January 16, 2012 Edition 2 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
The Fateh-Hamas reconciliation process and the conflict
Playing for time  - Yossi Alpher
Any sort of breakthrough in the Hamas-Fateh negotiations is liable to scuttle both the Amman talks and the UN track.

Israel plays a role  - Ghassan Khatib
Israel's occupation was never an issue of military or security control alone.

Israel needs a positive approach to Hamas-Fateh reconciliation  - Shlomo Brom
Hamas wishes to be perceived as part of the "Arab spring" and not another dictatorial clique.

A long and arduous process  - an interview with Qais Abu Layla
There are major and serious obstacles in the way of the reconciliation.

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Playing for time
 Yossi Alpher
Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is currently managing two very different and in many ways contradictory negotiating tracks. Neither has produced any sort of substantive success thus far. If one does produce a breakthrough, the other will probably collapse. Meanwhile, the counterpoint between them is instructive.

In Amman, Abbas' representative Saeb Erekat is discussing with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's delegate, Yitzhak Molcho, the conditions for a possible renewal of final status negotiations. In Cairo, Abbas has met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to chart a course for Hamas-Fateh reconciliation within the framework of the PLO as well as through the instrument of new Palestinian Authority elections.

In agreeing to the Amman talks, Abbas is catering to the need of Jordan's King Abdullah II to demonstrate progress toward greater Israeli-Palestinian understanding as a means of stabilizing his kingdom and his rule in the face of widespread popular dissatisfaction. Abdullah, who is visiting Washington this week, can brag there about having brought Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table at a time when the Obama administration and the Quartet have proven incapable of doing so.

In entering into negotiations with Meshaal in Cairo--talks that have extended into Gaza as well--Abbas is bowing to pressure from Egypt's military rulers. The latter, for their part, have adopted a conciliatory attitude toward Hamas that reflects the massive electoral popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more strict Salafists.

Between Amman and Cairo, then, the two tracks of talks appear to reflect developments in the regional Arab revolutionary wave. The Cairo track, in particular, seemingly points to an assessment on Abbas' part that he needs to integrate Hamas into broader Palestinian politics in order to accommodate the rise of political Islam throughout the Arab world. Hamas, incidentally, has condemned the Amman talks, much as it has opposed a third strategy developed in the course of the past year or so by Abbas: an appeal to United Nations and other agencies to delegitimize Israel and support Palestinian statehood. Hamas apparently fears that success for Abbas on either of these tracks would obviate his need to reconcile with the Islamist movement.

But is there any real potential substance to these tracks? The Amman negotiations have no chance of producing genuine progress toward a two-state solution, given the huge gaps separating Abbas' and Netanyahu's positions. The best one can hope for--and this too is doubtful--is agreement on a series of confidence-building measures: Israeli territorial and security concessions in areas B and C of the West Bank in return for a PLO commitment to abandon the UN/de-legitimization track. Netanyahu, who has rejected such moves consistently for three years even after at one point promising the Quartet to adopt them, might theoretically now be "ripe" for this approach if indeed he is contemplating early elections for which he grudgingly needs to point to some sort of negotiating achievement. As for Abbas, he too needs such an achievement for domestic political reasons. Hamas could presumably live with territorial/security confidence-building measures in the West Bank, too.

On the other hand, any sort of breakthrough in the Hamas-Fateh negotiations is liable to scuttle both the Amman talks and the UN track. The Amman talks would suffer because Israel and the United States, if not the entire Quartet, would refuse to deal with a Palestinian leadership that integrates Hamas as currently constituted. The UN track would be abandoned due to Hamas' own disapproval. Netanyahu, who fears real progress toward a two-state solution, would presumably not mourn the demise of either track.

Then why should Netanyahu have a problem with Palestinian reconciliation? After all, Israel should long ago have acknowledged failure to develop a viable strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza. If Israel is receptive to the idea, reconciliation could provide an opening for a possibly productive dialogue with Hamas. The US and the Quartet, too, have to recognize that after 18 years the Oslo process has ceased being relevant and should be replaced with a model that focuses on the kind of territorial agreement Hamas could conceivably live with.

Yet when it comes to Palestinian reconciliation, Israel also has legitimate reasons for caution. Reconciliation, if it happens, will be a by-product of the rise of political Islam throughout the Arab world. We do not know how that revolutionary process will end in any of the affected countries. This reality may even explain why not only Abbas, but Netanyahu too, appears to be playing for time on all fronts.-Published 16/1/2012 ©

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.

Israel plays a role
 Ghassan Khatib
There has always been a very strong correlation between internal Palestinian issues and Palestinian-Israeli relations. This is true because Israel is a key player in all aspects of Palestinian life. Israel's troops are on the ground in the West Bank, and occupy the Gaza Strip by air and sea. But Israel's occupation was never an issue of military or security control alone; it has interfered with Palestinian economic and political development for the four decades of its existence. Because of this, whatever happens inside the occupied Palestinian territories will be affected one way or another by Israeli practices and visa-versa. Reconciliation between the two rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fateh, is one of the best illustrations of that.

On the one hand, Israeli policies and practices in the occupied territories were among the factors that led to the schism between the Palestinian factions. At the same time, that split has impacted Palestinian-Israeli relations. The failure of the peace process to achieve the legitimate Palestinian objectives of ending the occupation ultimately weakened the Palestinian leadership and contributed to the rise of the alternative--Hamas. By the same token, Israeli unilateralism, which reached its climax under former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during the first few years of this century, rendered the Palestinian leadership irrelevant and compounded its decline. The subsequent shift in the balance of power towards Hamas among Palestinians was partially an outcome of Israeli positions and practices.

Palestinians are approaching the reconciliation process with the belief that its success is not only important in serving internal Palestinian objectives--like better government, more efficiency in running the affairs of the Palestinian people, and improved services--but is also crucial in meeting the aims of the peace process, which is based on a two-state solution. A unified Palestinian Authority and leadership governing a less divided society and its polities are ultimately more conducive to peace talks and delivering the Palestinian side of any agreement. At the end of the day, the peace process is about two states, one of them Palestine in the territories Israel occupied in 1967, which include Gaza and the West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem. The current political division contradicts our dreams for this state.

In addition, everyone must acknowledge that Hamas is not a small spoiler that can be left out of Israeli political calculations. Keeping Hamas outside the process and excluded from the legitimate Palestinian political system could also jeopardize the outcome of the peace process.

Recent experience has led many analysts and politicians to conclude that engaging Hamas and involving it collectively in social responsibilities have a moderating effect on the movement. Engaging Hamas empowers its moderates and encourages healthy debate within the group. Isolating it, on the other hand, plays into the hands of the movement's most extreme elements.

For these purposes, Palestinians are having difficulty understanding Israel's anxiety about the reconciliation process. They are suspicious that Israel's hostility to reconciliation arises because Israel is actually hostile to an independent, unified, and contiguous Palestinian state as part of the two-state solution.-Published 16/1/2012 ©

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 needs a positive approach to Hamas-Fateh reconciliation
 Shlomo Brom
The conventional wisdom in Israel holds that Hamas-Fateh reconciliation is detrimental to the peace process. The main argument is that Hamas is a spoiler of the negotiations process because it is a radical Islamic movement guided by a virulent anti-Israel ideology that preaches elimination of the state of Israel. Successful reconciliation would endow Hamas with veto power to block any attempt to achieve a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There is also much concern that Hamas will win the elections that are planned as a stage in the reconciliation process and as a result will take control of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority. This would end any possibility of a viable peace process. Accordingly, Israeli government policies as well as those of the United States strongly oppose the Palestinian reconciliation process. These policies are practiced through threats aimed at the PLO and PA: to cut transfer of tax money collected by Israel for the PA as well as other financial aid, and to stop negotiating with the PLO and the PA.

Cynically, it is possible to argue that to a large extent these arguments are absurd and the threats empty--that this is like discussing the killing of someone who is already dead. The peace process is dead anyway. If there have been no real negotiations for the past two years, what is the meaning of discussing the effect of reconciliation on the peace process and threatening to stop it? The survival of the PA is an Israeli and American interest, so what is the sense of causing its financial bankruptcy?

Yet on a more serious note, one needs to analyze the reasons for the stalemate in the peace process and to deduce from this analysis whether reconciliation will make it more difficult or easier to revive this process.

It seems that the main reason for the deadlock is each side's deep conviction that there is zero probability the other will be willing to conclude a permanent status agreement their own party can live with. On the Israeli side, there are also grave doubts whether the PLO and the PA are capable of implementing any agreement the two parties do conclude. One of the main reasons for these doubts is the division between Fateh and Hamas and the latter's growing power. Hamas governs the Gaza Strip and no agreement can be implemented there without its consent. There is also concern that the "Arab spring" is only going to augment Hamas' power.

The main implication is that we should either wait for political changes among Palestinians and Israelis that enable them to make the tough concessions needed for a permanent status agreement and to implement it--assuming these political changes do eventually take place and that prolongation of the status quo does not create an irreversible situation--or, alternatively, that we devise a new political process that enables gradual progress towards the hoped-for two-state solution.

It seems that the second approach is much more realistic and makes more sense. In this context, Palestinian reconciliation has the potential to facilitate such a gradual process that includes partial and limited agreements or even unilateral steps. The main reason is that Hamas has the capacity to be a partner to this kind of process. This reflects two factors.

First, this kind of process does not force Hamas to completely forego its ideology and its declared policies. The movement will probably not be required to recognize Israel until a later stage of the process--unlike under Quartet conditions that demand recognition as a precondition for any Hamas participation. Hamas has repeatedly declared its willingness to enter into agreement with Israel based on a long-term "hudna" (armistice) in the framework of which a Palestinian state is established. Right now, Hamas' conditions for a hudna cannot be accepted by Israel, but that is the purpose of negotiations--to bridge the gaps between the two parties' positions.

Second, Hamas has an interest in participating in such a process. Since becoming a political player in the legitimate Palestinian political arena, participating in elections and seeking to join the PLO, Hamas has a strong interest in being perceived by the Palestinian population as catering to Palestinians' basic interests: to raise families in an environment where they can live peacefully, enjoy basic human rights and have a reasonable life and a future.

That is also the main message of the Arab spring. It is quite evident that Hamas wishes to be perceived as part of the Arab spring and not another dictatorial clique. For the very same reasons, Hamas has an interest in becoming a legitimate player in the international arena.

Those who fear that Hamas will eventually become the dominant political force in the PA and the PLO have of course reason to be concerned, especially as we witness the rise of Islamic movements all over the Middle East. Yet this dynamic reflects a strong momentum in the present Middle East that can probably not be stopped by artificially sabotaging internal political processes such as Fateh-Hamas reconciliation. Trying to influence the policies of these Islamic movements is a more promising line of action.-Published 16/1/2012 ©

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

A long and arduous process
an interview with  Qais Abu Layla
bitterlemons: In general, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the chances of reconciliation between Hamas and Fateh?

Abu Layla: Optimistic, with serious reservations. I think that this process will be long and ongoing, even though this is not in the national interest or in the interest of the parties. There are major and serious obstacles in the way of the process, some of them from allies of the two parties. Between the pressure put on the parties to continue the reconciliation and the pressures of those opposed, it will be difficult.

bitterlemons: We are hearing daily of new agreements by the various committees working on the reconciliation plans. Can you talk some about this?

Abu Layla: There are two types of agreements that have been reached. There are political agreements, and there are agreements that will help the reconciliation to be implemented. At the top of the list of the latter is the ceasefire with Israel that means Hamas has stopped its military operations against Israel in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as the agreement [to establish] a committee for peaceful resistance, the "authorizing" of [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen and the Palestine Liberation Organization in [Palestinian-Israeli] negotiations, and the agreement between [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshaal and Abu Mazen. It is clear that this agreement is being opposed by some in the ranks of Hamas in Gaza, but in general, this hasn't changed the picture.

The other agreements are related to files of the reconciliation. For example, there is the [agreement to] strengthen the authority of the PLO, in order to unite its organizations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Under this plan, there are activities underway on the ground. For example, the committee to develop the PLO is to plan for elections and includes representatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions. It reached a serious point in its discussions yesterday in Amman and proposed ideas that will allow the reaching of an agreement on organizing elections for the Palestinian National Council [the PLO's parliament].

Also there is the social reconciliation committee, which is intended to resolve the issues of those victimized by the conflict, blood that was shed and so on. This committee is also meeting and has succeeded in achieving steps related to its work. There are also committees related to freedoms and prisoners, one in Gaza and one in the West Bank. Until now, these committees are facing difficulties because all of the decisions they have made are on hold by the security and political decisionmakers on each side. Still, these committees are continuing their work.

The final committee relates to the work of the Central Elections Commission, agreed on by both sides and tasked by decision of the president. [The Commission] was supposed to start work in Gaza, but has not been able to do so. There have been discussions between [Fateh leader] Zakaria al-Agha and [Hamas Prime Minister] Ismail Haniya in Gaza, and Haniya promised to allow the commission to start its work in Gaza. At this time, this promise has not been implemented in a tangible way by Hamas' security organs.

bitterlemons: Why are these obstacles cropping up?

Abu Layla: Like I said, there are two sides to this issue. There are centers of power on each side that are not convinced about the reconciliation, and are also fearful of losing what they gained during the schism. There are also external pressures. The Israelis keep threatening to take measures against the Palestinian Authority if the reconciliation is implemented. And there is also new legislation [in the US Congress] that if the reconciliation is implemented, US support to the Palestinian Authority will be blocked, and threats that the PLO's offices in Washington will be closed. Hamas also has considerations related to the success of political Islam in the Arab world. These developments take a toll on the parties, but the main price is paid in the slowing-down of the process.

bitterlemons: What is the most difficult issue before the parties, in your opinion?

Abu Layla: The most difficult thing is the creation of a unity government and the preparing of that government for new elections--parliamentary, presidential and for the Palestinian National Council. This will establish the reconciliation. All of the other things we talked about are preparatory. We can't say that the division is ended, however, until a shared government is formed, and then that all security issues are resolved, until after the elections are implemented.

bitterlemons: Are representatives of the other factions full participants in this process?

Abu Layla: The talks in Cairo in December were comprehensive and included all the factions and they were the ones that succeeded in establishing the steps that we have discussed. There are still attempts to go outside this framework, but this is considered the serious framework.

bitterlemons: Is it still possible to hold elections in May, as planned?

Abu Layla: This date is not going to be met. The elections were to happen on May 4. But the Central Elections Commission says that it needs at least six weeks after it reestablishes its work in Gaza to prepare for elections. That is 45 days, and then there are another 90 days required by law between the mandating of the elections and the day of their implementation. Even if everything goes smoothly on the political side, that puts us in June or the beginning of July.-Published 16/1/2012 ©

Qais Abu Layla is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a representative of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.