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Reconciliation Roulette

Hamas, Fatah Are Far Apart, but Hope—and Reason to Hope—Remains

Marc Tracy
March 26, 2012
A mural in Gaza City of Sheikh Yassin (L), late leader of Hamas, and Yasser Arafat, late leader of Fath.(Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

A mural in Gaza City of Sheikh Yassin (L), late leader of Hamas, and Yasser Arafat, late leader of Fath.(Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

Will they or won’t they? Will Fatah and Hamas, the two most popular Palestinian parties put aside their differences—which stem from both ideological first principles and a not-too-distant history of fierce electoral competition followed by the throwing of members of the other party off of buildings—and create Palestinian “unity” (in reality, a supermajority that leaves out more radical groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad) in a way that convincingly moderates Hamas?

And might Israeli leadership plausibly have kept reading this blog post past the phrase “convincingly moderates Hamas”? That is, unity is not enough: it must be unity with a Hamas genuinely ready to accept Israel, which it currently is not; and, following that unlikely scenario, an Israel genuinely read to accept that Hamas (this new, hypothetical, non-terrorist Hamas) is genuinely ready to accept Israel. Which isn’t to suggest that achieving unity in the first place, already tried and failed last year, is easy.

A front-page New York Times story over the weekend suggested that the Arab Spring, for all its continued instability and the way it has empowered radical groups like the Brotherhood, will, through its very democracy, make unity more likely. Specifically: in Egypt, the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood has forced the Brotherhood, the original modern Islamist group, to moderate itself and adopt the broader, structural interests of the Egyptian state, which includes a commitment to the peace treaty and a desire for a Palestinian state rather than the blockaded basketcase of Gaza on its border (or, perhaps worse for them, the prospect of said basketcase being absorbed into Egypt).

“Brotherhood leaders argue that if they persuade the Palestinians to work together with a newly assertive Egypt, they will have far more success forcing Israel to bargain in earnest over the terms of statehood,” the Times’ David D. Kirkpatrick reports.

They may be too late, this time around: reconciliation 2.0 (or 5.0, or 7.0, or whatever, depending on where you start counting), may already be dead. Egypt and Hamas have actually been relatively on the outs of late—Egypt is pissed at Hamas’ new toleration, or perhaps even active encouragement, of Sinai becoming a lawless zone full of smugglers and terrorists. (Indeed, an Israeli court found that Hamas is using Sinai as a staging ground for attacks—such as the one last August that killed several Israeli soldiers.) Late last week, Fatah pointedly accused Hamas of taking money from Iran again after a pause (generated by Hamas’ publicly breaking with Iran’s ally in Damascus); specifically, Fatah alleged that Iran paid Hamas not to make unity happen.

“We agree on the headlines and when we discuss the details the consensus disappears,” a Hamas official told the Ma’an Palestinian news outlet. “The reconciliation is not being managed well.” It’s actually hurting both groups, both of whose governments’ popularity numbers are down.

There is the added problem that unity draws much of its force from the sense that a Palestinian state is waiting to be birthed, but ever since the heady days of a year ago, when many countries and international groups hailed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s statebuilding efforts in the West Bank, the pendulum has swung in the other direction. Last week, Israel reported, and sought to convince donor nations, that the Palestinian Authority is still resoundingly dependent on foreign aid. “Parts of the report are worded in a way that aims to make clear that the Palestinian economy is unable to support an independent state,” Haaretz‘ Barak Ravid reported. The report prompted U.S. handwringing over the “sustainability of Palestinian institution-building” as well as (justified) Palestinian accusations that they might be more likely to have a sustainable economy if they weren’t being, you know, occupied.

Particularly considering the threat from Iran and the right-wing character of the current Israeli government, it is more convenient for Israel’s leaders to simply say, “We won’t negotiate with a government that includes Hamas,” as it currently does, which, given Hamas’ control of Gaza and significant popularity in the West Bank (where it won the most recent elections), forecloses the possiblity of negotiated, comprehensive resolution.

Right now, Hamas isn’t a partner for peace. The group may be talking to Fatah, but it’s also talking to Islamic Jihad. Its genocidal charter remains. It proclaims itself committed to Israel’s destruction. Within the past month, it allowed rockets to be fired from Gaza targeting Israeli civilians; within the past year, it has taken credit for firing such rockets itself.

President Obama has also said that Hamas is not a partner for peace, and personally, I don’t consider it one, either. The question is whether larger forces—the Brotherhood’s power in Egypt; the continued stagnance of the peace process; the Syria-induced drying-up of funding from Iran; Lord knows what else—might in the future compel Hamas to fundamentally change itself, and then be met with an Israeli government ready to accept it. If you need reasons to root for this admittedly unlikely trajectory, here’s one: Iran doesn’t want it to happen.

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