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On Reconciliation, ‘The Devil Is in the Details’

ICG’s Nathan Thrall talks to Tablet Magazine

Marc Tracy
April 29, 2011
Reconciliation celebrated in Gaza City.(Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
Reconciliation celebrated in Gaza City.(Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

To get more perspective on this week’s reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, I spoke to Nathan Thrall, Middle East Analyst with the International Crisis Group.

What do you think spurred this deal?
A lot of the things that you’ve read. Three of the main factors are: a. Both sides are trying to appease the new government in Cairo; b. You have fear on both sides of what could happen in Gaza and the West Bank, where there have been several demonstrations calling for unity; c. You hear Hamas was urged to move forward because they see the ground crumbling underneath them in Damascus, where their politburo is based. I don’t want to say whether that last argument is accurate—it’s clearly true that they must feel uneasy, and they are in a particularly awkward position there, because the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was so oppressed by the regime. But I would caution that, even though uncertainty itself may have made unity more attractive to Hamas, it’s not at all clear that if something were to replace [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, it would be any less friendly to Hamas.

Deals of this ilk have been floated before. Do you think it will truly happen this time?
There have been many false starts before, but there has been no announcement like this in the last four years—since the Hamas takeover of Gaza. It does seem different than other times. On the other hand, all they’ve announced is that they’ve agreed to agree. The devil is in the details. Past negotiations have been held up over seemingly arcane points—like whether or not a temporary leadership committee overseeing Palestine Liberation Organization reform could be overruled by the PLO’s executive committee, and what percentage of legislative seats in the next election would be determined by party-list voting and what percentage by voting for individual candidates. And that’s not even getting into the morass of security—what the Fatah presence will be in the security forces in Gaza.

Can the Palestine Liberation Organization continue to negotiate with Israel even as Hamas pledges it will continue not to?
Maybe. On one hand, this deal says Hamas is going to be a part of the PLO. On the other, until that happens, they’re not a part of the PLO, and it is the PLO that is the official designate for negotiating with Israel. This is how you can have [Palestinian Authority President] Abbas and Hamas officials both saying—accurately—that the new unity government will not negotiate with Israel. The question is what the PLO will be permitted to do before the integration of Hamas has taken place.

What does this deal mean for Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his West Bank state-building, which was the beacon of hope for many Western observers?
Fayyad is not going to be part of the unity government. The Times mentions that he’s loathed by Hamas; he’s not loved by Fatah either! He was a very easy sacrifice to make. What is true is that the Americans love Fayyad and will be worried about where their money is going when he’s gone.

What does this mean for the bid for U.N. statehood recognition in September?
You have people like Haaretz‘s Carlos Strenger writing that this greatly weakens Abbas’s chances of obtaining U.N. recognition, and I don’t understand that reasoning at all. It was always highly likely that you were going to have a U.S. veto in the Security Council. So what we’ve been talking about all along is non-binding endorsement of Palestinian statehood by the General Assembly, which seems unlikely to be thwarted whether you have Palestinian unity or not. Some would argue that the case for recognition becomes only stronger if Abbas comes to the U.N. as the representative of the Palestinian people in both the West Bank and Gaza. Others say not only that Abbas had little to lose, because the U.S. would oppose the U.N. option with or without unity, but also that the effects of U.N. recognition have been greatly exaggerated, so even if a unity government were to have some negative impact at the U.N., the stakes are considerably lower than much of the commentariat imagines.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is set to give a speech in Washington, D.C., next month. What is he going to say now?
A week ago, he was said to be planning a ‘Bar Ilan 2,’ laying out a proposal for new talks, and he’s reportedly been negotiating the contents of that speech with American and European officials. Wednesday, he said the P.A. has to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas. Clearly his speech is going to have to be rewritten.

Could the deal make the freedom of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured and held by Hamas, more likely?
A Hamas official said yesterday that the reconciliation deal and Shalit have no connection to one another, but you have a lot of commentary in the Israeli press making the conjecture that this isn’t so. It does seem at least possible that you could see movement. Abbas had been opposed to a Shalit deal because it would greatly strengthen Hamas to have secured the release of 1400 Palestinian prisoners. But if that prisoner release could be conceived as a joint victory, or at least not entirely Hamas’s, then maybe.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.