Palestinian Reconciliation Is a Cause for Cautious Optimism

If Hamas does make the historic move of accepting Israel’s existence, chances for Israel-Palestine peace will increase dramatically, writes Carlo Strenger.

Historians will search for the real reasons why Fatah and Hamas finally signed a reconciliation treaty. At this point we can only speculate. My hunch is that Hamas has realized that they were on the wrong track. Fatah has many tangible successes: the West Bank economy has been growing at 9 percent per year; but most of all, Mahmoud Abbas and Salaam Fayyad are marching towards a major diplomatic victory: they are likely to gain United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.

Conversely, Hamas has brought only suffering to its constituency in Gaza, and can’t show any promise for its hard-line policies. In addition, the current Egyptian government seems to have been far more adamant in promoting reconciliation than the deposed Hosni Mubarak.

Fatah, Hamas

Israel’s position so far has always been that Hamas cannot be part of any future peace process or peace deal. This is a remarkably shortsighted view: Hamas is part of the fabric of Palestinian society. To expect it to disappear is utterly unrealistic.

It is also unrealistic to believe that any peace agreement can be reached without including Hamas one way or another. Research shows that all successful peace processes at some point included the radical parties that had previously rejected any compromise. The classic example is, of course, the case of Northern Ireland. The IRA went through a gradual transformation from an organization committed to terror to a legitimate political party that was a central player in the subsequent peace agreement.

There have been indications that Hamas may be readier for an analogous change than their public statements show. Khaled Meshal has reportedly not excluded peace (rather than just a long-term truce) with Israel as a possibility.

Of course the rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas raises serious questions. Have Abbas and Fayyad used their current position of strength to force Hamas to cross their Rubicon: to recognize Israel’s right to exist and to renounce terrorism?

It is to be hoped that Fatah has clear indications for such a change. Abbas and Fayyad surely are aware that if Hamas does not change its official policy in the near future, Fatah may jeopardize their greatest achievement so far: the looming UN recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. The international community is unlikely to grant such recognition if Hamas does not change its basic stance of rejecting Israel’s right to exist and forgo armed struggle.

If Hamas does make the historic move of accepting Israel’s existence, chances for Israel-Palestine peace will increase dramatically. Israel’s citizens have been wary of any peace deal for the simple reason that if Hamas does not see such an agreement as binding, Israel’s security will be severely compromised. Hamas might win again win Palestinian elections, and then Israel would be open to rocket attacks not only from Gaza but also from the West Bank. Hence, Israelis conclude, there is simply no use in a peace deal. An official change of policy by Hamas would dramatically change this constellation.

What about the Israeli side? I wish I could believe the reports that Netanyahu is about to make a grand and daring move in his planned speech to the U.S. congress; I wish I could believe that he is indeed about to offer the Palestinians statehood including East Jerusalem as their capital. If Netanyahu does do so, I will gladly retract many of the things I have written about his weakness of character; his inability to rise above small-time coalition maintenance and to see the grand historical picture.

So far, Netanyahu’s reaction has been quite predictable: he has lambasted the Fatah-Hamas rapprochement, and warned Fatah that the deal with Hamas will end the Israel-Palestine peace process. Since there is no such process anyway, I doubt that Fatah will take Netanyahu’s threat seriously, as it has nothing to lose. Netanyahu’s endless foot-dragging and bickering about settlements has only given the advantage to the Palestinians, whose credibility on the international scene has risen compared to that of the Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman troika.

The Palestinians' fate is now in their own hands. If Abbas' gamble on reconciliation leads Hamas to modify its position, international recognition of a Palestinian state is likely to go ahead. This might further encourage Palestinians to stick to their moderate policies of the last few years, as they will now have a clear political horizon.

All this is happening within the context of the political earthquake shaking the Arab world. The crucial question is whether Egypt will end up with a more democratic regime. If so, this will also be reason for Israelis to believe that the Middle East is on the verge of historical transformation.

It is to be hoped that under these conditions Israelis will feel that it is time for us to bet on peace as well, and elect a government capable of seizing the day rather than living in the past.