April 29, 2011
Number 04/11 #05
This Update deals with the implication of the surprise Fatah-Hamas Palestinian unity deal, announced on Wednesday.
First up, summarising what is known and not known about the details of the deal, and their possible ramifications, is a useful briefing paper from the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). The paper points out that while the deal is ostensibly based on an Egyptian-brokered agreement rejected by Hamas in 2009, it is clear that further modifications have been introduced, but it is not publicly known what they are. It goes on to outline the dilemmas the agreement will pose for both Israel and other international players. For this useful summary in full, CLICK HERE.
Next up is Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post, who concentrates on what the move means for the Obama Administration’s ongoing determination to broker Middle East peace. Diehl argues that the move means that Palestinian Authority (PA) President Abbas “has written off the Obama administration and the peace process it has tried to broker, once and for all.” He points out that this move also means that both American and Israeli plans to launch new speeches and initiatives on peacemaking would now appear to be on hold. For this complete argument, CLICK HERE. Much of the reaction in Washington to the Palestinian unity announcements, from the Administration to the State Department to Congress, is summarised in a series of posts by Diehl’s Washington Post colleague Jennifer Rubin, here, here and here.
Finally, veteran Jerusalem Post political correspondent Herb Keinon says this latest development is the culmination of a long Palestinian effort to deal with the elephant in the room – the PA’s need to control Gaza to be able to even attempt to make peace. With all other means of asserting authority there looking impossible, Abbas has, he said, instead chosen to play the “reconciliation card” with Hamas. He further points out that almost no one in Israel expects Fatah-Hamas reconciliation to last, and also offers some advice to Israel’s representatives on how best to respond to the new unity government. (Some actual responses are summarised here). For all of Keinon’s analysis, CLICK HERE. Also notable was his Jerusalem Post colleague Khaled Abu Toameh’s take on why this move is rightly being seen by Palestinians as a victory for Hamas. Aluf Benn of Haaretz agrees that this is a Hamas victory.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Hamas is being very clear in both Arabic and English media, that it will not recognise or make peace with Israel and that any new unity government has no mandate to negotiate peace with Israel (see also here).
- Fatah says PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, trusted by both Israeli and Western leaders, will definitely not be part of the new unity government.
- With timing that may not be coincidental, the Egyptian government announced that it will be fully opening the Gaza-Egypt border in a few days.
- The Jerusalem Post editorialises that the unity deal suggests Israel has no current partner for a peace deal.
- More comment on Washington’s possible responses to the announcement from Elliot Abrams, Jonathan Tobin and Ron Radosh.
- A humorous yet insightful take on what Abbas and Hamas representatives might have said to each other during unity negotiations.
- Former American Middle East mediator Aaron David Miller on the problems with new Middle East initiatives, even before the latest development. Plus, noted historian Benny Morris on what the Palestinians really want, and why the West doesn’t understand.
- Just before this latest announcement, Abbas gave a revealing interview to Newsweek. Some good comment on its significance is here.
- Historian turned Israeli diplomat Michael Oren pens a powerful piece on the subject of the benefits to the US (and the West more broadly), of its alliance with Israel. A short comment on and introduction to the piece comes from Washington Institute head Robert Satloff.
- The announcement of a unity deal has caught the international community largely by surprise. The implications will depend on the details of what is agreed, which until now remain unclear. The final agreement is due to be signed by the leaders of the factions in Cairo next week.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has responded by urging the Palestinian Authority to choose peace with Israel over peace with Hamas, which is committed to Israel’s destruction. If the agreement proceeds, it is likely to end hopes for a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and have negative consequences for cooperation in the West Bank between Israel and the PA.
- If the new government does not meet Quartet principles to renounce violence, accept previous agreements and recognise Israel, it will also impact the PA’s relationship with the US and the EU, its principle funders. In both the US and the EU Hamas is proscribed as a terrorist organisation.
What has been agreed?
The terms of the deal are not yet clear and much will depend on what is actually agreed.
The basis appears to be the agreement brokered by the Egyptians in October 2009, which was signed by Fatah but not by Hamas. However, senior Hamas officials have stated that there were changes in certain clauses. According to diplomatic sources, the minutes of yesterday’s meeting in Cairo will hold the same force as the original agreement, and could therefore change the shape of the agreement considerably. The core elements of the agreement appear to include:
o The formation of a 12-month caretaker government, comprised of technocrats unaffiliated to either faction. Salam Fayyad, who is respected internationally but lacking support in both factions, is not expected to remain Prime Minister.
o Parliamentary and Presidential elections to be held within a year as well as elections for the Palestinian National Council, the legislative body of the PLO.
o The formation of a Central Elections Committee and a special election court of twelve-judges that will oversee that elections are free and fair.
o The deal will apparently create a new supreme PLO committee at the top of the PLO’s structure, which will give Hamas representation in the Palestinian representative body.
o A joint security committee will be set up, though it is still unclear what would happen to Hamas’s extensive paramilitary infrastructure in Gaza and what role, if any, the PA security forces will have in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
o Both sides will release political detainees arrested in recent years.
Implications and reactions
The implications will depend on the precise terms of the agreement, but Palestinian unity is likely to present a series of dilemmas to Israel, and international players.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved swiftly to urge the PA to choose peace with Israel over peace with Hamas, which is committed to Israel’s destruction. Should the government be formed, it is likely to end Netanyahu’s calls for the resumption of direct negotiations with the PA. It will remain to be seen how this impacts on Netanyahu’s plans to announce a diplomatic initiative in front of the US Congress towards the end of May.
- Israeli policy makers will also have to assess what level of contact and cooperation to extend to a unified PA that includes Hamas. If the agreement proceeds, it is likely to end the considerable Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation on the ground in the West Bank. This cooperation has been based on a shared agenda to suppress Hamas activity in the West Bank. If the PA begins releasing Hamas prisoners and coordinating security with Hamas, it will change the dynamic completely. This is likely to have very negative knock on effects for the broader state building programme in the West Bank, which is based on Israel relaxing security which limit movement and access. Other possible Israeli responses include holding back the transfer of tax revenues to the PA which it collects on their behalf.
- International diplomats were taken by surprise by the announcement. Most assumed, as in Israel, that Palestinian unity was a distant prospect because of the deep ideological and political differences between Fatah and Hamas.
- When Hamas and Fatah formed a short-lived Palestinian unity government in 2007 it did not meet the Quartet conditions of renouncing violence, accepting previous agreements and recognising Israel; because of this it received only limited international cooperation, with Hamas representatives largely boycotted.
- As Hamas’s is designated in the EU and US as a terrorist organisation, the PA’s access to vital donor assistance would be called immediately into question. So to would the US-run programme to train and equip PA security forces.
- The initial US reaction came from National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, who reaffirmed the Quartet conditions, saying: ‘The United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace,’ but adding, ‘Hamas, however, is a terrorist organization which targets civilians. To play a constructive role in achieving peace, any Palestinian government must… renounce violence, abide by past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.’
- Depending on the terms of the agreement, there are some in diplomatic and policy circles in Europe likely to argue for the international community to support the unity government, in the belief that Hamas can be moderated, and would ultimately accept Israel’s existence. This is not a view that is widely accepted in Israel or the US, where Hamas is more commonly viewed as a fundamentalist religious organisation, tied to Syria and Iran, whose opposition to Israel’s existence is irreversible.
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By Jackson Diehl
Washington Post “Post Partisan”
Posted at 07:04 PM ET, 04/27/201
It’s not yet certain that a political deal announced Wednesday by the long-divided Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions will stick–similar pacts have been proclaimed and then discarded several times in the last four years.
But one thing is sure: If Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas moves forward with the reconciliation with the Islamic Hamas movement, it will mean he has written off the Obama administration and the peace process it has tried to broker, once and for all.
Negotiations between Abbas and the Israeli government of Benyamin Netanyahu have been dormant since last fall–as has the administration’s diplomacy (When was the last time George Mitchell was seen in public?) But lately the administration has seemed to be preparing for another push. At a conference in Washington this month Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised “a renewed pursuit of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace by the administration” and said Obama would make a major speech on the subject.
Obama himself told Jewish leaders at a White House meeting in March that he believed Abbas was ready to make peace with Israel. But now it seems the Palestinian leader was headed in another direction entirely. In secret negotiations brokered by Egypt, he reportedly agreed to form a unity government for the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip, and to hold long-postponed elections for new leaders within the next year.
Many Palestinians have long wanted an end to the Fatah-Hamas feud and the divided Palestinian government. But for Israel and the Obama administration, the reconciliation spells a disaster. According to reports Wednesday, it probably will mean the end of the West Bank administration headed by Salaam Fayyad, a technocrat highly respected by both Americans and Israelis. If so, Congress will almost certainly suspend $400 million in annual U.S. aid. It could mean the reorganization of Fatah’s U.S.-trained security forces, which have worked with Israel to keep the peace in the West Bank for the last several years, and their eventual integration with the cadres of the Iranian-backed Hamas.
The deal will also end any serious prospect of peace talks–since Hamas is most unlikely to accept longstanding Western demands that it accept Israel, renounce violence and abide by past Israeli-Palestinian agreements. In recent weeks Hamas’ fighters have returned to firing mortars and missiles from Gaza at Israeli cities–including one missile that was aimed at a yellow Israeli school bus.
Netanyahu has been working on a new peace initiative that he planned to unveil before the U.S. Congress next month, and that could have involved withdrawals of Israeli troops from parts of the West Bank. If it goes forward, the Palestinian deal will “slam on the brakes,” an Israeli official told me. “Any effort to move forward would be completely stopped by this.”
Abbas apparently doesn’t mind. For some time he has been working on a differnet initiative: a plan to seek an endorsement of Palestinian statehood by the UN General Assembly at its meeting in September. The Obama administration has publicly opposed the idea, and Netanyahu has warned that Israel might respond with unilateral steps of its own.
But Abbas seems deeply disillusioned with Obama. He recently trashed the U.S. president in an interview with Newsweek, saying he had mismanaged the issue of Israeli settlements. And the Palestinian leader wrote Netanyahu off as soon as he took office two years ago, concluding it would be impossible to strike a deal with him.
Netanyahu responded to news of the Hamas-Fatah deal by saying that “the Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas.” The Palestinian announcement took the Israelis by surprise; likely the Obama administration was also blindsided. It’s entirely possible the deal will crumble in the coming days or weeks. If it doesn’t, the Obama administration will have to scramble to adjust to a radically new situation in yet another Middle Eastern land.
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By HERB KEINON
Jerusalem Post, 04/29/2011 03:41
Insisting that Hamas be held to the Quartet conditions would place the burden of proof on the Palestinians.
Finally, the purple elephant in the room stood up Wednesday and started to snort.
Ever since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in 2007, all parties occupied with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have pretended that Hamas’s control of Gaza did not exist; that it was possible to talk about reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority – you could even talk about a Palestinian state – and somehow turn a blind eye to the fact Hamas was ensconced in Gaza and was not just going to sit back and quietly let it all happen.
Everyone knew, however, that at some point, if any of all the peace and statehood talk was going to have any meaning whatsoever, it would be necessary for PA President Mahmoud Abbas to reassert his authority over Gaza.
There were a number of ways this could be done.
One was for Israel to do the work for Abbas, his preferred option. There is no doubt that Abbas would have liked nothing more than for Israel to finish off Hamas during Operation Cast Lead two years ago, enabling him to ride back into Gaza City and reassert his control over the region that his forces lost with nary a fight.
But Israel didn’t do the job. Jerusalem had no interest in paving Abbas’s way back into Gaza on the backs of dead IDF soldiers.
Another way was if the Egyptians would do the work for Abbas. But that, too, was a nonstarter.
The third way was for Abbas to do it himself, for the PA to take responsibility for its own affairs and defeat Hamas militarily – regain control the same way Hamas took it, via the sword. But it was obvious that this was not going to happen for a couple of reasons: First, because it was unlikely the PA could defeat Hamas in Gaza, and secondly because an allout civil war was not in the Palestinian interest.
What happened Wednesday, with the surprise announcement of reconciliation coming out of Cairo, was the blasting of a fourth path – reasserting control through reconciliation.
It is almost universally agreed in Israel that the reconciliation won’t last, that there are too many cardinal issues separating the two sides, but at least it will bring Abbas to the UN in September asking for the world body’s recognition of statehood with the ability to debunk Israel’s argument that he only represents half a future state.
Although most Israelis may see this reconciliation as a ruse, the world – or at least that European part of the world, which is quickly emerging as the most important factor in whether the UN will recognize Palestinian statehood in September – does not.
When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu got up on YouTube on Wednesday and said that the PA had to choose between Israel and Hamas, it is a safe bet his words resonated loudly with the Israeli public who know Hamas: who can remember the week before last and the year before that; who bear in mind Gilad Schalit and the inhuman suffering imposed by Hamas on him and his family; who recall anti-tank missiles on school buses and Grad rockets on Ashkelon.
Ah, but Europe is different. For months there have been voices in the EU calling for engagement with Hamas; voices proclaiming that peace is made with enemies; that Hamas can be tamed by being brought into the political tent; that it is necessary to be inclusive, not exclusive; that no agreement is possible without the Islamic organization.
And rather than be put off, like most Israelis were, by the fact that the PA is on the verge of incorporating into its unity government an organization calling for Israel’s destruction, many in Europe will see this move as an indication that Hamas has become pragmatic and more “moderate” as a result of the apparent loss of its patron in Syria.
These voices will see indications of Hamas- Fatah reconciliation as support for their desire to begin engaging Hamas – immediately and openly And these voices will be the ones to jump on Netanyahu’s comments about the PA having to choose between Israel and Hamas to say that, once again, it is Netanyahu who is the rejectionist; Netanyahu who is blocking the way to progress; Netanyahu who is setting conditions.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak took a more nuanced approach in an Israel Radio interview on Thursday.
Certainly Israel will have nothing to do with an unreformed Hamas, he said. But, he implied, rather than ruling out a Palestinian unity government from the start, just make clear to the world that it is fine on the condition that Hamas abides by the Quartet’s three conditions for engagement: recognition of Israel, forswearing terrorism, accepting previous agreements.
And if Hamas does that, Barak said – paraphrasing Ariel Sharon – they will “turn into Finns, not Hamas. And with Finns we are prepared to talk.”
That approach places the onus on the Palestinians. Israel is not cast as the perpetual rejectionist, and when the reconciliation blows up – as is likely, either because Hamas and Fatah differences are irreconcilable, or because Hamas can’t meet the three conditions and remain Hamas – it will be the Palestinians who can be cast as the rejectionists, not Israel.