestine as separate entities. Whoever wants a peace agreement with the Palestinian people and seeks an end to the historic conflict can no longer ignore Hamas and the other radical groups, and will have to address the unified administration as the Palestinians’ agreed-upon representatives.
If only two days ago the United States was threatening to withhold aid if Abbas dismantled the PA, this agreement clarifies that while dissolving the PA is no longer on the agenda, from now on it will be a different PA.
The road to establishing this new authority, however, is still long and strewn with mines. The decision in principle that Abbas would be the representative prime minister, with two deputies who will be responsible for operating a government of “technocrats,” does not resolve the questions of the personal composition of the government, of disarming Hamas of its weapons and the subordination of its armed forces to a unified military leadership, of how aid budgets will be distributed so as to allow Hamas to continue to fund its institutions (as opposed to those government offices for which it will be responsible), and the method of preparing for new elections tentatively scheduled for the end of the year or early next year.
Past experience, starting from the 2006 election which Hamas won decisively, shows that these practical questions are what constantly tripped reconciliation efforts, even before the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007 and even after reconciliation agreements were signed in Cairo and Doha. The disputes that will be raised by these questions could impede reconciliation this time as well, but the political and diplomatic circumstances in which both the PA and Hamas now find themselves are different than those that prevailed in the past and may foster a better result this time around.
Hamas’ economic and political distress, its empty coffers, Egypt’s blockade of Gaza, weakening ties with Iran and the pressure inside Gaza led to Hamas making a major concession that facilitated the reconciliation talks. Hamas’ political chief Khaled Meshal agreed to first discuss establishing a joint government before elections were held and before all the clauses of the reconciliation agreement were implemented.
Moving from a position that demanded the entire agreement as a package to a position of accepting an interim government and only afterward elections, leaves Abbas in charge at least until the end of 2014 − the same time the negotiations with Israel are meant to end, if there’s an agreement to extend them. And if the reconciliation agreements are implemented, Abbas will also be remembered as the one who “fixed” the historic failure of letting Gaza slip from under the control of the agreed-on Palestinian leadership to control by Hamas, which is not part of the PLO. Therefore, even if he does not succeed in achieving a peace agreement with Israel, at least he will be credited for uniting the Palestinian people.
On the practical level, Abbas will have to deal with the expected Israeli reaction to the unification. Although he has said that reconciliation does not contradict a continuation of peace talks, Israel doesn’t see it that way; on the contrary, Israel may see this step as a game-changer and even as a unilateral voiding of the Oslo Accords that the PLO signed.
This is not a solely an Israeli dilemma. The United States will also have to reassess its position given the anticipated partnership with Hamas, which does not recognize the State of Israel. Will Washington agree to cooperate with a Palestinian government that includes representatives of a terror group, or will it see the new Palestinian government as a government of technocrats that doesn’t represent any ideology?
It’s worth noting that the U.S. cooperates with the Lebanese government even though Hezbollah is a member, and it also supports reconciliation between the Afghan government and the “moderate” factions of the Taliban. The American government is even assisting radical Islamist groups in Syria that are not affiliated with Al-Qaida.