Political unity is paramount for the Palestinians
For any external, and probably most domestic, observers of Palestinian politics, the need for a unified political system with one recognized leadership is unquestionable. Thus far, however, all attempts to bring Fatah and Hamas to find common ground in governing Palestine have fallen on deaf ears. This failure can largely be attributed to the deep, apparently insurmountable distrust between the two main political movements within Palestinian society, and also to the emergence in 2006 of their separate existences in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively, with different sets of interests that are almost impossible to overcome.
But in recent weeks there have been renewed diplomatic efforts to promote a coalition government between Fatah and Hamas. It comes as part of a wider push to also foster negotiations with Israel over a long-term ceasefire along the Gaza border that would lead to the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip and the brokering of a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas.
The prisoners issue is a crucial element in the complex relations within this triangle of Israel-Gaza-West Bank and it might have an impact on Ramallah-Gaza relations too. After all, there are hardly any issues on which all three sides see eye to eye, and all are more concerned with preventing the others from making any relative gains than setting, let alone reaching, their own goals. But what the Palestinians cannot afford to ignore is that the political terrain, close to home and internationally, is changing rapidly and, at least in the short run, not in their favor.
Since the split between Fatah and Hamas, and the geographical manifestation of it in two separate political entities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, neither side has managed to accomplish its objectives, while the Palestinian issue has slipped ever further down the list of regional and international priorities. There is a general fatigue with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, more profoundly, most countries are at a loss to understand how on earth such a small nation, which is markedly the weaker side in the conflict with Israel, can afford such disunity and discord if it is to achieve its national aspirations.
Hence the diplomatic efforts led by Egypt, with proactive support from the US and Jordan, which are aimed at injecting a new lease of life into the Palestinian political system and its relations with Israel, are crucial. Early last month, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi held talks in Cairo with King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the stalled peace process and the fragile ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
Only a few months have passed since violent flare-ups between Israel and the Palestinians took place in Jerusalem, the mixed Jewish-Palestinian cities inside Israel and, with even more deadly intensity, between Hamas and Israel in Gaza. These outbreaks not only exposed both sides’ vulnerabilities, but also played into the hands of their extremist-fundamentalist elements, something which is a cause for special concern in Cairo, Amman and the PA. Last month’s summit in Cairo ended with the usual expressions of commitment to peace but, despite accepting that a peace initiative is not in the offing, the sides still need to remain committed to ending the hostile atmosphere by taking confidence-building measures.
If May’s violent outbreaks sounded alarm bells over the danger of leaving the Palestinian issue neglected, two developments this year appear to have offered some hope of progress on the Palestinian domestic political scene and also on relations with Israel. The first was the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, who, although far from being keen on a new Washington-sponsored peace initiative, has been taking steps to improve relations with the Palestinians after they were badly damaged by his predecessor, including by renewing financial aid and pledging to reopen the consulate in East Jerusalem. Second, in the immediate aftermath of war in Gaza, a new Israeli government was formed and, for the first time in more than 12 years, Benjamin Netanyahu was not prime minister. Thus far, we have seen a change in style rather than substance, but there is a sense that the latter might follow — although what little change that is taking place has been at an excruciatingly slow pace, while a political horizon for peace has yet to be established.
In the meantime, Egypt is working behind the scenes together with the US to persuade Fatah and Hamas to form a Palestinian unity government, possibly of technocrats. However, Abbas remains silent on the issue and is more interested in a national unity government that would be conditional on Hamas accepting agreements previously signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. That would entail Hamas abandoning its armed struggle against Israel and embracing Fatah’s approach of diplomatic engagement with Tel Aviv and the international community in order to end the occupation.
Two developments this year appear to have offered some hope of progress on the Palestinian domestic political scene and also on relations with Israel.
The possible prisoner exchange between Hamas and Israel, which Abbas cannot openly oppose, would undoubtedly boost the Islamist movement’s standing in Gaza among the Palestinians. If Israel was forced to release hundreds of Hamas and some Fatah militants currently languishing in its prisons for just a handful of Israelis, it would be regarded as a victory for Hamas, especially against the backdrop of the PA’s failure to obtain almost any concessions from Israel regarding improving the living conditions of the Palestinian people.
A unity government is not a magic formula and should be no more than an interim measure leading to presidential and parliamentary elections in Palestine. Such a scenario would restore some desperately needed legitimacy to the Palestinian leadership and might make Israel more susceptible to pressure from the international community to enter into peace negotiations in good faith. Right now, the Israeli government is not interested in genuine peace negotiations and it objects to any agreement between Fatah and Hamas, even if the latter accepts all conditions imposed on it in terms of accepting past agreements and giving up the armed struggle.
There have been a number of false dawns when it comes to restoring a single functioning governing body for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But with the help of regional powers, the US and Europe, things just might be different this time around.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg