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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 17 August 2018

Palestinian reconciliation deal is only the beginning

The reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah could come at a huge cost in return for mostly symbolic benefits, writes Hussein Ibish.

The recent “national unity” agreement between Hamas and Fatah has produced strong reactions in many quarters. But what actual impact it will have depends entirely on what parts, if any, are implemented, and how.

The groups agreed to form a transitional “government of national unity” in the next few weeks, hold national elections in the following six months and explore methods for Hamas to join the Palestine Liberation Organisation. This is extremely similar to previous agreements reached in Cairo and Doha, which were never implemented.

It is possible that, because of internal Palestinian politics and regional conditions, this time something might be done, although Hamas and Fatah actually agree on little more than the fact that they are all Palestinians.

The most straightforward part of the agreement – the formation of a “technocratic” government – was always theoretically achievable, and it could occur now.

It wouldn’t be entirely “non-party,” because Mahmoud Abbas would still head the Palestinian Authority, as well as the PLO. But it might be possible to select a group of unaffiliated “independents” to serve as ministers.

There are reasons to doubt whether even this can be achieved. The parties have not agreed on a prime minister, or even the general framework for selecting one. This first hurdle alone could prove a formidable obstacle.

Moreover, renewed tensions are becoming obvious. Fatah prisoners in Gaza have announced a hunger strike. And last week Hamas staged one of its largest demonstrations in Ramallah since 2007, a calculated provocation towards Fatah and the PA. The banns have been read, but the ceremony hasn’t taken place and yet the honeymoon already seems to have soured.

Nonetheless, if they find it necessary, the two sides could agree on a new cabinet in the coming weeks. But even if they did, the practical impact that would have on core realities is dubious indeed.

Palestinians have a long history of presidential authority, with the only truly empowered prime ministers being Mr Abbas himself during his brief tenure under Yasser Arafat, and, especially, Salam Fayyad.

The otherwise uninterrupted Palestinian presidential tradition would, if anything, only be strengthened if Mr Abbas continued to serve as President – and possibly prime minister as well – with a cabinet of non-party members.

With Mr Abbas still in the presidency, what would Hamas’s role in such a new government actually be? Apparently, mainly one of consent. But it’s hard to see how that, in itself, would do anything to change realities on the ground or Palestinian national policies. Even on paper it sounds like an entirely symbolic arrangement.

Yet two crucial players, Israel and the US Congress, may not see it that way.

Israel has already said that it will not negotiate with any “Hamas-backed” Palestinian government, although the exact meaning of that phrase is open to various interpretations. And Palestinians must be concerned about Israel’s ability to withhold their tax revenues. These funds constitute at least 40 per cent of the PA’s budget and mainly go to pay workers in the vast Palestinian public sector.

The PA is simply not fiscally viable without that revenue.

Some key Arab states do not appear to be particularly enthusiastic about this agreement, so a regional bailout doesn’t appear likely or sustainable as an alternative.

The Obama administration has said that any new Palestinian government must oppose violence, recognise Israel and abide by existing commitments. Mr Abbas has repeatedly stated those conditions will be met. Hamas has not contradicted him, though the group emphasises it still won’t recognise Israel.

But Israel may not accept these reasonable stipulations as sufficient. The US Congress might also cut, or even halt, American aid to the PA if Hamas is perceived to be a part of it, even informally. So, unless the formation of a new Palestinian government under this agreement is handled skilfully, it could yield only symbolic benefits while incurring real and very significant costs.

There are even greater obstacles facing the realisation of the other parts of the accord.

It’s hard to imagine elections being held, particularly given Hamas’s dreadful numbers in recent polls.

And Hamas continues to cling to rejectionist positions regarding Israel that make it impossible for it to join the PLO.

Most implausible is Hamas and the PA merging their security forces. And even if there was a reunification of uniformed Palestinian police and security officers, what about Hamas’ paramilitary force, the Qassam Brigades?

Real reconciliation requires a single national authority and armed force. The differences between the parties have not been significantly eased since the brief and unhappy period of political cohabitation ended in the violence of 2007. The necessary conditions for one side to decisively co-opt, defeat or marginalise the other do not yet exist.

Compromises are always possible, but even then the terms will inevitably favour one group over the other.

So this latest agreement almost certainly won’t, and probably couldn’t, really end the Palestinian national split. The only real questions are, will any aspect of this agreement be implemented, and, if so, at what cost?

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a columnist for Now Media and blogs at www.ibishblog.com

On Twitter: @ibishblog

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