On the surface, it seems logical that sincere friends of an Israeli-Palestinian peace would be nervous about reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, given the latter's declared unwillingness to recognize Israel. But this understandable reaction -- hinted at by a US government spokeswoman -- should be re-examined in light of the week state of the existing "peace process." In fact, the Fatah-Hamas rapprochement may well be a positive development in the elusive search for a meaningful peace.
Because everything involving Israel-Palestine is both convoluted and contentious, let me break it down into some simple propositions. Then, if you disagree, you can tell me where I've gone wrong.
- Hamas is in a position of historic weakness -- and that's why it's agreeing to reconcile with Fatah. Remember that Hamas is, by ideology, origin, and affiliation, a branch of the international Muslim Brotherhood. When the Egyptian branch of the Brotherhood, historically the mothership, became the government of Egypt after the election of Mohammed Morsi, the benefits to Hamas were significant. For the first time in Hamas's history, the Egyptian government was on its side. Hamas more or less cut ties with Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, because the Egyptian Brotherhood insisted and because Hamas had much more to gain from close affiliation with a Brotherhood-led Egypt than from a Syrian regime engaged in a crackdown against Sunni Islamists.
When a combination of public protest and an army coup d'état ousted Morsi and the Brotherhood, Hamas lost its most important supporter. Encouraged by Hamas's weakness, Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah pursued negotiations with Israel, hoping to marginalize Hamas further. The strategy worked. Hamas now judges that it has nowhere else to turn and that it can't deliver anything meaningful to ordinary Gazans on its own. The reconciliation is an attempt to provide legitimacy and position itself for upcoming elections.
- Even if Israel had negotiated a successful peace agreement with West Bank-based Fatah, the deal wouldn't have been meaningful without Hamas's at least tacit approval. Hamas not only controls Gaza, where 1.65 million Palestinians live, but has meaningful political support in the West Bank notwithstanding that it doesn't govern there. All this means that Hamas had more than enough capacity to act as a de facto spoiler of a peace deal.
For Israel, peace with only part of the Palestinian people would not have been peace at all. Critics inside and outside of Benjamin Netanyahu's government were therefore onto something when they maintained that there was no true partner for peace on the Palestinian side. Even if Abbas was sincere and even if Fatah might have been on board, they could not credibly claim to represent the Palestinian people.
- The peace process has been going nowhere fast - because neither side has particularly wanted to get to a peace agreement soon. Abbas reasonably feared that if he found himself signing an agreement that Hamas rejected, what legitimacy he has as a Palestinian leader would disappear, and that he would soon be out of office by electoral or other means. Netanyahu is not only personally skeptical of the possibility of a two state solution, he is also hampered by coalition partners who don't trust the Palestinians and ideologically reject the possibility of a land for peace deal.
The only reason the peace process has been limping along at all is that the Barack Obama keeping it alive. For Obama, the primary goal has been to tell Arab allies that, unlike George W. Bush, he's not ignoring the issue. Obama certainly understands that the probabilities of success were low, but the costs of ignoring the problem seemed heavier than the costs of trying and failing to solve it, at least so long as expectations remained modest, as they have done.
For John Kerry, finally in the job he's wanted for decades, taking on Middle East peace is the very essence of behaving like a Secretary of State. In a world where US capacities regarding China are limited, and Vladimir Putin is eating Obama's lunch, shuttling back and forth between Israelis and Palestinians is at least something productive for Kerry to do. Naturally Kerry would love to have a deal in the Noble peace prize that comes with it. The Secretary of State's personal investment is enough leverage to keep the Israelis and Palestinians to pretend talking -- but not enough to make them agree to something they otherwise don't really want.
- Now that Hamas will likely be in the government and Palestinian elections will be held, there is a chance that a legitimate Palestinian government might emerge that could be a credible partner for actual peace talks with Israel. True, Hamas formally remains rejectionist. But recall that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, in its brief time in power, said that it was prepared to respect the Camp David Accords with Israel.
It is conceivable that, with the right incentives and leadership, Hamas could participate in a Palestinian government that delivered statehood. A Palestinian national unity government could make sacrifices that a partial government never could. Fatah activist Marwan Barghouti, in Israeli jail since 2002, could potentially become a bridge between the Palestinian parties. No one is describing such an outcome as likely. But certainly Fatah without Hamas can't make a meaningful deal.
- So the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is a good thing for the possibility of meaningful peace. You can't make peace with half a people: you need all of them represented at the table. The Palestinians can present a united front and willingness to negotiate, it will be time for internal Israeli political reconciliation over the possibility of a deal. The prospects for that may look bleak at the moment, but in the past, the Israeli public has been able to elect governments with a mandate to negotiate whenever the Palestinians managed to look like serious partners. We're probably nearing the last decade in which a two state solution remains possible. Palestinian reconciliation is a precondition for peace. Here's hoping it sticks.
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To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at email@example.com