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First Steps Towards a Meaningful Palestinian Unity Government

Commentary, 18 March 2009
Middle East and North Africa
Following the Gaza crisis, pledges of aid for reconstruction are helping to strengthen the political will to create an effective Palestinian Unity Government. Although many challenges remain unresolved, some encouraging signs have emerged from the early stages of reconciliation talks.

Following the Gaza crisis, pledges of aid for reconstruction are helping to strengthen the political will to create an effective Palestinian Unity Government. Although many challenges remain unresolved, some encouraging signs have emerged from the early stages of reconciliation talks.

By Daniel Jeffery, International Security Studies Department, RUSI

18 March 2009: A strange thing happened in the Middle East last week. After a volley of rockets was fired at Israel from Gaza, Hamas – which is normally accused by Israel of perpetrating such activities – condemned the attack. Indeed, Hamas went further: it detained ten members of the group Islamic Jihad and forced them to sign a document that prohibited violent attacks against Israel. Is Hamas about to experience a radical change in its behaviour? Probably not, but the episode is an indication that the militant organisation is at least interested in exploring the opportunities of emerging from its current international diplomatic isolation, thus securing much-needed aid for the reconstruction of Gaza.

Hamas-Fatah Reconciliation

During her recent visit to the Middle East, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with Arab donors, offered a substantial aid package totalling around $4.5 billion designed to rebuild Gaza. The US offer carried the caveat that the aid must go through a Palestinian Unity Government that unequivocally recognises Israel’s right to exist and that it must denounce the use of violence. While Fatah has recognised Israel since 1988, Hamas are ideologically opposed to the very notion of an Israeli state. This obviously creates difficulties in any reconciliation talks and therefore access to the pledged aid. Despite the fact that Fatah have no direct control over Gaza, the securing of the aid is still of direct importance to them. This is principally because Mrs Clinton has stated that she would stop the vital funding and training that the US gives to the Palestinian Authority security forces.

There have been some encouraging signs of progress coming out of Cairo, where the reconciliation talks are taking place. For instance Hamas has indicated that it would relax the clause in its founding charter which calls for all Israeli lands to be handed back to the Palestinians. Instead, it could settle for the 1967 borders, as proposed in the Saudi sponsored 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. However, even with this slight shift and despite the rebuking of rival group Islamic Jihad, there is still no real immediate sign that Hamas will recognise Israel as a legitimate entity as it is still playing an awkward partner role in the reconciliation talks.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stated that in order for a Unity Government to be effective, Hamas must ‘abide’ by all previous and existing treaties and agreements with Israel. This suggestion was rejected by the Hamas elite, who instead proposed the use of the word ‘respect’. In Fatah’s eyes, this terminology fails to impose a strong enough legal obligation that prevents the breach of previous arrangements, and therefore does not satisfy the requirements set out by the US and Israel. Indeed it seems that Hamas are using the term ‘respect’ as the ambiguity allows it room to adhere to short-term agreements that benefit its cause without curtailing its chartered and ideological ‘duty’ to fight Israel.

With elections coming up in little less than a year, Hamas and Fatah need to make rational party political choices to address the concerns of voters. A recent poll of the Palestinian people stated that the most important issue to them was the creation of a working and recognised Unity Government so as to ensure political stability, the rebuilding of Gaza and a potentially workable relationship with Israel that could lead to a peace process. However, at the same time the poll stated that they would prefer to see Mr Haniyeh of Hamas as President over Mr Abbas, even though they believe that a Hamas victory in the legislative election would lead to further Israeli sanctions and the increasing of the ones already in existence. It is possible to interpret these mixed results as an expression of a people who recognise that they are worse off now than they were before the conflict, yet have lost faith in the established elite of Fatah. If this is true then it does not bode well for the future of the peace process due to the fact that it would be derailed if Hamas were to gain control of the Presidency as well as the legislature.

Given the short-term strategic outlook of Hamas and the results of the polls, Fatah has to devise a short-term strategy that feeds into their long-term agenda of peace with Israel. It must also attempt to consolidate and curtail the influence of Hamas. Fatah desperately needs the reconciliation plan to work so as to ensure they can re-gain a political foothold in Gaza which would be imperative for any successful Unity Government to be effective.

Opportunity Lost

For the Unity Government to become a truly viable option for Hamas and Fatah, they are going to need more than a promise of aid. Indeed, that option would require a firm promise that a Unity Government will be recognised by the international community as a whole. There are still bitter memories arising from the previous attempt to establish and maintain a Unity Government in 2006 which was not recognised by the US or EU due to its inclusion of Hamas, even though the group had been directly elected by the Palestinian people. This resulted in the effective economic and political embargoing of Palestine. At the time this was an opportunity lost as it isolated Hamas from the diplomatic and political process, which could have been used to bring pressure to bear on the organisation. Furthermore, when one considers the benefits of the Unity Government for Hamas in relation to the subsequent disbursement of aid and the corollary strategic domestic political benefits, it would seem that such a government would make Hamas a more palatable and willing international partner.

This time round though it looks as if there is a real possibility that Clinton’s demands could be met, as the Hamas reprimand of the Islamic Jihad rocket attacks are a step in the right direction with regard to forswearing terrorism. Even the semantic issue of whether Hamas will ‘abide by’ or ‘respect’ previous agreements with Israel may be resolved with enough pressure and time. This leaves one significant issue left on the table: the recognition of the state of Israel.

As this issue goes to the core of Hamas’ ‘being’ this is going to be the greatest stumbling block and one that may not be able to be resolved at this juncture. Even if this is the case, the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza and the Obama Peace Plan could be permanently jeopardised if Hamas is forced to run towards formally accepting Israel’s existence before it has decided to walk. This is not to say that pressure on Hamas to recognise Israel should be alleviated, but it should be measured and reactive to the changing bargaining position of the international community and Fatah as circumstances arise.

The agreement to recognise the 1967 borders do, for all intents and purposes, represent a step in the right direction as Hamas have stopped laying claim to the whole country and is starting to transfer its ideological ambitions into rational goals. This should encourage a positive response by the Quartet, even if this is not matched by the right-wing Netanyahu coalition. With the EU stating at the beginning of March that ‘process is more important than substance’, it would seem that this approach is being recognised. What is needed now is for that recognition to reach across the Atlantic and for Mrs Clinton to be persuaded of its merit. She has to ask herself whether or not pursuing an absolutist line is really a productive tactic given that only three months ago it was almost inconceivable that Hamas would denounce rocket attacks against Israel or entertain the very idea of Israel’s territorial borders. Clinton should remember that Rome was not built in a day when she comes to ask Hamas to abandon the very nature of its pernicious charter.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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