x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Neither Hamas nor Fatah is truly eager for reconciliation

The kisses and handshakes exchanged by Hamas and Fatah officials in Cairo would have been hailed as epochal, except that they follow an all-too-familiar pattern.

At first blush, this month's news from Cairo, of a new Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, appears positive enough to conjure some hope.

Hamas and Fatah, at loggerheads since 2007, said they will form a national unity government within three months.

Mousa Abu Marzouk of Hamas and Azzam Al Ahmed of Fatah also agreed in Cairo on steps that seem to address most of the outstanding issues. Once the composition of the new unity government is settled, Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas is to decree national elections and there will also be a plan for elections to the presidency, the Legislative Council, and the National Council, the Palestinian parliament in exile.

The kisses and handshakes in Cairo would have been hailed as epochal, except that they follow an all-too-familiar pattern: several previous agreements have faded away in back-and-forth accusations, followed by trips to Cairo, for still more talks.

Considering the hurdles the two sides are supposed to overcome in the next three months, there is plenty of room for backsliding and another failure. To start with, the composition of the caretaker government has been a difficult hurdle. A reconciliation two years ago stalled over the composition of the interim government. The second agreement, signed in Doha, also never materialised.

Will the resignation of Salam Fayyad, the former Palestinian prime minister, pave the way for a new unified government? Hamas never recognised his authority, nor did many of Fatah's members who grew weary of his fight against corruption. However, 71 per cent of Palestinians surveyed recently said they believed Mr Fayyad's resignation would not affect reconciliation prospects.

The consensus seems to be that Mr Abbas would lead this government, in addition to leading the PA, the PLO and Fatah. But even with Mr Abbas at the helm, any government including Hamas is bound to raise the ire of the United States, which calls Hamas terrorist and is the biggest donor to the PA.

The PA has been crippled by dwindling international aid and a stifled economy. There are fears that should a national unity government be forged, the US would impose punitive measures.

And yet 90 per cent of Palestinians tell pollsters that Hamas and Fatah should pursue reconciliation anyway. (The same poll, by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, showed that 20 per cent say Fatah is blocking reconciliation; 29 per cent blame Hamas.)

Hamas has little to gain from reconciliation. The rise of Islamist movements in the region has left Hamas emboldened.

With western governments and intelligence services cooperating with Islamists in Egypt and Turkey, Hamas is in no hurry to dilute its power in a unity government.

Mr Abbas's credibility, meanwhile, is continuously being put to the test. With settlements growing and the economy in a shambles, Mr Abbas and Fatah are trying to tackle intensified frustration.

Israel has no interest in Palestinian unity, and progress on the diplomatic front is equally bleak. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has been shuttling among the Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians since March, but his attempts at reviving Palestinian-Israeli talks have been fruitless. He did extract a promise from the PA that it would not apply to join any more international organisations for the next few months.

But his efforts to secure a settlement freeze have stalled, indeed Israel said it would legalise four settlement outposts previously slated for demolition.

Scepticism about reconciliation, and talks with Israel, is deep on the streets of Palestine. Visiting Washington last week, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said peace talks would be futile without Hamas, and a unity government was essential. Mr Erdogan is to visit Gaza and the West Bank soon, showing that Turkey, like Egypt and Qatar, has an interest in moulding Hamas into a party moderate enough to enter the arena of negotiations.

Reconciliation would let the Palestinians talk with Israel from a stronger position, and would pave the way for elections, so Palestinians could have their say about Fatah and Hamas, which have long been disappointing them.

In the West Bank, Palestinians have grown weary of futile "agreements" and talks. Public workers have gone unpaid for months while prices climb - because, some say, of Mr Fayyad's economic policies.

In the Gaza Strip, Hamas proved itself no better; today it is embroiled in corruption and questionable business practices. Hamas has also been cracking down on personal liberties, from men's haircuts to women's smoking.

As it stands, neither group really wants to give up any power to a unified authority. There is also the question of security coordination with the Israelis; Fatah does it, Hamas rejects it.

And there is the question of what role Hamas will play in the PLO, which it has yet to join. Will the group adhere to all agreements previously signed by the Organisation with Israel?

A new more mainstream Hamas, supported by Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, scares the PA and Fatah, as it would threaten to replace them as a potential negotiating partner with Israel.

The political capital needed to get the two sides over all these hurdles is enormous, and a real willingness to reconcile these differences seems non-existent at the moment.


Dalia Hatuqa is a journalist and writer based in the West Bank

On Twitter: @DaliaHatuqa