Fateh-Hamas Reconciliation Agreement: An Opportunity for Peace

Palestinians celebrate the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas at a rally in Gaza on May 4.

After four years of political split and two governments, one led by Fateh in the West Bank and the other led by Hamas in Gaza—four years of incitement and imprisonment of political opponents—both parties agreed to reconciliation. With the mediation of Egypt, Fateh and Hamas signed an agreement that calls for the formation of a temporary technocratic government, elections within a year, and joint responsibility for security forces. The temporary government will subscribe to the PLO political program, will get a vote from the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council, and will deal with the Quartet and the international community as a whole. 

A number of regional and internal factors have motivated Fateh and Hamas to sign the reconciliation agreement. First, the revolutionary movement underway in the region—with Egypt as a focal point, along with the political upheavals in Syria—made both parties realize that the balance of power in the Middle East is changing, and that today's Egypt is stepping out of the Mubarak shadow, reclaiming its historical role as a leader of the Arab world. It is thus in this context—while still challenged by internal turmoil, unemployment, poverty and corruption—that Egypt, motivated by its interest in reviving its regional role, looked for a major success to create a positive image in the intra-Arab political context and mediated in bringing a reconciliation agreement between the two competing Palestinian movements. 

Second, the hope and optimism generated by the Arab revolutions motivated the Palestinian public, which openly opposed policies adopted in the West Bank and Gaza by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, respectively. It is no secret that while Hamas has been overall effective in preventing violence against Israel from Gaza, its popular support among Gazans is very low, and it is frustrated that its security achievements have not been recognized, let alone rewarded, by Israel. Therefore, Hamas has listened to the winds of change, which could potentially bring regional and international recognition to it.

Third, the failure of the Quartet-led peace process that climaxed with the convening of the Annapolis conference in 2007 added a lot to the frustration of the Palestinian public. The Annapolis Conference aimed to provide a framework for negotiations and economic support through the Palestinian Reform and Development Plan (PRDP) in order to build a Palestinian state, but none of the political goals of Annapolis were achieved, while Israel continued its settlement expansion throughout the West Bank.

Fourth, the failure of the United States to develop a more visible and coherent message on American policy and intentions on Israeli-Palestinian issues, and the fact that the United States has not articulated a strategy for the peace process beyond trying to get negotiations started, reinforced disappointment on the Palestinian side. The failed approach on the settlements issue should have figured into the negotiating process, but instead has been taken out of its context. The U.S. February veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory further boosted disappointment for the Palestinians.

The Fateh-Hamas reconciliation agreement can turn into a potentially positive step forward and transform into a constructive force of change that can not only pursue a critical review of the Oslo process and the subsequent 15 years of failed efforts, but explore new ideas such as the Israeli Peace Initiative (IPI), the Jerusalem Old City Initiative and the Parallel States Project.

The IPIis a private endeavour that builds on previous efforts such as the Arab Peace Initiative (API), the Clinton parameters, the Annapolis process, Geneva and Israeli-Syrian negotiations. It is designed to outline an end game and examine if Israel and the Arab states could commit to a set of realistic deals without compromising Israel's strategic interests. Key elements of this initiative include significant Israeli concessions in return for an end to the conflict, a two-state solution, and thinking beyond bilateral and toward regional multilateral relations. The proposal moves away from the language of normalization to building normal ties, and views economic development not as a fig leaf, but as a building block. IPI envisions becoming a constructive response to the API so that, when bilateral talks begin, the API and IPI together can provide an alternative upon which a detailed Regional Peace Initiative can be constructed.

The Jerusalem Old City Initiative (JOCI) is a Track II process based at the University of Windsor that explores the possibility of a special regime for the Old City of Jerusalem and its holy sites as an option for resolving the conflicting claims. It attempts to establish a system to manage the holy places and issues of friction within a robust security framework and mechanism. The parameters for the JOCI special regime determine that it cannot be imposed by the outside; it must be owned by Israel and the Palestinians together, and it must be rooted in their peace treaty. The JOCI initiative foresees a mandate for the special regime imbedded in the Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement; a governance board appointed by the states of Israel and Palestine that will include other international members selected by them; a police service recruited from countries approved by Israel and Palestine; and an advisory religious council of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clerics.

The Parallel States Projectis an academic project based at the Centre for Middle East Studies at Lund University, which attempts to introduce new ideas and reframe old concepts. Taking into account global trends designed to dilute the concept of sovereignty, and the decreasing role of the nation state, the project is exploring whether two states can coexist on the same territory in the sense that a two-state structure that covers one territory has politically separated populations. Such a structure would require a joint security framework and an economic union. While both populations would keep their heads of state, national symbols, foreign policy and representation, they would enter into an economic union based on one economic policy, a customs union, a joint labor market and programs to reduce economic imbalances. The challenges are enormous, but such an arrangement would permit Israelis and Palestinians to maintain national identities, establish a Palestinian state, sustain a Jewish state that is both Jewish and democratic, and thus bring an end to the conflict.

Additionally, the Fateh-Hamas reconciliation agreement can potentially offer a golden opportunity for the United States to reemerge as an honest player that promotes discussion for peace within Israel jointly with the Palestinians to emphasize the prospects and the advantages to normalization. It is noteworthy that polling suggests a majority of Israelis support talks aimed at a two-state solution. The Israeli prime minister's avoidance of negotiations is not driven by public opinion. On the other hand, Israelis are solidly behind their premier's demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and they believe that Israel will be criticized by a hostile international community regardless of what their government does.

Under the present circumstances, the United States needs to improve public diplomacy efforts towards Israel and the Palestinians, including a presidential visit, to explain the U.S. strategy and reinforce support for negotiations. The United States needs to restore confidence with the Palestinian side, since the first two years of the Obama administration have been discouraging to Palestinians, who were greatly encouraged by the American president's early statements and speeches as well as the apparent contrast with former president George W. Bush. The slow pace set by Senator George Mitchell on negotiations, U.S. backtracking on the settlements issue and a lack of noticeable results from the proximity talks all account for this disappointment.

It might prove catalytic for the United States to consider promoting ideas such as IPI and JOCI or to lay down clear terms of reference and parameters for a final agreement to establish an orderly process for talks to follow. Additionally, the United States seems that it has to re-evaluate its negotiating structure, as too many U.S. voices generate regional confusion, and stay out of internal politics between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. President Obama has come into office with a general policy of engaging those with whom the United States disagrees, but has not applied it to Hamas. The Palestinian reconciliation agreement, along with the historical precedent according to which the PLO changed in the past its approach towards Israel from unrelenting armed hostility to negotiation, both provide a useful tool of how engagement can bring about change.

The only way to move forward is to act responsibly. If the interested parties with the help of the international community fail to return to the negotiating table to discuss a peaceful two-state solution, then the conflict may take on a more religious character, violence will increase—not just in the Israeli-Palestinian theatre as the ongoing revolutionary regional movement suggests—and the Palestinians will turn back to a one-state solution. Peace is necessary, and as pioneers of negotiations propose, another world for Israelis and Palestinians is possible.



Antonia Dimou is head of the Middle East and Persian Gulf Unit at the Institute for Security and Defense Analyses based in Athens, Greece, and an associate at the Centre for Strategic Studies, University of Jordan, Amman, Jordan. Her views can be accessed at: http://www. antoniadimou.blogspot.com.

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