Palestinian agreement will alter regional dynamics

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Despite the announcement of a power-sharing agreement between Hamas and Fatah that would end the rift between the Palestinian faction that governs Gaza and the one that rules the West Bank, much must happen before a single coalition government rules all the Palestinian territories. Still, the mere fact that the two sides have begun formalizing a path toward political unification of the territories has widespread implications for the region. The impact will fall not just on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also on various regional players and the United States.

The Fatah-Hamas deal allows for a five-week period to form a technocratic interim government, with new elections in six months. A senior leader from Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas’ main Islamist rival, said this structure could derail the agreement by giving outside parties an opportunity to interfere. Hamas and Fatah are betting this will not come to pass.

The Israeli Cabinet unanimously agreed to halt peace talks in response to the deal and weighed sanctions on the Palestinian National Authority. However, Fatah is gambling that the Israelis will not opt for an embargo on the Palestinian territories for fear of worsening the situation. A Palestinian National Authority collapse would mean chaos in the West Bank at a time when there is already turmoil in all the countries surrounding Israel. But either way, Fatah will come under a great deal of international pressure to show that intra-Palestinian unity and peace with Israel are not mutually exclusive— an assertion that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is making forcefully.

In fact, Abbas is arguing that the former is a prerequisite for the latter. Fatah is betting that the United States will not follow through on its warning that it could withdraw the $440 million in financial assistance that it had allocated for the Palestinian National Authority this year. A US State Department spokeswoman said Washington was disappointed by the Fatah-Hamas deal, calling the timing “troubling” and asserting that it would complicate the peace talks.


Recognizing the State of Israel
If Washington were to decide to penalize the Palestinians, regional players such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey might compensate for some of the hit (though none of these players are substitutes for the United States, especially when it comes to mediation with Israel). Therefore, for a Fatah-Hamas coalition to avoid causing major problems for the Palestinians, the two movements must reach some kind of understanding on how a national unity government would behave toward Israel. Fatah is unlikely to have agreed to form a unity government if Hamas was not willing to accept the Palestinian National Authority’s international commitments, especially the peace process with Israel.

While Hamas is unlikely to formally recognize Israel, it probably has agreed with Fatah on the need to maintain diplomatic engagement with the Israelis. Senior Fatah leader Jibril Rajoub said the upcoming national unity government with Hamas would proclaim clearly that it accepts the conditions of the Middle East Quartet (Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations) that Hamas recognize Israel and existing agreements between it and the Palestine Liberation Organization and renounce armed struggle. In many ways, this would not be a radical shift for Hamas, since it has said many times that it accepts a Palestinian state within the confines of the 1967 borders. Additionally, ever since taking power in Gaza in 2007, it has had to engage in negotiations with Israel, largely routed through Egypt. As Egyptian hostility toward the Islamist movement has reached unprecedented levels, Hamas likely sees the Palestinian National Authority as a better conduit through which to maintain a channel with the Israelis.

Also suggesting that Hamas has probably compromised on this issue is the agreement on the restructuring of the PLO, the body that concluded the 1993 Oslo Accords and is continuing to hold talks with Israel toward the goal of the establishment of a future sovereign Palestinian state. Salim al-Zanoon, speaker of the Palestinian National Council (the legislative body of the PLO) has said that Hamas had been allotted 15 seats on the council and that officials from the Islamist movement had been invited to attend its sessions. In 2006, Hamas decided to be a part of the Palestinian National Authority, the entity that technically governs the Palestinian territories. But it never accepted membership in the PLO. Now that it has, Hamas will have to operate within internationally acceptable parameters.

While Hamas has remained quiet on this matter, Fatah leaders have suggested that the Islamist movement has likely decided that the time has come for it to move further toward the mainstream. Hamas will have to tread carefully on this issue because it needs to manage its hawkish members, rivals such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and more important, the Salafist and jihadist elements that oppose renouncing armed struggle and are outside the framework of the Palestinian National Authority.

Mechanics of Palestinian reconciliation
The Palestinian National Authority is an interim body dominated by the PLO, which remains the driver of Palestinian efforts toward internationally recognized statehood. The details of how Hamas will be integrated into the PLO are being kept under wraps and will likely remain a work in progress for a long time to come. The more immediate task is to get the technocratic caretaker government up and running ahead of new legislative and executive elections.

Agreeing to the composition of this government will prove much easier than handling the issue of how it would exercise its authority in the two territories. The Gaza Strip, governed by Hamas, and the West Bank, governed by Fatah, are not contiguous. Adding to the challenge, the two territories have been run as de facto separate entities with distinct civil and military bureaucracies. Hamas will want to maintain its military wing, while the international community will demand that the group renounce armed struggle. The degree to which Hamas would be willing to compromise will depend upon how the power-sharing agreement will apply to Palestinian security forces, a thorny issue since Hamas’ military apparatus has been behaving both as an insurgent movement and as security forces for its regime in Gaza since 2007. A key related development is that the Hamas-Fatah agreement does not address the fate of Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz al-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, according to an April 24 al-Monitor report.

For the new coalition, day-to-day governance will be extremely challenging. Palestinians in both territories face severe economic hardships, albeit for different reasons. The government will also face the challenge of holding credible elections with outcomes accepted by both sides. Given all of these challenges, the reconciliation process will consume the better part of the year (if not more), provided it does not succumb to some obstacle along the way.

Hamas and the peace process
Balancing the domestic political process and the peace process will be difficult. Abbas must convince the United States and Israel that Hamas’ return to the Palestinian National Authority’s fold, as well as its integration into the PLO, does not spell the end of the peace talks. This will be a tough sell since many continue to officially designate Hamas a terrorist organization.

In many ways, the Palestinian situation is back to where it was in 2006 when the two sides formed a coalition government after Hamas won the last legislative polls. That government could not function because the lead coalition partner was far more hard-line in its rejection of Israel than it is today, ultimately leading to the de facto partition of the Palestinian territories. Hamas remains unlikely to fully renounce its hostile stance toward Israel and hard-line attitude on the peace process.

The militant Islamist group has not changed much except that it has entered into a gray zone where it is willing to implicitly accept the need to uphold peace with Israel. Fatah, by contrast, has seen its popularity plummet, largely due to the lack of progress in its talks with Israel and the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. It must therefore accept Hamas, even a Hamas operating in this zone. Fatah would like to take advantage of the fact that Hamas has been forced into reconciliation with Fatah because its international isolation has reached crippling levels. Reconciliation offers Fatah the chance to revive its position internally, regain influence over Hamas and the Gaza Strip, and gain leverage internationally. But for Israel and the United States, Hamas in the gray zone is not good enough.

Neither can continue to negotiate with Abbas, because Hamas’ inclusion in the Palestinian National Authority and the PLO casts uncertainty over the entire peace process. At a bare minimum, there are legal complications proscribed by US and Israeli law in dealing with the group. Even if such hurdles can be circumvented, not much can be expected from diplomacy with a divided entity, half of which has a suspect commitment to the peace process.

For its part, Israel can easily deflect any pressure from the United States to press ahead with the peace talks by saying that it cannot negotiate with a Palestinian entity that includes a group that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist—despite Fatah’s reassurances to Washington that by reaching an agreement with Hamas, it is in the process of trying to bring the group into the mainstream.

The situation will become even more complicated if Hamas once again performs well in the next elections. It is unlikely that Hamas will gain a majority, but it could still win a sizable minority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, which would give it significant clout in the government. Assuming the Palestinian reconciliation process succeeds and Hamas makes electoral gains, negotiations with Israel would become extremely difficult, despite the existence of a democratically elected Palestinian authority.

In any event, the peace process has been moribund for many years now. It has been largely confined to the West Bank, since Fatah has not controlled Gaza for seven years. The risk is that the state of conflict that has existed between Israel and Gaza could extend to the West Bank. As part of the reconciliation deal, both groups would be able to operate in the territories dominated by the other, which means Hamas can be expected to revive its activities in the West Bank. Even if Hamas agrees to Fatah’s demand that resistance against Israel should take the form of peaceful protests, in the context of the West Bank, this could lead to significant unrest—especially given tensions over Jewish settlements and Temple Mount.

Increasing militancy in the Sinai Peninsula
Egypt, the main regional mediator between the Israelis and the Palestinians — and between the Palestinians themselves — stands to gain from a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. Egypt’s priority is its own domestic situation, given its post-Arab Spring instability. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is expected to win the presidency in next month’s election, will have his hands full dealing with political unrest, an economy on the verge of bankruptcy and a resurgence of jihadism. In such an environment, the Egyptian regime is worried that Gaza could undermine Egyptian stability, especially with a Salafist-jihadist militancy growing in both the Palestinian territory and the Sinai Peninsula. Bringing Hamas into the Palestinian mainstream and giving Fatah a renewed foothold in Gaza could lessen the chances of military conflict involving Palestinians on Egypt’s borders.

In sharp contrast, for Jordan, a reconciliation that undermines the peace process is bad news. The Hashemite kingdom does not want to see an Israeli-Palestinian conflict on its western flank. Furthermore, a Hamas revival in the West Bank could weaken Amman’s hand as it tries to deal with its own branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, with which it is currently engaged in negotiations. At a time when King Abdullah II is worried about spillover from Syria on his kingdom’s northern border, he can ill afford instability in the West Bank, where his regime is already worried about rising tensions related to an Israeli security crackdown on Palestinians near holy sites in Jerusalem.

For Turkey and Qatar, however, the reconciliation is good news. Both Ankara and Doha have close relations with Hamas, and both maintain working relations with Israel, though both states have limited influence over Fatah. A Hamas-Fatah power-sharing agreement would enable them to further enhance their influence in the region, which had declined after the weakening of the Muslim Brotherhood.

For the region’s most powerful Arab state, Saudi Arabia, a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation would represent a reversal in its efforts to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood and would give its Gulf Cooperation Council rival Qatar a major boost. Riyadh is already fighting on several fronts and does not want any changes to the Palestinian situation that would further complicate matters. Moreover, Riyadh cannot be seen as opposing the most serious effort to end Palestinian infighting since the failure of its own initiative in 2007. From the Saudi perspective, perhaps the most troubling thing about Hamas’ return to the Palestinian National Authority is that it strengthens the hand of its archrival, Iran.

It is important to note that Iran has been supportive of a Fatah-Hamas rapprochement for a number of reasons. First, it provides Tehran with greater influence over the Palestinian issue and another pressure point against Israel. Second, it can use this influence in its ongoing bargaining with the United States. Third, by providing enhanced soft power projection capabilities, the Islamic republic will gain leverage in any negotiations over Syria.

It is too early to tell how successful Fatah and Hamas will be in reconciling. There are too many moving parts, and several stakeholders can disrupt the process. But this latest attempt at reconciliation has the potential to evolve, and we are looking at a long, drawn-out process, which even before it achieves the intended outcome will shape the various other regional issues in play.

Republishing by The Manila Times of this analysis is with express permission of STRATFOR.

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