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Fatah Chooses Hamas

Will reconciliation doom or help the statehood cause?

Marc Tracy
April 28, 2011

Yesterday, Fatah and Hamas—the former more moderate and ruling the West Bank, the latter more radical and ruling Gaza—announced that secret talks, brokered by Egypt, led to a landmark deal for the two Palestinian rivals to form a transitional unity government to be followed, in roughly a year, by elections. Given how much the two sides despise each other and how many of their interests seem to clash (Fatah is essentially a secular Western-backed Sunni autocracy rhetorically committed to the peace process, while Hamas is a religious Iranian-funded paramilitary organization rhetorically committed to Israel’s destruction), don’t count on an alliance until you really see it happen. Last time there were elections, these groups warred with each other. Fatah cooperates with Israel and the West, and yesterday the Fatah-controlled Palestine Liberation Organization maintained it was “committed to the peace process;” yesterday, Hamas vowed the national unity government will neither talk to Israel nor even recognize it. There are more than just “I”s to be dotted. Still, this is a big deal.

Soon after the announcement, Prime Minister Netanyahu condemned the deal, noting that “The Palestinian Authority”—the West Bank body controlled by the political party Fatah—“has to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas.” An Obama administration spokesperson did not offer quite such a sound bite, but did reiterate the U.S. position that Hamas is a terrorist group. The State Department said that any Palestinian government must “renounce violence,” which, well, Hamas took responsibility for launching rockets at Israeli civilian targets only last month.

For one thing, this is probably not a good day for backers of P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his (arguably) successful state-building in the West Bank. Not only is he likely to be pushed aside (seen as overly moderate and close to the West, he is not even a member of Fatah!), the stream of U.S. aid money he has depended on is likely to slow as vocally pro-Israel U.S. politicians have already started to question continuing to send money to an entity that, after all, would now contain elements of an organization the U.S. itself deems a terrorist group. “Some commentators worried Hamas entering the Palestinian government would imperil the Palestinian institution-building,” Laura Rozen reported.

What brought this about? There had been a popular movement, which saw itself as part of the broader Arab spring, in the Palestinian territories—and especially in Gaza, where Hamas attempted to quell it, at times violently—to have just such unity. Hamas may therefore have felt the heat of its people, the Gaza Palestinians. Fatah’s problem, meanwhile, was not that its people, the West Bank Palestinians, wished for their rulers to unify with Hamas, but rather they wished for their rulers to be Hamas, at least if the most recent elections were any indication. Moreover, Fatah’s loss of a major patron in Hosni Mubarak and Hamas’s potential loss of a major patron in Bashar Assad surely helped spur this deal.

Anyway, if P.A. President Abbas were to choose between peace with Hamas and peace with Israel, it is at least worth pointing out that, until yesterday, he had neither. And you could argue that a united front puts the Palestinians into a more advantageous position should they attempt to seek statehood through the United Nations.

Alternatively, you could argue it puts the Palestinians into a less advantageous position, because the Americans and the Israelis will have an easier case to make against statehood if sovereignty is being handed to Hamas. Last week, I called the group the “inconvenient fact of the peace process” because it was essentially being looked over, the elephant in the room that was eventually going to have to be dealt with. If it is on center stage, its inconvenience—which is to say, its intransigence and ideological refusal to recognize Israel—will become that much more obvious.

As for whether this deal will have ended up hastening Israel’s withdrawal from the territories, which influential columnist Aluf Benn predicted before yesterday’s announcement, or obviating it, time will tell.

What’s surreal about the reaction to this, particularly the shock among the Israelis and the American politicians and, okay, even spectators such as myself, is that something like this was always going to happen. It had to. The Palestinian “side” of the peace process was only one of two major groups that jockeys for the Palestinian people’s sympathy, and the other group is at least as popular as well as unacceptable to most American politicians and certainly to the Israeli mainstream. So the great service Fatah and Hamas did everyone yesterday was to, as they say, heighten the contradictions.

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