Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The latest Fatah-Hamas deal

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Update from AIJAC

May 1, 2014
Number 05/14 #01

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement agreed to a unity deal with Hamas, which rules Gaza, last week - an agreement which appeared to rule out an extension of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks whose scheduled end-date was Wednesday. This Update deals with the details, background, and implications of the deal, as well as the motivations of the players involved. 

First up is an excellent backgrounder by top Israeli journalist and author Ehud Yaari, writing together with Washington Institute for Near East Policy scholar Neri Zilber. Yaari and Zilber note that this new agreement is part of a framework of largely unimplemented Fatah-Hamas agreements over several years, and detail how this new deal fails to resolve key issues which prevented the previous agreements from coming to fruition. They stress that both sides benefit from the appearance of reconciliation but that considerable barriers remain to actual unity, and this looks like an effort by Abbas and Hamas to gain political leverage in various ways, rather than a serious effort to end their bitter dispute. For all the details of their analysis, CLICK HERE. Another good backgrounder on the agreement comes from BICOM.

Next up, veteran Palestinian Affairs journalist Khaled Abu Toameh looks in more detail at the motivations of Mahmoud Abbas for making this agreement. Abu Toameh says there is no sign of Hamas moderation and he sees Abbas' action primarily in terms of finding a new way to exert pressure on the US and Israeli government to meet Palestinian demands. He argues that Abbas perceives a US pattern of offering him a major new initiative whenever he makes a dramatic move, and the PA leader is now "waiting to see what the U.S. Administration will offer him in return for rescinding his plan to join forces with Hamas." For the rest of Abu Toameh's argument, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, left-leaning Israel author and columnist Ari Shavit argues Abbas' dramatic recent moves are actually no surprise as the Palestinian leader has in fact never shown any inclination to sign onto a compromise peace. 

Finally, David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel, takes on the myth that Fatah-Hamas unity would be good for Israel because it would mean Israel would have a united Palestinian leadership to talk to and reach a peace deal with. He says this would be true if Hamas was agreeing to meet long-standing international community demands to recognize Israel, to renounce terrorism and to respect previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, but there is absolutely no indication that they are doing so. He argues what is actually going on is that Abbas has been engaging in "willful weakness" - deliberately placing himself in a position where he cannot reach a compromise peace - this deal is the latest example of this, and it assists the extremists. For Horovitz's provocative analysis in full, CLICK HERE.

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The Hamas-Fatah Reconciliation Agreement: Too Early to Judge

Ehud Yaari and Neri Zilber

PolicyWatch 2243
April 24, 2014

Even as the deal offers short-term political benefits for both sides, it fails to resolve key issues separating them.

The April 23 Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement announced in the Gaza Strip is the latest in a long line of attempts to bridge the intra-Palestinian divide. The timing of the agreement amid U.S.-brokered peace talks, as well as both parties' internal weaknesses, points to more serious intent than past efforts. However, the deal fails to address the most sensitive issues separating the two sides and likely can be explained by the political boost it offers to both leaderships. The only certainty is that the reconciliation deal severely complicates efforts to extend Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations past their April 29 deadline.

Another "Historic" Agreement

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, in announcing the deal at a press conference from his home in the al-Shati refugee camp, proclaimed to loud applause that "this is good news for the Palestinian people and diaspora...the period of schism is over." Yet Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreements have been reached several times over the past nine years, with each one similarly hailed as a "historic" end to intra-Palestinian strife. The most prominent of these deals came in Mecca (2007), Cairo (2011), and Doha (2012), but all went unimplemented. As recently as May 2013, both parties publicly reaffirmed their commitment to abide by past agreements and to national unity generally. 

This latest agreement is a renewed effort at implementing the understandings reached at Cairo and Doha, the most important provisions of which reportedly include:

  • Creation of a national unity government. Such an entity, tasked with leading the Palestinian Authority (PA), would be formed by Fatah (along with other Palestine Liberation Organization factions) and Hamas within five weeks.
  • Resumption of Palestinian Legislative Council activities. The PLC, the parliament of the PA, was dissolved following the 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza, and its activities have been suspended ever since.
  • Elections. At least six months after the formation of a national unity government, elections would be held for the PA presidency, PLC, and Palestinian National Council (the parliament of the transnational PLO).
  • PLO changes. Discussions would continue about restructuring the PLO, with an eye to bringing in Hamas and potentially Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
  • "General freedoms." Discussions would continue about "general freedoms," a term used in the Doha declaration to include the release of Fatah and Hamas prisoners held by the opposite party, the return of Fatah-affiliated public employees -- including security personnel -- to Gaza, and the free travel of officials between the West Bank and Gaza. The first test of the deal is reported to be a visit to Gaza by PA president Mahmoud Abbas.

Major Issues Left Unaddressed

For all the planned moves toward closer Fatah-Hamas ties, even the announced text of this latest agreement does not seek to resolve the most sensitive issues separating the two sides. Indeed, the agreement stipulates that the reconciliation committee's work will be ongoing, indicating that the deal reached is a "framework" for moving forward and not, as currently constituted, the end of the process. 

For instance, confusion still exists about whether the national unity government will be headed by Mahmoud Abbas (acting as both president and prime minister), whether Hamas members will be included in the cabinet, or whether a technocratic government made up of independents will be formed. In addition, the agreement does not mention whether Gaza will remain under exclusive Hamas control or whether the PA will be brought back to govern the breakaway territory, specifically the border crossings with Israel and Egypt. 

Moreover, the agreement does not address the vast duplication of government functions now prevailing in the West Bank and Gaza, including the possibility of uniting the disparate security forces. Public employees present another challenge. At present, 70,000 Fatah public employees in Gaza still receive salaries from the PA, but their actual positions have long been filled by Hamas-affiliated personnel.

The greatest stumbling blocks, however, remain Hamas's continued embrace of armed resistance against Israel and its rejection of a negotiated two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Certain Hamas leaders have stated publicly that they do not oppose Abbas per se in his capacity as PLO chairman, negotiating with Israel, but they remain steadfast in their opposition to any comprehensive peace agreement and refusal to recognize Israel. 

Such positions have several negative real-world implications for any future Palestinian government of which Hamas is a member. For example, left unaddressed in the Hamas-Fatah deal is the fate of Hamas's 10,000-strong rocket and missile arsenal in Gaza, particularly as Abbas himself has indicated that a future Palestinian state would be demilitarized. A government that includes Hamas, a designated terrorist organization, could itself risk a cutoff in international donor aid and Israeli transfers of customs revenues, as occurred during the short-lived unity government of 2006-2007. 

In his first comments after the deal was struck, Abbas stated that the arrangement was an internal matter and that there was "no incompatibility between reconciliation [with Hamas] and talks" with Israel. Haniyeh, for his part, seemed to contradict this position, saying that a reconciliation agreement was the first step in "achieving consensus on an effective national strategy for struggle."

The Useful Appearance of Reconciliation

Despite the serious challenges arrayed against any sincere Hamas-Fatah rapprochement, the appearance of national reconciliation is likely useful for both sides. Hamas has in recent years been badly damaged by regional developments, specifically the reduction in support and aid from Iran, Syria, and the Gulf states. After last summer's ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, Cairo's policy vis-a-vis Hamas also changed dramatically, punctuated by the closure of the tunnel networks and border crossing between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. For Hamas, the loss of tax revenues from its tunnel operations in particular has spawned an acute financial crisis. By one estimate, Hamas can finance only a quarter of its budget for this year. Rising economic hardship inside Gaza has led to growing resentment against the Hamas government and, in turn, an increased willingness by the Hamas leadership to view national reconciliation with Fatah as a pathway out of its political and economic isolation. Not surprisingly, Cairo has already indicated that it will reopen the Rafah border terminal connecting Gaza to Egypt once a unity cabinet is formed.

For Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, reconciling with Hamas also likely stems from weakness. With peace talks stalled -- including the recent Palestinian rejection of a U.S.-brokered extension deal -- and economic difficulties permeating even the PA, Abbas needed a political victory to parade at the PLO Central Council meeting this coming weekend. More important, polls of Palestinian public opinion have consistently shown that ending the division between Gaza and the West Bank is a top national priority. Abbas is therefore strengthening his political position ahead of possible elections in a few months or, more likely, his negotiating posture with respect to both Israel and the United States.

Implications for the Peace Process

The Hamas-Fatah agreement undoubtedly complicates the U.S.-brokered peace talks, which -- absent an extension agreement -- will end April 29. In the deal's wake, the Israeli cabinet suspended negotiations with the Palestinians and threatened economic sanctions against the PA, while even left-of-center Israeli politicians like Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid publicly condemned the Palestinian developments. For his part, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated that Abbas "needs to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas."

Abbas's decision to go for national reconciliation at this particular moment seems perplexing given that progress had reportedly been made between the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams in recent days, to say nothing of handing Israeli opponents of the peace talks a ready-made rationale for ending them. Abbas's actions in the coming days will therefore indicate whether he is truly committed to making negotiations with Israel work, or whether he is about to head in a new political direction, only this time perhaps with Hamas at his side.

Ehud Yaari is a Lafer International Fellow with The Washington Institute and a Middle East commentator for Israel's Channel Two television. Neri Zilber, a visiting scholar at the Institute, is a journalist and researcher on Middle East politics and culture.

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What Is Abbas Trying to Achieve?

by Khaled Abu Toameh

Gatestone Institute, April 25, 2014 at 5:00 am

Palestinian Authority [PA] President Mahmoud Abbas has once again surprised Israel and the U.S. Administration, this time by signing a "reconciliation" agreement with Hamas.

On April 23, Abbas dispatched a high-level delegation of PLO officials to the Gaza Strip to sign the "historic" deal with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

The deal calls for the formation of a Palestinian unity government, headed by Abbas, within five weeks.

Six months after the creation of the new government, according to the agreement, the Palestinians would hold presidential and parliamentary elections.

Abbas's decision to join forces with Hamas is seen as a tactical move aimed at putting pressure on Israel and the U.S. to accept his conditions for extending the peace talks after their April 29 deadline.

Despite the signing ceremony, however, held at the home of Haniyeh, the gap between Abbas's Fatah faction and Hamas remains as wide as ever.

There are no indications whatsoever that, as a result of the rapprochement with Fatah, Hamas is about to change its ideology or abandon terrorism.

Nor is there any sign that Hamas is willing to allow the Palestinian Authority security forces to return to the Gaza Strip, which fell into the hands of the Islamist movement in 2007.

Hamas leaders and spokesmen have made it clear that the "reconciliation" agreement does not mean that Hamas will abandon the path of terrorism to achieve its goals. "The option of negotiations has failed," said Ra'fat Murra, a Hamas official in Lebanon. "Palestinian resistance remains the right option."

Ibrahim Hamami, a Palestinian writer closely associated with Hamas, said he does not believe that a reconciliation with "Israel's agents" [Abbas and the PA] is possible. "There should be no meetings or reconciliation with the traitors and collaborators," he said.

This week's "reconciliation" agreement is not about ending the Hamas-Fatah dispute so much as it is about exerting pressure on the Israeli government and the U.S. Administration.

Neither Hamas nor Fatah is interested in sharing power or sitting in the same government.

The "reconciliation" agreement is just the latest in a series of moves taken by Abbas since the eruption of the crisis in the peace talks a few weeks ago. Abbas's moves started with the application to join 15 international treaties, and continued with threats to resign and dissolve the Palestinian Authority.

These moves, like the "reconciliation" agreement with Hamas, have all caught Israel and the U.S. Administration by surprise.

Abbas has concluded that the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, is so desperate to achieve a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis that he will be willing to do almost anything to salvage the peace process.

Abbas apparently did not feel that the U.S. Administration was completely opposed to his decision to file requests to join 15 international treaties. Nor, apparently, did he sense a serious response from Washington to his threats to resign and dismantle the Palestinian Authority.

That is why he has now decided to put the U.S. Administration to the test by signing a "historic" agreement with Hamas — one that Abbas himself knows is unlikely to materialize.

Abbas does not seem worried at all over Israel's decision to suspend the peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. In fact, he was expecting a harsh response from Israel. But he knows that Israel's measures would be limited and that Israel has no interest in bringing about the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

He would be far more worried if the U.S. Administration actually came out in full force against the agreement with Hamas. Abbas's biggest fear is that the U.S. will cut off financial aid to the Palestinian Authority and work toward isolating him, as the Bush Administration did to Yasser Arafat in 2002.

Also, Abbas wants the U.S. to continue to play the role of the major mediator in the conflict with Israel because he is aware that neither the Europeans nor the Russians nor the Chinese will be able to replace American sponsorship.

Abbas is convinced that it is only a matter of time before Kerry or top U.S. diplomats rush to Ramallah to try to persuade him not to make peace with Hamas.

Abbas seems to be enjoying that each time he does something dramatic, the U.S. Administration launches another big diplomatic offensive to convince him to backtrack. In a way, he appears to be enjoying humiliating the largest superpower. Abbas wants his people and the Arabs to see him as hero who can stand up to the Americans.

Abbas is now waiting to see what the U.S. Administration will offer him in return for rescinding his plan to join forces with Hamas. When this happens, Abbas will most probably come up with new demands and conditions, just as he has been doing during these past few weeks.

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Abbas embraces the Islamists

Wednesday’s superficial unity deal — between rival Palestinian factions that thoroughly loathe each other — was the PA leader’s latest act of willful weakness. It’s bad news for everyone bar the extremists

By David Horovitz

Times of Israel, April 24, 2014

This is good news for Israel, a foreign TV journalist suggested to me on Thursday morning. It has always been a problem that Israel was negotiating with “the moderate” Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas over a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, while Gaza was actually run by the uncompromising Islamists of Hamas. Now, surely, since Wednesday’s “historic” Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal, the reporter posited, Abbas is at the helm of a unified Palestinian hierarchy and the talks can make progress in earnest.

Well, no.

Had the reconciliation deal, reached with such extraordinary speed in Gaza on Wednesday, included clauses specifying a commitment by Hamas to recognize Israel, to renounce terrorism and to respect previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements — thus meeting the Middle East Quartet’s longstanding demands of would-be peace process participants — there might have been some mileage in the “good news for Israel” argument. But the Fatah-Hamas deal specified nothing of the sort. Quite the reverse. When announcing the agreement, Hamas’s Gaza prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, far from expressing an improbable new desire to enter talks with the Zionist enemy, restated his organization’s consistent position that the peace process with Israel does not serve Palestinian strategic interests.

For Hamas to have accepted the international quartet’s conditions, indeed, would have required it to undergo a reversal of its ideology and policy so complete as to render it no longer Hamas. Obviously, that didn’t happen on Wednesday, and nor is it going to happen in the weeks and months ahead. The Palestinian shift we are observing is not one of Hamas undergoing moderation — its interpretation of Islam will never countenance the existence of a Jewish state — but of Abbas’s Fatah willingly submitting itself to the bear hug of the Islamic extremists.

Abbas has proved himself a leader inclined to revel in his weakness. He’s not set out to destroy Israel. He hasn’t sought to foster terrorism against Israel, unlike his unlamented predecessor. But neither has he been prepared to work energetically to create a climate among his people in favor of the compromises necessary for Palestinian statehood alongside, and peace with, Israel. He’s not reined in the toxic anti-Israel orientation of the Palestinian media. He’s not revolutionized the Palestinian education system. He’s hailed evil men and women who have murdered Israelis, extorted their releases from Israel’s jails as his price for consenting to negotiate with Israel, and welcomed them home as heroes. He’s placed the fate of his people in the hands of other regional leaders and organizations such as the Arab League, rather than taking direct responsibility. He’s no Anwar Sadat, no King Hussein.

Six years ago, he chose to pass up prime minister Ehud Olmert’s unprecedented peace offer — Gaza, the West Bank with one-for-one land swaps, a shared Jerusalem. It was everything the Palestinians ostensibly want from Israel, and he spurned it. Today, a very weary 79, he’s facing a far less generous Israeli leader. The prospects of the man who said no to Ehud Olmert reaching terms with Benjamin Netanyahu were always spectacularly slim to nil. As of Wednesday, nil.

Israel could have done more to encourage him. Notably, it could have declaredly halted settlement expansion in areas it does not intend to keep under any conceivable accord. But it’s highly unlikely that this would have made the critical difference. Abbas simply was not willing to tackle the profound anti-Israel sentiment among his people, and was certainly not prepared to risk his own well-being, for the noble, high-risk cause of a negotiated path to statehood.

Wednesday’s superficial unity deal — the new incarnation of an on-off partnership between rival Palestinian factions that thoroughly loathe each other — was Abbas’s latest act of willful weakness. He is escaping the deeply uncomfortable pressure to compromise with Israel and instead embracing a veneer of Palestinian unity. It was also an act that underlined the impotence of the American interlocutors, whose warnings against an alliance with Hamas were blithely ignored.

Terribly, it opens the path to a possible deterioration into more of the violence that blighted all of our lives a decade ago. It likely marks the start of an intensified Palestinian effort to demonize Israel on the world stage, with the international community unlikely to need much persuading that Netanyahu is the architect of all our region’s misfortune.

Good news for Israel? Anything but. Good news for nobody but the extremists.

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