Just as Hamas and Fatah might save face with their constituents, Netanyahu too might find an opportunity to benefit from Palestinian reconciliation.
The two rival political factions, Hamas and Fatah, have ushered in what could be a new era for the Palestinians. On Thursday October 12, 2017, they signed the first protocol of the fifth reconciliation agreement in Cairo. Following ten years of political and geographic division, there is cause for limited Palestinian optimism, even though many questions are still unanswered.
There is no shortage of analyses on why this round of reconciliation is different from its predecessors. Some suggest that the new factor is Hamas’ difficult position in the face of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and its failure to govern. Others point to the rapidly changing regional order. These factors have propelled Hamas and Fatah closer to unity, if only to save face as their popularity declines precipitously.
Differences over security arrangements and Hamas’ political program, both central Israeli concerns, often contributed to the failure of previous reconciliation attempts. For the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA), these matters featured prominently in previous attempts because they are crucial to securing its domestic and international legitimacy. Thus, PA president Mahmoud Abbas has insisted that “one State, one government, and one gun” are the only acceptable parameters for reconciliation. Similarly, Hamas risks losing its legitimacy as a popular resistance movement if it cedes too much control of its arms or long held political positions.
This time around, Hamas and Fatah leaders have opted to frame the reconciliation around Gaza’s most immediate needs: economic recovery and mobility through enabling the Palestinian Authority (PA) to assume its role in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian sentiment was clear shortly before the reconciliation talks began in Cairo.
An overwhelming 80 percent of Gazans said PA president Mahmoud Abbas should resign, according to the latest poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR). Meanwhile, Hamas’ popularity has been declining in recent months, though at a much slower rate than Abbas’, according to the poll. “It is plainly clear that Gazans are directing their greatest anger at Abbas and Fatah, rather than Hamas,” said the PCPSR.
These indicators of unpopularity and anger were not lost on Hamas and Fatah leaders. This is especially the case given the PA’s imposition of punitive measures on Gaza, as well as Hamas’ inability to deliver alternative solutions to the crisis that emerged as a result of these measures. Specifically, the measures in question are halting payments for Gaza’s electric supply and cutting the salaries of nearly 55,000 PA public sector employees.
Nonetheless, it is possible that these sentiments will substantially shift should Hamas and Fatah achieve reconciliation. But, given previous failures, caution is in order. The Palestinian Authority has yet to completely reverse the punitive measures it put in place.
The X FACTOR
In addition to domestic and regional dynamics, another crucial factor is the Israeli position. Predictably, Israel initially blasted the reconciliation talks. “We’re not interested in fake reconciliation in which Palestinian parties reconcile with each other at the expense of our existence,” said Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Similarly, during the 2011 Palestinian reconciliation talks, Netanyahu threatened that “if Hamas joins the Palestinian government we will not hold negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.”
However, shortly after Hamas and Fatah signed the agreement on Thursday, Netanyahu’s office issued another statement: “Any reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas must meet the Quartet’s conditions – accepting international agreements, recognizing Israel and disarming Hamas.”
While these conditions have not been the subject of talks between Hamas and Fatah, the sudden Israeli shift in tone and language is telling. Two reasons warrant Netanyahu’s restrained response. First, Netanyahu cannot ignore the regional and international support for Palestinian reconciliation. Since Netanyahu’s close ally, Egyptian president Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, is brokering the effort, under the watchful eye of another intimate ally, the Trump administration, Netanyahu does not have the luxury of issuing rejectionist statements.
Secondly, Netanyahu has been subject to criticism from his coalition government and far beyond in light of a broad ranging corruption investigation. Just last month, former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who resigned from Netanyau’s government in 2016, said that “from a public standpoint, Netanyahu has to resign today and immediately.” According to reports, Yaalon has pledged to challenge Netanyahu in the next election. “The time has come for Israelis to be led by a prime minister who has not been investigated for anything,” he added.
Just as Hamas and Fatah might save face with their constituents, Netanyahu too might find an opportunity to benefit from Palestinian reconciliation, specifically, with regard to facilitating the release of the remains of two soldiers killed during Operation Protective Edge, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, as well as captives Hisham al-Sayed and Abera Mengistu. Indeed, given the rapprochement between Hamas and Egypt, Netanyahu could rely on the mediation of Egyptian authorities to facilitate a prisoner exchange, as they did in 2011 in the case of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
If Netanyahu’s track record is any indication, this sort of calculation would not be surprising. It would, however, be costly in the long run. According to several reports over the past three years, Hamas has insisted that releasing the captives it holds will require a substantial prisoner exchange. This move will not go over well with the Israeli public. Equally important, the Israeli re-arrest of many Palestinians whom it released when Hamas freed Shalit in 2011 does not inspire confidence in Israel’s reliability regarding future exchanges.
The rapid pace of developments might produce a favorable outcome in the immediate future for all parties involved, a rare event in Palestinian-Israeli affairs. However, the prospect of reconciliation based on shared governance and democratic election in the long run is likely to be much more tumultuous. Hamas has already repeatedly stated that it will not compromise on the issue of control of its armed wing and its weapons. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority will likely have to confront its European and American donors over adding tens of thousands of Hamas security and public-sector employees to its payroll.
But, for the moment, ordinary Gazans can breathe a cautious sigh of relief.