Hamas knows that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost big in the recent elections, but it also knows that whatever government emerges from coalition-building talks in Jerusalem is not going to be any more open to negotiating with the Palestinians.
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“The results of the Israeli election are a defeat for Netanyahu,” says Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s political adviser Yousuf Rizqa. "Not just any failure, but another failure in the series that started with Operation Pillar of Defense, continued with the defeat in the UN when Mahmoud Abbas succeeded in winning recognition for a Palestinian observer state and ended in a chilly relationship with Barack Obama."
In a zero-sum game, Netanyahu’s failure could be seen a win for Hamas. But Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri says it is a trap to think thata resurgent Israeli left could be a worthy negotiating partner. “The absence of the peace process from the Israeli elections is also evidence that the rest of the parties, center and left, all agree to the continued aggression against the Palestinians and the disregard of our national rights,” he said in an interview.
According to this view, the defeat of the right wing – if it was a defeat – does nothing to change the fact that there is not, nor can there ever be, a Zionist partner for negotiations.
Agreeing to disagree
The question of whether there is a partner for peace, which on the Israeli side distinguishes the political right and left, is also one of the major sticking points between Fatah and Hamas. While Palestinian Authority President Abbas has stuck to the position that talks with Israel are the only way to promote Palestinian interests and that the United States is capable of creating an Israeli partner, Hamas has viewed talks as groundless nonsense at best and collaboration with the enemy at worst. Last year, Abbas had to agree that not only was Netanyahu not a partner but also that the Israeli public could not produce an alternative partner through an election.
But unlike Hamas, Abbas sees nothing wrong in principle with holding talks with Israel – even with Netanyahu as prime minister – as long as they come with an acceptable proposal backed by U.S. guarantees. “We will cooperate with any Israeli government that adopts the principle of the two-state solution, stops construction in the settlements and accepts the UN resolutions from November on recognizing a Palestinian state as an observer state in the UN,” Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said last week.
Fatah and Hamas' disagreement over talks with Israel is also at the heart of their own reconciliation talks, which have been taking place at a varying pace since the two groups signed the Cairo agreement in November 2011. The most significant prior developments were Egypt's resumed attempt at mediation in 2009 and the Fatah and Hamas' signing of the failed Mecca agreement in early 2007. According to the agreements Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal and Abbas reached at the end of 2012, both sides are supposed to start talks to implement the reconciliation agreement at the end of January. But it looks like this will not actually happen before February at the earliest. The time table has more than a little to do with the ongoing coalition-building process in Israel, the outcome of which will determine what face Israel will show the Palestinians.
Parceling out power
Fatah and Hamas also disagree about the timing of Palestinian reconciliation. Abbas maintains that elections should be held in the West Bank and Gaza and then serve as the basis for parceling out positions and responsibilities among the participating groups. Hamas, on the other hand, demands that a unity government be established before elections, reforming the Palestinian Liberation Organization in a way that ensures its own status and creates an agreement on Palestinian security agencies.
Hamas fears that holding elections before creating a unity government would make it just another splinter group waiting to be allocated positions by Abbas, whereas negotiating an agreement first would allow it to guarantee its role in the government. It also fears that the election results could show that most of the Palestinian public prefers Abbas' political approach to Israel and the U.S. This would put it in the untenable position of either opposing negotiations, and appearing to oppose reconciliation with Fatah, or accepting them, and betraying its own ideology.
Elections are also a gamble for Abbas. If Palestinian voters turn out to prefer Hamas, any hope for talks with Israel would vanish, together with any chance for international cooperation with the Palestinian state. Then Abbas could either retire from his position without bearing responsibility for the collapse of Palestine or hand the territories over to Israel.
Hamas, well aware of this minefield, is trying to hold the stick at both ends. The group has publicly agreed to recognize Abbas as the prime minister of a future unity government, hinting that it will not oppose him continuing to work through diplomatic channels as long as any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is put to a referendum among the Palestinian people.
An Olympic task
This week, Meshal met in Qatar with Jibril Rajoub, who is officially the head of the Palestinian Olympic Committee but is actually Abbas’ special envoy. The details of the meeting were not made public, but according to Palestinian sources in Ramallah, Rajoub could be Abbas’s appointee in charge of implementing the security-cooperation part of the Palestinian reconciliation agreement.
Security cooperation will include merging the Palestinian security agencies and setting up a united headquarters shared by Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad personnel. The choice of Rajoub is no coincidence, and it is not only because of his past as head of the Preventive Security Service. Rajoub has good connections with several senior figures in Israel and is accepted as “one we can do business with.”
Fatah and Hamas' disagreement over negotiations with Israel and Palestinian elections have Palestinian reconciliation looking less than imminent. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are putting heavy pressure on both sides to reach a rapid reconciliation. Egypt, the patron and sponsor of the Cairo agreement, wants Hamas to become a legitimate political organization on the model of the Muslim Brotherhood so that it will be able to take Gaza off the list of threats to its security. As long as Hamas is an armed resistance movement, it, or its rivals in the Gaza Strip and Sinai, could ignite Gaza again, forcing a tough response from Israel that will compel Egypt to resume the unpleasant role of mediator.
As long as talks between Fatah and Hamas are taking place, Israel can play a significant role. That is, if it announces soon that it is willing to begin talks with Abbas on the basis of some of the fundamental principles he proposes. These include adopting, wholeheartedly and openly, the principle of the two-state solution and announcing that the subject of the settlements can be raised for debate. This would be a worthy start that would give Abbas a fast track to resuming the talks and put Hamas in a dilemma. It would also be a first political test for newly empowered Israeli politician Yair Lapid.