The Israeli-Palestine peace process has been hit by the political equivalent of a tsunami. The announcement on April 23 of a reconciliation deal between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority government of the West Bank and Hamas, the Islamic militant organization controlling Gaza, has caused a political upheaval. The deal aims to form a Palestine unity government within five weeks and then go for national elections after six months. Both Israel and the United States of America have been surprised by this new unity move of the two estranged Palestinian factions.
The Palestinian movement for full nationhood has been split between the moderate Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas, the Islamic militant faction. The Palestinian Authority favours reconciliation with Israel, leading to a peace deal that would include the recognition of Israel and the establishment of a sovereign and independent Palestine, with defined borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Hamas, founded in 1987 as a sub group of the Egyptian Islamic Brotherhood, maintains an armed wing called the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades, responsible for numerous attacks inside Israel on both civilian and military targets.
After the Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian parliament in the January 2006 election, it ousted the Fatah faction from Gaza and took control of this part of Palestine. Following this, the US, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union attached several strings to the flow of foreign assistance to the Palestinian Authority, demanding commitment to non-violence, the recognition of Israel and the non-repudiation of previous agreements. Hamas opposed these conditions, leading to a suspension of foreign assistance. Israel imposed an economic blockade on Gaza. Hamas and Fatah expelled each other’s officials and the Palestinian Authority retreated to the West Bank town of Ramallah from where it operates to this day. Hamas retained full control of Gaza and the Palestinian freedom movement became bitterly divided.
Moderating its stance in July 2009, the Hamas’s political bureau chief, Khaled Mashal, announced that the Hamas would be willing to work for a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict provided that a Palestinian state was established based on the 1967 borders, that Palestinian refugees would have the right of return to the new state and East Jerusalem would be recognized as the capital.
The prime minister of the Hamas-led government in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, has proclaimed that internal division among Palestinians has disappeared. This move aims to heal the rift that began in June 2007, when the Hamas took over the administration of Gaza, after defeating forces loyal to the Palestine Liberation Organization, of which the main faction is the Fatah group, led by the late Yasser Arafat. The current agreement between the two rival Palestinian factions is likely to include legislative, presidential and the PLO’s national council elections. Mahmoud Abbas will decide the date for the polls, after around six months of the formation of the unity government.
The reconciliation move drew an angry reaction from the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who said that Abbas must choose between peace with Israel and peace with the Hamas. Israel considers the Hamas a terrorist organization. The US and the EU also list Hamas as a terrorist organization but that has not prevented discussions with similar organizations in the Arab world. The US and the EU have engaged the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia, Islamic rebel groups in Syria that have committed the most atrocious violence and even the Taliban in Afghanistan when it suited their interest. Even Israel has not hesitated in negotiating with the Hamas.
Israel’s angry rhetoric against Palestinian reconciliation betrays surprise, anger, bitterness and some nervousness. A fuming Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, thundered that peace with the Palestinians was “impossible”. The peace talks had already run into trouble when the Palestinian Authority decided to join earlier this month, defying warnings from the US and Israel. This led to Israel suspending the handover of certain tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority. Israel, inter alia, controls the financial structure of Palestinian territories and the Israeli currency, shekel, is legal tender in Palestine too.
Israel had scuppered chances of any agreement earlier by refusing to release the fourth and final group of Palestinian prisoners and not committing to build Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories. The reconciliation deal can become a ready excuse for Israel to stop further negotiations since it has a policy of not negotiating with terrorists. Rejecting Israel’s criticism, the Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erakat, defended the reconciliation move as a Palestinian national priority and denied any link with the ongoing peace talks. Abbas’s top adviser, Yasser Abed Rabbo, however, advised caution, saying that the unity plan was only in its first stages and the future path is “full of mines and any mine could destroy the whole process”.
Given the background of earlier attempts at unity, there is enough suspicion of the Hamas’s seriousness. Many feel that the unity move may be a tactical one, to release the economic pressure on Gaza that has heightened public dissatisfaction with the Hamas’s administration. But the US has reacted far less stridently to the reconciliation move. It has said it would have to reconsider its assistance to the Palestinians if a unity government with the Hamas is formed. It has also introduced a proviso that any new Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to non-violence, recognition of the state of Israel and accept previous agreements and obligations. The US administration is refusing to denounce the reconciliation move and the EU, has welcomed it. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson also welcomed it and stated that internal solidarity will help the peace talks. There has been no reaction from India so far.
Israel has criticized the American reaction as too mild and exhorted the US to be more decisive in condemning the unity move. Israel wants the US to explicitly lay down that any Palestinian unity government with the Hamas’s participation is the “red line” that the Palestinian Authority must not cross. Israel has been comfortable with a divided Palestinian polity and has consistently encouraged division within Palestinian ranks to weaken the freedom movement.
Faced with the current situation, no one will be surprised if the US turns its back on the peace talks. At a time when Russia and China are increasingly asserting their role in Ukraine and the South China Sea respectively, with rapprochement with Iran on the nuclear issue round the corner and the Congressional elections, there is bound to be fatigue with these peace talks. As the US approaches energy independence by 2018, its interest in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will diminish, as it will have no compelling reason to keep Arab antagonism in check.
Netanyahu may actually be relieved that the Palestinians have given him an excuse to wriggle out of commitments. He may, of course, face a challenge to his government as coalition partners may desert him. Both Israelis and Palestinians must face another summer of discontent with peace talks in limbo once again.