Fatah and Hamas set for surface unity
After half a dozen unsuccessful attempts, there is now a strong sense that Egypt has managed to negotiate a national unity deal between Hamas and Fatah. Reports indicate that at the end of October, Palestinian factions will gather in Cairo to finalise an agreement, the result of a breakthrough in recent weeks. Next week, Mahmoud Abbas is expected to support the plan after meeting with senior Egyptian officials.
Hamas leaders have sounded optimistic about the chances of finally reaching a deal with their rivals, after agreeing to the specifics of the Egyptian-engineered compromise. Khaled Meshaal described discussions with Egyptian officials as very positive, while Ismail Haniyeh said that “the signing of the reconciliation agreement is near”. Fatah leaders have been less effusive in public, though central committee member Nabil Shaath said that his movement is optimistic and hopes that the proposed conference “will lead to an agreement”.
The highlights of the deal relate to the issues of substance that until now have divided the two parties, namely: elections, security forces, detainees, and a way of overseeing the implementation of the deal. With regard to presidential and parliamentary elections, it seems that they will be held at some point in the first half of 2010, with a compromise arrangement on how candidates will be elected to the legislature.
There are some good reasons for thinking that unlike previous failures, the unity talks this time will succeed. First, there is a good deal of pressure on both sides from Egypt, and the Palestinian public. This has been a factor before, however.
Second though, there is a constitutional crisis looming for the Palestinian Authority (PA), as in January 2010 – after an already-controversial extension – Abbas’s term as president is up, at the same time as the end of the parliamentary term. With no framework combining national unity and new elections, the PA would have a severe legitimacy problem even on its own terms.
A third factor this time around is the context of the Binyamin Netanyahu administration, floundering US-driven talks, and continued Israeli colonisation in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Khalid Amayreh, a West Bank journalist who says he is “more optimistic than in the past” about the prospects for a unity deal, stresses the importance of the failure of President Obama’s attempts to advance his peace initiative with Netanyahu and Abbas:
Fatah has to go with reconciliation, especially in the absence of any progress in talks with Israel. Returning to negotiations with Israel without a settlement freeze would be a PR disaster, and helps creates a kind of impression amongst the Palestinian public that Hamas’s position towards the Israeli government, rather than Fatah’s, is vindicated.
There are, of course, caveats. Perhaps the biggest problem with the proposed deal is not so much in the intensely negotiated fine print, but rather in the fundamental questions that remain untouched. A deal on elections and releasing political prisoners is one thing – resolving the “deeper conflict” as it pertains to the nature of resistance and PA-Israel relations is quite another.
A Palestinian national unity deal has also been opposed along the way, with different tactics, by third parties. According to Israel’s vice-PM Silvan Shalom, for example, Palestinian national unity would be “proof that [Abbas] has abandoned reaching a settlement”, granting Hamas “credibility” as an “influential political player”. Yet some European powers – and maybe even elements in Washington – may be grateful for a development that helps end the isolation of Hamas in the context of an agreement with Fatah.
Undoubtedly the stakes are high – whether or not Egypt is serious in its message of “last chance” (or whether it is a way of notching up the pressure). While the situation for the Palestinians in the occupied territories has never been more desperate, that itself could make it more likely that a unity deal is finally reached.
First published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free.