Gaza Peace Talks: Hamas’ Dilemma

Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood continues on the diplomatic front with the opening of two sets of talks this week in Cairo. One set will have Egypt brokering discussions with Fatah and Hamas on the future of governance in the Gaza Strip, while the other will see Egyptian and Palestinian Authority (PA) representatives shuttling between Hamas and an Israeli delegation.

Although Egypt brokered the ceasefire deal between Hamas and Israel that ended 50 days of rockets flying out of Gaza and Israel, which devastated the tiny strip, it cannot have escaped Hamas’ notice that Egypt has an agenda of its own—and it is shared with just about every other party involved.

A sign of what Hamas will face was displayed this weekend, as UN Middle East envoy Robert Serry worked on achieving an agreement for 250-500 international observers to monitor reconstruction projects in Gaza. The purpose of the monitors would be to ensure that all materials brought into Gaza, and all the work done with them, is exclusively used to rebuild the homes, infrastructure and public buildings that were destroyed by Israel’s recent onslaught. The UN would be working with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to guarantee that outcome.

Hamas is facing the consequences of the unity deal it agreed to back in April. At that time, Hamas was losing popularity in Gaza, was seeing what support it had in the Arab world evaporating, and found itself unable to pay civic employees. But the events of the summer changed things, at least for the time being.

Now Hamas is riding a wave of popularity after facing Israeli bombardment again and coming out battered but not broken. Qatar, whose support remains dubious, acted more supportive during the fighting. And, Hamas thought, the ceasefire arrangement would get the understandably disgruntled and desperate workers see some kind of paycheck. With Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas having angered many Palestinians by wavering sharply between public condemnations of the Israeli onslaught and continued cooperation with Israeli security in the West Bank, Hamas had reason to reconsider the unity agreement.

But it accepted the agreement, which now seems like a trap. Abbas is insisting that the unity government be allowed to take over the administration of Gaza. Hamas is surely aware that in that event, the PA would have to embark on a campaign to control the violence in Gaza as it did with the West Bank. In other words, even without agreeing to disarm Gaza—an Israeli demand—the PA would, in fact, do just that. And, with no elections currently scheduled, Hamas could find itself completely marginalized.

This is, without a doubt, exactly what Egypt wants. Certainly the leadership knows that any attempt to disarm Hamas and the other armed factions in Gaza would be met with resistance. But Hamas, at least, is still substantially weakened after the battle with Israel. Egypt might reasonably expect that this fact will lead to a different outcome than the 2007 battle between Fatah and Hamas, which ended in a decisive Hamas victory. Moreover, Abbas has very little legitimacy in Gaza, but if he becomes the Palestinian face of reconstruction and of a marked improvement in the lives of the people there, it would be enough to slowly drain more support from Hamas.

It may well be that, if successful, Egypt would press Israel to end its blockade of Gaza and even allow the construction of an airport and seaport there. This would create a comparative economic boom in the beleaguered Gaza Strip and could keep things calm in the region for an extended period. For Israel, the downside would be increased diplomatic pressure to get back to serious negotiations about a two-state solution. That is exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feared when the Palestinians struck the unity accord, and the reason why he manipulated the murder of three young Israelis to lead to a much broader attack on Hamas.

But Netanyahu also knows that if there is one thing Israel excels at it’s negotiating endlessly with no results. He also knows that Israel’s behavior in Gaza angered many leaders around the world, particularly with the repeated attacks on UN facilities and the blatant targeting of civilians. Israel’s denials and claims of accidental actions have been greeted with skepticism at best, even in Washington (everywhere, that is, with the obvious exception of the halls of Congress). Israel’s position is not nearly as strong as Netanyahu thought it would be when the fighting stopped. Therefore, it may be that Netanyahu will accept the Palestinian unity government if it can marginalize Hamas.

Egypt certainly will work hard to convince Netanyahu to do so. Netanyahu reaps some benefits from having Hamas, which maintains some degree of control over Gaza but is a frightening specter to Israelis. Israel also enjoys having the Palestinian body politic split between Gaza and the West Bank.

But Egypt, under its new-old regime headed by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is quite keen to wipe out what they see as the last vestige of Muslim Brotherhood political power in the region. Egypt gets no benefit from the Palestinian split, and in fact would probably prefer to see the PA under Abbas assume control of Gaza to sideline Hamas. The hope would be that such a PA would work with Egypt to strangle ties between Gaza and militant groups in the Sinai, enabling some indirect assistance in that endeavor from Israel.

But most of all, Sisi wants to wipe out Hamas as a player in the region. That’s not necessarily what Israel wants. But even if the PA once again controls Gaza, and the strip and the West Bank become one territorial unit again, that is a far cry from the circumstances that would create real pressure on Israel to end its occupation.

The UN simply wants to rebuild Gaza, although it’s not very happy with Hamas either, after the group was caught using UN facilities to store weapons. Still, Robert Serry is likely inclined to focus on humanitarian relief rather than regional politics. But in order to do that, it needs to work to ensure that Hamas is not involved in that reconstruction.

Hamas knows all of this, but cannot simply refuse to go to these talks just because they’re in Cairo. Without these negotiations, international relief will not come into Gaza. Egypt has them in a difficult spot.

But Hamas also must be expected to abide by the unity agreement it signed. It knew this was part of it, and if circumstances have made that agreement less palatable, that is the risk it took. What it needs to do now is press for elections as soon as possible, under the terms of that same unity agreement.

By the time such elections could be held, some of the luster will have come off of Hamas’ steadfastness over the summer. And, if it does agree to allow the PA to take over Gaza again, it will also likely be abdicating its position as the leading revolutionary group among Palestinians. From that point on, other factions will be raising weapons against Israel and, quite likely, the PA as well.

Egypt certainly believes that this will eventually lead to Hamas’ disappearance. More sober minds in Israel probably fear that this will strengthen more radical groups in the Palestinian Territories, and they are probably correct.

But in the last analysis, the Palestinians must be unified. In that future, Gaza can be helped and the Palestinians can at least potentially have a representative leadership. The pitfalls are many, and the motives of the various players are dubious to say the least. But the alternatives are all far less likely to produce progress.

Netanyahu’s New Friends

In my latest piece for Souciant, I look at Benjamin Netanyahu’s ineffectual “threat” to cut off the negotiations to nowhere with the Palestinian Authority if they reunify with Hamas.

Bibi clearly wants a situation where the US will back an Israeli refusal to continue negotiations, and Hamas joining a unity government gives him that. But in the longer run, that strategy might well backfire and, ironically, offer the best hope we have left for a peaceful resolution that both sides can live with.

Text: The Palestinian Unity Agreement

I’ve pasted below the full text of what is, according to the Palestinian National Initiative (Mustafa Barghouti’s organization), the new Palestinian unity agreement. My thanks go to independent journalist Jared Malsin for alerting me to this translation, and to Ma’an News’reporter and English Editor George Hale for the list of signatory organizations.

Palestinians clearly want unity, but will this text bring it?

The translation is rough in some places, and there is a distinct lack of clarity in some areas, making me wonder if the former hasn’t led to some of the latter. But on the whole, this agreement doesn’t say much that hasn’t been reported already. I’ll just make a couple of points.

There is a good deal here about healing the rift that has developed between Gaza and the West Bank. It’s unclear how that can be accomplished while Israel lies between the two territories, and is not likely to be disposed to allowing passage between them. Elections could be a problem as well, although Israel did allow Hamas to campaign in 2005. Still, given that experience, it’s hard to count on such “largesse” again.

There are two passages that seem to be key, but are very vague in their wording.

Section 2 seems to indicate that Hamas is agreeing to allow the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to continue to be the representative of the Palestinian people in negotiations, primarily of course, with Israel. We should recall that, despite a blurring of the line between the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, the two are different, albeit overlapping, bodies, and the PLO is still the only recognized representative of the Palestinian people (so recognized by Israel, the US and the international community, and at one time by the Palestinian people. Whether this remains true for Palestinians is problematic at best). This is what allows Hamas to straddle the line between dealing with Israel and its refusal to recognize the “Zionist entity.” It would seem this reaffirms Hamas’ stated position of years past that they would abide by an agreement negotiated by Abbas is it was approved by a popular referendum. Continue reading

Palestinian Unity: Dividends and Discontents

The announcement today of a deal for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas certainly caused a great stir. It’s worth examining what it means.

Is This For Real?

That’s the first question to be asked and only the coming days will provide an answer, but the early indications are that it seems like this will finally happen. The announcement of the deal was met with no small amount of cynicism, as these agreements have been said to be coming about in the past, but have always evaporated over some dispute or other.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (left) and PA President Mahmoud Abbas

This has a different feel. Probably the biggest reason for that is the proposed vote in the UN in September on recognition of Palestinian statehood. The proposition is problematic, even for supportive countries, as long as the Palestinians themselves are split. Also, while Egypt has been the broker of these agreements in the past, this time the Mubarak regime, and particularly his aide Omar Suleiman, are not involved. The new faces may have had ideas that the former mediators would not have broached. Finally, the Arab Spring has unleashed a wave of democracy. Neither of the Palestinian factions want to wait until such a thing happens in their own territory. But more importantly, the increasing weight of Arab public opinion will be a boon to the Palestinian cause, both in new Arab regimes and in the current ones that survive. A unified Palestinian government will be in a much better position to take advantage of that.

The deal apparently will mean a sharing of power between Hamas and Fatah in the broader PA government, while getting around the question of control of security forces (which has been the main sticking point in previous attempts at an agreement) by keeping the status quo, where Hamas will control security in Gaza, Fatah in the West Bank. Ultimately the PA will be reconstituted by elections within a year.

If this does happen, it’s a game-changer. The changes are not entirely predictable; nothing ever is, especially in this conflict. But there is no doubt that it will mean changes for the Palestinian Authority and will present new dilemmas for Israel and the United States, as well as the larger Middle East and the international community in general. Continue reading

Israel and US Need to Support, Not Obstruct, Palestinian Unity

[This piece was originally published at the Meretz USA blog]

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear, as if it needed clarifying, that he is uninterested in finding peace with the Palestinians. He did this by issuing an ultimatum to Fatah and its leader, PA President Mahmoud Abbas: you can either reconcile with Hamas or make peace with Israel, not both.

More than once on my blog, I’ve been criticized by commenters for my view of Hamas. I see them as a reactionary religious-nationalist movement. They have no

Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas' Khaled Meshal share an uncomfortable handshake

compunction about attacking civilians, are appropriately called terrorists, have a poor human rights record in Gaza (a score on which anyone who has read my work will know I have been at least as critical of the Israeli occupation record as well as the PA), and are legitimately mistrusted.

But Hamas is, like it or not, also a part of the Palestinian body politic. In the early 1980s, when Israel tacitly permitted the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood to organize in the hope that it would provide a religious, but much less threatening, counterweight to the PLO, they surely did not have any idea what they were doing. Hamas grew out of that, and it is a regrettable development, in my view for both sides.

And, again like it or not, they control the Gaza Strip. All efforts to shake their rule there have failed, and if elections were held today among all Palestinians, all polls indicate they would have significant, albeit clearly minority, support. Put simply, the option of being able to reach a deal with the Palestinians without Hamas just does not exist.

And we can thank ourselves for that. In 2006, the United States insisted on Palestinian elections, and Hamas, as the main party in the List of Change and Reform, won the most seats, 74 of 132. Before the newly elected PA could form any sort of policy on anything, Israel and the Quartet (the US, EU, UN and Russian Federation) instituted a regime of economic sanctions on it. These actions reverberated around the Arab world, sending the message that America supports democracy as long as it produces outcomes we approve of. Continue reading