November 21, 2011 Edition 33 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
Ramifications of a Palestinian unity government
The problem is not reconciliation  - Ghassan Khatib
Implementation of the reconciliation agreement should not contradict efforts to resume the peace process with Israel.

The regional Islamist circumstances are changing  - Yossi Alpher
The integration of Hamas into the fabric of overall Palestinian government and even security may be inevitable.

Is it possible to have a unity government with zero risks?  - Maher Abukhater
Palestinians are going to demand that reconciliation and a unity government not come at their expense.

Where reconciliation could fail or succeed  - Amira Hass
There is a contradiction between the term "reconciliation government" and the hopes that are pinned on reconciliation.

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The problem is not reconciliation
 Ghassan Khatib
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced last week that he plans to meet the head of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, on November 25 to discuss two issues. First, the leaders will discuss the future and challenges facing the Palestinian cause, and second, they will explore the prospects for reconciling the two factions they head and implementing a reconciliation agreement signed in May.

This announcement opened the door to analysis and speculation by journalists and commentators, as well as reactions by politicians. Probably the most dramatic response came at a November 21 meeting of the Israeli inner cabinet, which decided to continue withholding taxes collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority as a form of punishment for the Abbas-Meshaal meeting. Otherwise, there really wasn't any official negative reaction from other governments or leaders.

Palestinians, on the other hand, as well as regional and international commentators, have been fervently debating what this announcement means. The first subject of the coming meeting (and from Abbas' point of view the most important topic overall)--the challenges facing the Palestinian people--has not received a great deal of attention. What has stirred the most commentary, in fact, is the possibility of Hamas-Fateh reconciliation.

There is no doubt that there is a lot of public pressure on both these factions to end their differences. There is a consensus among the Palestinian public and political factions, in addition to the wider Arab public, that reconciliation is a priority and a prerequisite for achieving other things. (Indeed, reading the document that was issued by the membership committee of the United Nations Security Council in response to Palestinians' application for member state status, the Hamas-Fateh divide and Hamas' control of Gaza were among the main justifications given for the committee's negative reply.) Another recent development that attracted a great deal of attention was Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's statement urging the factions to reconcile and, at the same time, pressing them to agree on a new prime minister.

The implementation of the reconciliation agreement, which includes achieving a national unity government, should not contradict efforts to resume the peace process with Israel. Indeed, a unified Palestinian political position and the end of Hamas' control over Gaza would create conditions more conducive to the peace process by endowing the Palestinian leadership with the ability to deliver on future agreements.

In fact, the reconciliation agreement was particularly sensitive to this point, taking care to honor Palestinian obligations and commitments to international legality and signed agreements with Israel. It also made clear that the unity government, an interim cabinet that will govern until elections, is not to include any members of political factions, particularly members of Hamas or Fateh, and will uphold the political platform of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the president. Therefore, the noise Israeli is making about these reconciliation efforts is groundless and can be seen as an additional excuse for avoiding engaging in a serious peace process for a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders.

Finally, despite the optimistic statements that have been coming from some Palestinian politicians--in fact a mixture of speculation and wishful thinking--it is too early to be optimistic about this nascent effort. While Abbas is apparently enthusiastic and serious, Hamas has two reasons not to make haste. First, its leaders appear to feel that Fateh is coming to the reconciliation talks from a position of weakness resulting from the way Israel has been treating it (i.e., neglecting the peace process that Fateh is committed to) and because the practical outcome of Abbas' UN bid has been negligible. Second, Hamas is in no hurry because developments from the "Arab spring" may give it a boost vis-a-vis Fateh, especially if elections in nearby Egypt do in fact bring the Islamic movement to power there.-Published 21/11/2011 ©

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

The regional Islamist circumstances are changing
 Yossi Alpher
The notion of integrating Hamas, and with it the Gaza Strip, into a Palestinian unity government reflects the primary trend that has thus far defined the Arab revolutionary wave: Arab Islamist movements are entering government. In this sense, Hamas' victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections was very much a harbinger of things to come elsewhere in the Arab world. Nor, by the same token, is it a coincidence that the ruling Egyptian military government that facilitated last May's Palestinian reconciliation agreement and is currently hosting Fateh-Hamas talks on new elections next May is also ushering Egypt's own Muslim Brotherhood into elections and government.

This broad Arab Islamist backdrop to Fateh-Hamas contacts should not be lost on Israel and its supporters. It means that, seen as part of a greater, region-wide scheme, the integration of Hamas into the fabric of overall Palestinian government and even security may be inevitable. Certainly, it seems more likely this time around than in 2006. Then again, because the Palestinian reality is so different from the rest of the Arab world, it still may not happen.

This presents us with two basic scenarios, not only for Palestinian governance but for Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The first possibility, following on the precedents observed thus far on the Palestinian scene, is that the reconciliation process will again break down: there will be no technocrat government, or if there is there will be no elections, or their outcome will be disputed or they will quickly lead to new strife, as in 2007. Meanwhile, there will be no peace process, not only because Palestinians are busy with their own problems but because the anti-process status quo will prevail.

There is little need to elaborate on this scenario, which posits an ongoing reality of two Palestinian entities. The only real question is whether, where, and to what extent large-scale violence will return.

A second possibility is that, precisely because the Arab world has changed so radically, we will now witness successful reconciliation, at least to the point of creating a technocrat government and holding new elections. Here, too, there will be no change in the peace process deadlock at least until well after elections next May, as the electoral platforms of both Fateh and Hamas will feature their successes in defying Israel and the will of the American-led Quartet: Fateh in appealing to the United Nations for recognition and Gaza-based Hamas in surviving and improving its relations with much of the Arab world under cover of the "Arab spring".

Let us assume that Palestinian reconciliation elections produce some sort of renewed unity government. Where would this leave the peace process?

I would argue that in a hypothetical best case (for Israel's long-term wellbeing and for peace), this process would strengthen the prospect of Israel confronting a Palestinian polity that seeks international recognition for the 1967 borders with land swaps and a capital in East Jerusalem, while maintaining security and setting aside the refugee and holy places issues. Not only does Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas justify the election move with Hamas in terms of proving to the United Nations that the government of Palestine controls all its territory (meaning Gaza) in a unified manner and therefore qualifies for state recognition. But Hamas' extreme positions regarding Israel could hardly sustain negotiations over anything more.

In other words, it may be possible to imagine a joint Fateh-Hamas government that controls the Gaza Strip and roughly 40 percent of the West Bank offering to discuss the 1967 borders with Israel, with some form of enhanced UN recognition and broad international support. For this to happen, Fateh would probably have to gain the upper hand in Palestinian elections. On the other hand, Israel should be aware that the Quartet and others in the international community that have hitherto rejected any form of contact with Hamas may--as they increasingly confront an Arab world in which political Islam plays an active role--feel obliged to soften their approach.

This would--again, in the best case--bring us back to the concept of a "win-win" proposition that I have been advocating in these virtual pages for around a year: Israel and the Palestinians accept a post-Oslo territorial two-state solution that confirms Israel's status as a Jewish state and provides security guarantees but does not, for the moment, seek to end the entire conflict. Confronted by Hamas' involvement in Palestinian governance, Israel might find it easier to acquiesce in an approach that recognizes that the "pre-1967" aspects of the conflict cannot, for the moment, be resolved. So, too, might Hamas--if it could see its way, perhaps with Egyptian help, to modifying its existential rejection of Israel.

And the worst (and, sadly, more likely) case for a post-reconciliation, post-election, unity-government scenario? Hamas remains as extreme as ever and the Netanyahu government as determined as before to push its hard-line settlements agenda. Consequently, the prospect of violence grows exponentially, and with it, confrontation between Israel and the forces of Islam emerging around it.-Published 21/11/2011 ©

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.

Is it possible to have a unity government with zero risks?
 Maher Abukhater
If there is going to be a Palestinian unity government, what will that mean for Palestinians and the peace process?

Concerning the peace process, Palestinians in general would say: "what peace process?" No one seems worried about impacting a peace process that is obviously long gone.

As for the Palestinian people, the issue is more serious. On the one hand, a unity government would lead to reunification of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which means strengthening the home front in light of a bleak and uncertain future. In general, there is strong support for this move.

But, on the other, there is apprehension concerning its ramifications on Palestinian daily life.

The United States and Israel are warning that a unity government that includes Hamas would have serious long-term negative repercussions on the Palestinian people in general, and that makes people stop and think.

It wasn't long ago that Palestinians experienced what this means. Tens of thousands of Palestinians went for more than a year without pay when main donors suspended their aid following Hamas' victory in the 2006 legislative elections and its subsequent formation of a government headed and run by Hamas members.

If it hadn't been for handouts and charity from the European Union and some Arab countries that allowed people to put food on the table, the outcome would have been disastrous. Even the short-lived unity government between Fateh and Hamas that came to salvage the situation was not enough to convince the West to end these sanctions and allow a resumption of aid.

The division that subsequently occurred between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas following the latter's takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 was actually a blessing in disguise not only for 200,000 Palestinian public employees and their families, but for the country as a whole. When employees started getting paid again after western aid began to pour into the new Hamas-free government headed by Salam Fayyad, the wheels of the economy started to roll again and the country was salvaged from total anarchy and collapse.

The memories of those dark days are still vivid in the minds of every Palestinian, and therefore when they hear that this may happen again--and very soon--they wonder if the reconciliation is worth the sacrifice.

All being said, one must then ask, why assume that a unity government has to include Hamas? Can't there be a unity government of only independent technocrats as called for by President Mahmoud Abbas?

Of course there can (and everyone expects it to be so). When Abbas signed the reconciliation agreement with Hamas on May 4 he said clearly that he does not want a government that will return sanctions.

Israel has already initiated steps giving Palestinians a taste of what it would be like if there is reconciliation with Hamas, suspending the transfer of more than $100 million of tax revenues it collects monthly on behalf of the Palestinian Authority on goods passing through Israeli ports. The United States is also not that far behind with serious warnings coming from Congress and the Obama administration that all funds will be suspended if Hamas returns to the Palestinian Authority. The US Agency for International Development has already informed hundreds of Palestinians working in projects it is funding that there is no more money coming in for these projects and that they will all soon be shut down. The Palestinians working on these projects are soon going to be unemployed.

Many Palestinians, recently accustomed to a western-style life with big bank loans used to buy new cars and apartments, can no longer afford to be asked to change their lifestyle and tighten their belts for the sake of bringing Hamas into the fold once again. In this case, they would be asked to make a great sacrifice and most are not willing to do it. They are going to demand that reconciliation and a subsequent unity government not come at their expense.

Abbas will have to find a solution to this dilemma, and it has to be soon. It is true that the West, particularly the US, has abandoned him, and he feels bitter about it, and a negotiated peace settlement he has long advocated has faltered. But it is the welfare of his people, who have turned him into a national hero, that he has to think about when he makes his next move.

There are many in Hamas and Fateh who seriously doubt that the reconciliation talks are going to produce a unity government (or end the division, for that matter) because neither side seems ready to trust the other's intentions. Each seems to have demands that the other cannot meet, foremost of which is what kind of government should be formed and who should run it.-Published 21/11/2011 ©

Maher Abukhater is a journalist.

Where reconciliation could fail or succeed
 Amira Hass
My crystal ball shattered long ago, so I cannot predict whether or not a Palestinian reconciliation government will indeed come into being. All I can do is offer a few thoughts and questions, and emphasize that it is not my Israeli identity that is responsible for them but rather my left-wing identity.

First, there is a contradiction between the term "reconciliation government" and the hopes that are pinned on reconciliation. "Government" (even a new one) conjures up mild regulation along the lines that have evolved over the past 20 years, namely international subsidizing of Israeli occupation and its socio-economic and security cost to Palestinians (in Gaza, add to the subsidizers Iranians and other Islamic sources). This sustains social groups that are embedded in the limited self-government apparatus to the point where its very existence becomes the objective. Not only the bureaucracies but even the means of national struggle for independence, including the use of arms, have rusted and become sclerotic; they have evolved into a mechanism for maintaining two self-governments.

Second, the illusion that self-government could develop into a state has been shattered. No one thinks that Israel of today is interested in an agreed solution, unless it is capitulation. The popular hope is that reconciliation, along with the bid for United Nations membership, will bespeak a new way that defies the patron (Israel and the West, particularly the United States), if only because it's obvious that the patron opposes reconciliation. The assumption is that reconciliation--like the UN bid--signals clearly that the Oslo phase is over. Creativity is now expected. Can those who participate in reconciliation talks develop creativity on their own?

Third, the illusory existence of a "Palestinian government" with ministers and ministries and sovereign ceremonies--but in reality with less authority than a municipality--is an inseparable aspect of the Oslo process. In this regard, there is no difference between Hamas and Fateh as ruling party. It is the representative function of the Ramallah government vis-a-vis the international community that creates the illusion of the "real thing", while the Gaza Strip's existence as an autarchic geographic entity renders it easy for the Gaza government to pass for sovereign.

Fourth, the crumbling Fateh movement now has to persuade us that reconciliation is not just a means of trying to rehabilitate itself or of delaying its inevitable evolution toward non-relevance. Ever since it ensured its rule over the Gaza enclave, Hamas has been doing all in its power to prove that it, as an Islamist national movement, is capable of ruling better than Fateh. If we factor in the draconian siege of the Strip and the western boycott, Hamas seems to display more cunning governance skills than Fateh. Would it have been as successful without its reliance on internal repression and without Israel's closure policy? One way or another, reconciliation involves a greater concession on the part of Hamas/Gaza than Fateh. Is its willingness--and not just the agreement of Hamas Politburo Chairman Khaled Meshaal--assured?

Fifth, if the two parties are interested in addressing popular expectations, they will deal less with the identity of the new prime minister and instead begin by dispensing with the very deceptive concept of "government" and its division into "ministries" a-la-Britain. It is not a semantic change that is required. Is it possible to create a new type of collective leadership? Can the old two-headed leadership generate a new collective? Is the old leadership, particularly in the West Bank enclaves, capable of foregoing the material returns and pleasures of (limited) power that produced the illusion of rule until now?

Sixth, the assumption that it is worthwhile and possible to hold free elections to the representative institutions of the Palestinian Authority in the shadow of Israeli occupation is also an inseparable aspect of the Oslo self-deceit. Elections, by their very nature, sharpen differences and generate competitiveness. That's good for the occupier and bad for the occupied. The democratic element embodied in elections--constant monitoring of the elected representative--is eroded insofar as the dates of new elections are constantly changing. Just how well the competitive-differentiating element of elections served Israel's separation policy has been demonstrated since 2006. Would it not be preferable to forego party-based elections and develop alternative means, meaning direct democracy, to facilitate the discussion of tactics and strategies for realizing self-determination and to choose representatives? To this end, it is necessary to restrain the authoritarian inclinations developed by the autonomous governments in the West Bank and the Strip. Is this possible?

Seventh, Israel and the West are likely to respond to reconciliation and the new way with malicious economic penalties and blocking of funds (taxes, customs duties and donations) that disrupt the ways of life that have emerged in the course of the past 20 years. Accordingly, the reconciliation process requires preparations for dealing with this evil while maintaining public support for the process and for those who represent it. How?

Eighth, rehabilitating the Palestine Liberation Organization as the representative body of the entire Palestinian people--including all-Palestinian elections in Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora--sounds more and more like a creative option that grabs peoples' imagination. Reconciliation could be a means for hastening this option.-Published 21/11/2011 ©

Amira Hass has been Haaretz correspondent in the occupied territories since 1993.