May 02, 2011 Edition 11 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
Ramifications of the Palestinian reconciliation agreement
Not a finished product  - Yossi Alpher
Fateh and Hamas did not split because of Israel, and they have not decided to reconcile because of Israel.

Good news for peace  - Ghassan Khatib
The tendency towards unity should be encouraged.

Israel and the US should learn the lessons  - Shlomo Brom
Does this agreement present only risks (mostly the risk that Hamas will take over) or also opportunities?

Pressure from all sides  - an interview with Samir Abu Eisheh
Many sides have suffered from the split plaguing our cause.

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Not a finished product
 Yossi Alpher
The Fateh-Hamas reconciliation announced last week is yet another by-product of the revolutionary wave sweeping the Arab world. As such, it is not a finished product: it is subject to change and evolution. Moreover, in the particular case of the Palestinians, we may also witness changes in the reconciliation process that reflect the shifting tactical calculations of the two partners, much as we have seen in their relationship ever since the 2006 Palestinian elections. Indeed, one difficulty in understanding this new departure is the lack of total clarity regarding both sides' motives.

All these anticipated developments in the reconciliation dynamic will undoubtedly influence the agreement's ramifications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for the positions of third parties like Egypt, Syria and the United States. Accordingly, and cautiously, at this juncture we can only point to a wide variety of potential scenarios for the evolution of the reconciliation agreement and its effect on the conflict.

At one end of the spectrum of scenarios is the distinct possibility that nothing will now happen. Fateh and Hamas will prove incapable of finalizing or implementing their agreement. They will encounter irreconcilable differences over the composition of a unity government, or the integration of Hamas into the PLO, or the merging of the two security forces, or the release by each side of prisoners affiliated with the other. Alternatively, they will succeed in forming a new apolitical government, but nothing else. Thus the influence of the agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process--which in any case is dormant--will be minimal. The PLO and the Palestinian Authority will maintain their momentum toward United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state in September, against the backdrop of a faltering internal Palestinian reunification process.

The most positive scenario from the standpoint of the Palestinian and Israeli peace camps is full implementation of the agreement in such a way that Fateh is clearly dominant and Hamas subordinate. This ensures Fateh ongoing international support and the capacity to credibly represent all the territory it claims for a state, while denying the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem any new excuse for avoiding a peace process. It also positions the PLO optimally for approaching the UN in September.

The worst scenario is probably full implementation in which Hamas is increasingly dominant in government, the PLO and the security services. This bespeaks not just a collapse of prospects for peace and Palestinian statehood, whether in bilateral talks or at the UN. Israel cannot tolerate a government in both Ramallah and Gaza dominated by Hamas as we know it today, with its call for Israel's disappearance and its reliance on terrorist violence. With developments pointing to the possible rise of Muslim Brotherhood influence in both Egypt and Syria, and with Hizballah increasingly dominant in Lebanon, Israel is certain in this scenario to feel seriously threatened by neighboring militant Islamists. Not only will there be no peace prospects, but the danger of a major military clash will grow.

The most likely scenario, of course, is the one no one can predict or define: zigzag progress toward unification, repeated crises, threats of resignation, Israeli intervention (for example, to prevent the Hamas-dominated Palestinian parliament from reconvening). Meanwhile, pending new developments, the Netanyahu government will hopefully continue to cooperate with the PA in the security, economic and other fields as the clock ticks toward the September UN deadline. Netanyahu has a new excuse not to negotiate and will have a new arrow in his quiver when (and if--he may no longer perceive the need) he presents new policy ideas later this month. Regional developments and the American response to inter-Palestinian reconciliation moves could also play a major role in Israel's considerations.

Broadly speaking, there are three schools of thought in Israel regarding West Bank-Gaza reunification and Fateh-Hamas reconciliation. One is that they are a necessary precursor to a successful peace process, insofar as Israel needs a negotiating partner that can truly speak and make commitments for all Palestinians, even if this means tolerating Hamas until it somehow modifies its positions. A second school of thought holds that we are better off with a divided Palestinian polity, with Hamas quarantined in Gaza, even if this means a three-state or "three entity" solution or no solution at all, because it is impossible to coexist for long with militant Islam. A third argues that Hamas can still be vanquished by force and the Hamas genie put back in the bottle.

There is undoubtedly some merit to both the first and second arguments. The third is very problematic and probably counterproductive. But lest we forget, Fateh and Hamas did not split because of Israel, and they have not decided to reconcile because of Israel. As with the broader, volatile situation around us in the region, here too we are best advised, at least at this point in time, not to interfere.-Published 2/5/2011 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Good news for peace
 Ghassan Khatib
The reconciliation agreement that was initialed between Fateh and Hamas and will be signed by them in Cairo, next Wednesday, is good news for both the Palestinian people and the peace process. A united Palestinian people is more conducive to a successful peace process than Palestinians splintered and in conflict. This is especially true if they are united on a political basis compatible to the fundamental requirements of the peace process and international legality.

For years now, Israel has been questioning the readiness of Palestinians for peace on the basis of their disunity. Now, ironically, Israel is questioning the readiness of Palestinians on the basis of their reconciliation. This negative Israeli attitude is consistent with its isolated position on many other issues pertaining to the conflict. Indeed, Israel was the only country to react in a hostile way to the agreement.

The United Nations, through its secretary general, welcomed the efforts for reconciliation and proffered hope that they would enhance peacemaking efforts. The European Union, through its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, also welcomed the reconciliation efforts and encouraged the parties to pursue peace. Even the United States didn't come out in opposition to the pact, instead reminding everyone of the Quartet conditions as applied to any future Palestinian government.

This agreement should not come as a surprise to anybody. The creative proposal by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad a few months ago opened the door to a new approach to the reconciliation dialogue. He suggested that the political and ideological reconciliation between factions be separated from the formation of a unified government able to take care of all aspects of Palestinian life except security. He proposed that since both Fateh and Hamas seem to be committed to non-violence, as shown by their recent actions, and because the West Bank is under Israeli security control, that the security status quo could be maintained under a government of national institutions.

Hamas, which did not object to the proposal, instead asked questions, saying that it expected to hear from Fateh leaders, particularly the president. A few weeks later, Mahmoud Abbas, in response to an invitation by Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, proposed that he visit Gaza to finalize a deal for an agreed-on national unity government composed of independent technocrat ministers.

Behind the scenes, recent months have witnessed modifications in the positions of Fateh and Hamas that enabled them to come to a compromise. There have been three factors contributing to their flexibility. The first is the ongoing failure of the peace process and the weakness of American mediation that in turn weakened the Palestinian leadership--especially at a time when it was unable to conduct elections and renew its legitimacy. The second factor was regional: the ongoing changes in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt (which was the primary supporter of Fateh) and the changes in Syria (which hosts the Hamas leadership) narrowed both sides' room to maneuver.

The third factor is local, as there has been a significant increase in public pressure on both Hamas in Gaza and Fateh in the West Bank to come to some kind of deal. This pressure culminated in the middle of March during the wave of popular demonstrations initiated by youth inspired by the "Arab spring".

For these reasons, the tendency towards unity should be encouraged, particularly that its only immediate practical outcome is an interim government that has a political platform consistent with that of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Internal political dialogue over the course of the coming year until new elections are held should be used to attract Hamas to become part of the Palestinian political system rather than remaining outside it as a spoiler, capable of ruining any serious negotiations or a potential peace deal.-Published 2/5/2011

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Israel and the US should learn the lessons
 Shlomo Brom
Most commentators were caught by surprise by the announcement on April 27 of a Fateh-Hamas reconciliation agreement. The conventional wisdom had held that while the two movements were going through the motions of trying to reach an agreement, they did not really mean it; the gaps separating their positions were too wide and they did not trust each other.

What caused the change is apparently the combination of recent turmoil in the Arab world, the complete deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and frustration over the international community's lack of will and capacity to facilitate a solution.

Not all the details of the agreement are known. But it seems that Hamas was the party that made most of the concessions to enable it. The agreement is based on an Egyptian proposal from October 2010 that repeats the basics of an offer made previously by PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Fateh accepted the Egyptian proposal last October 14, while Hamas rejected it vehemently.

The change in Hamas' position reflects the fact that Hamas is not as confident that the upheavals in the Arab world are going to strengthen it as its spokesmen would have us believe. The Hamas leadership is quite concerned lest the unrest overflow into Gaza and threaten its rule; this was manifested not too long ago in the brutal suppression of demonstrations there. The Hamas government suffers from a problem of legitimacy and faces a decrease in public support because of its past refusal to hold new elections and the fact that its rule is based solely on security organs, like the other authoritarian Arab regimes. This is reflected in public opinion polls that show that Fateh enjoys much more support than Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas is also concerned that changes in the Arab world may not necessarily prove favorable from its point of view. True, the hostile Mubarak regime in Egypt is gone. But events in Syria may threaten a very important support base and there are many lingering uncertainties concerning Egypt. These factors generated renewed interest in cooperating with Egyptian efforts to achieve Palestinian reconciliation. On the other hand, negotiations with Israel did not serve as an obstacle because in any event they are at a standstill.

Fateh's motives are both similar and different. Although it dealt with limited protests in the West Bank in a more sophisticated and effective way then Hamas, Fateh is also disturbed by its perceived lack of legitimacy and the difficulty of carrying out elections that could endow its rule with legitimacy. Like Hamas, Fateh well understood that protests among the Palestinian public center around the wish for reconciliation and reunification of the Palestinian people. Fateh could hardly say no when Hamas accepted a proposal that is basically its own.

Fateh had another motive as well. Behind its facade of confidence in the success of the Palestinian campaign for international recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, there is much concern that the campaign will end in a fiasco. Undoubtedly, a large majority will vote for this resolution at the General Assembly in September. But what happens if nothing changes on the ground once the resolution is approved? Disappointment among the Palestinian public could exact a heavy political price from Fateh and its leadership. The agreement gives Fateh a way out of this embarrassment.

It is too early to certify that Fateh and Hamas have really succeeded in bridging the gaps separating their positions. The devil is in the details: when they have to agree on the composition of the government of experts and of the central elections committee, the format of elections, the details of Hamas' accession to the PLO and all the other issues--Fateh and Hamas may still run into trouble and the whole agreement could collapse once again.

As to Israel and the international community, the reconciliation agreement demonstrates the final bankruptcy of their policies vis-a-vis the Palestinian split. These policies were based on embracing the Abbas government and rejecting and punishing the Hamas government as long as it did not accept the three conditions of the Quartet. It was assumed that this strategy would lead to a better situation in the West Bank in comparison to the Gaza Strip, thus bringing about an increase in support for the Abbas government and a reduction in support for Hamas. That indeed has occurred.

Another important element at least for the United States and the international community was effective negotiations leading to a permanent status agreement. The assumption here was once again that this would lend legitimacy to the Abbas government and create enormous pressure on Hamas to yield to international demands and join in. In fact, these policies were bankrupt even before the reconciliation agreement. For one, it was not clear how the decrease in support for Hamas would lead to the downfall of the Hamas government or to a dramatic change in its positions. Then too, the Obama administration failed in jumpstarting effective negotiations. The flotilla fiasco also served to reduce pressure on Hamas. The reconciliation agreement is merely the last nail in this policy's coffin.

Now, Israel and the US should learn the lessons and make up their mind. Does this agreement present only risks (mostly the risk that Hamas will take over) or also opportunities? Abbas himself hinted at these opportunities when he said the negotiations are the responsibility of the PLO, which he leads, and not the government. It may be possible, based on what appear to be Hamas vulnerabilities, to continue the dialogue with Israel and the good relations between the organs of the two governments of Israel and the Palestinian Authority while Hamas finds itself in a situation whereby it has to cooperate with these policies. Hamas will also probably now come under stronger pressure to maintain the ceasefire in Gaza.

There may be elements in the Obama administration that accept such a concept. It is difficult to expect this of a Netanyahu government that fell back on the Pavlovian reflex of issuing threats aimed at Abbas and that probably is not really interested in effective negotiations regarding a permanent status agreement.-Published 2/5/2011 ©

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv.

Pressure from all sides
an interview with Samir Abu Eisheh
bitterlemons: What, in your opinion, were the factors that allowed the Palestinian factions Fateh and Hamas to come to a reconciliation deal?

Abu Eisheh: There is a Palestinian need, changes in the atmosphere and an international position that pushed the Palestinians to this step. There is internal pressure to end the split, as exemplified by the youth demonstrations on March 15. Many sides have suffered from the split plaguing our cause; its impact on politics has been negative.

In Gaza, the blockade continues despite the need for reconstruction. All of these issues created pressure, and there has been no progress--not in the negotiations or successes by the Palestinian Authority or the government in Gaza.

Also, the conditions in the Arab world, especially in Egypt, played a great role in reaching this agreement. Personally, I think this played an immense role--there was conviction through the new Egyptian atmosphere that Palestinian reconciliation was an important goal and that it was important to be fair and not discriminate against one party in favor of another.

bitterlemons: What about changes in the rest of the Arab world?

Abu Eisheh: The Arab revolutions pushed Palestinians to think about the importance and need for reconciliation and being on the same page. On the international side, of course, there were some statements from parties, for example the French position that welcomed this agreement without repeating the requirements of the Quartet [that Hamas must recognize Israel and past agreements and renounce violence]. They saw [the agreement] as a requirement for an independent, Palestinian state, and that is a very positive development.

The United States position is wavering between being negative and hesitating, but previous US positions such as the veto [employed in the United Nations Security Council] pointed to this. These positions pushed Palestinians to another stage and caused the Palestinian Authority to revise its positions related to the cause and peace process.

All of these elements pushed Palestinians towards change and towards compromise on some details and, God willing, the signing of the Egyptian paper.

bitterlemons: Already we have started to see sanctions imposed by the Israeli government on the Palestinians, in the form of halting Palestinian tax transfers. Can the reconciliation agreement survive this pressure?

Abu Eisheh: If the international community continues to demand from Palestinians to remain true to the signed agreements, then now--now exactly--the international community must also demand from Israel that it respect past agreements.

These funds are not from Israel; they are taxes that are collected for us and then transferred to us, the Palestinians. This takeover of Palestinian funds is illegal, and a breaking of agreements, and the international community is now faced with its obligations vis-a-vis [those agreements]. We lived with this situation for 15 months during the tenth and eleventh government under great pressure, and I think there is a need for a strong international position in this regard.

bitterlemons: Your experience says it is very difficult for the Palestinian Authority to live without those tax revenues. Do you have any suggestions for the coming government?

Abu Eisheh: True. When we were in the government, there was no solution except to cut spending in numerous sectors and increase funding from other sources: Arab and Islamic. There is also a need to develop economic pressure mechanisms on Israel, but this takes time.-Published 2/5/2011 ©

Samir Abu Eisheh was minister of planning in the Palestinian national unity government between March and June 2007, and also served in this position in the government formed by Hamas in 2006.