Ron Pundak
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
October 26, 2009 - 12:00am

The Egyptian-mediated internal Palestinian dialogue between Hamas and Fateh involves a variety of issues, including security and elections, all of which affect the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

The unity document currently being discussed is primarily a symbolic presentation of the topics for deliberation between the two. The actual reconciliation conditions are to be discussed after the document is signed, at which point the chances of reaching agreement would be very low. In the short term, the main winner would then be Hamas, which would gain legitimacy. Lately, though, it is PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) who has been pushing to sign in view of the decline in his standing following a series of gaffs, including his pointless meeting with PM Binyamin Netanyahu and his handling of the Goldstone report.

Still, the real test is in the long term. Supporters of reconciliation argue justifiably that if the desire for West Bank-Gazan unity exists then the current bipolar reality cannot continue. They add that without Palestinian unity, Abu Mazen does not enjoy the substantive, legal and moral authority to make decisions about an agreement with Israel. They also point to the absence of genuine parliamentary activity in view of the de facto split between two parliaments, neither of which actually functions. Then too, the Fateh leadership is in real danger in Gaza, as is the Hamas leadership in the West Bank.

Yet a broader assessment appears to indicate that an agreement reached in accordance with the current known parameters and implemented to the letter would serve first and foremost the interests of Hamas. It would mean the immediate isolation of the Palestinian Authority, a potential Hamas takeover of the West Bank and a mortal blow to the possibility of an historic Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. Accordingly, there must be a different way to achieve Palestinian unity.

In order to appreciate the strategic picture, we must recall that Hamas sees itself as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood that seeks to impose Islam on all of Palestine. The ideology of Hamas is Islam, hence Palestine for Hamas is primarily a religious issue. This explains its conclusion that Israel is not only a national but a religious enemy and that the success of Islam in Palestine must involve the disappearance of Israeli-Jewish sovereignty. Thus if Hamas is part of the Palestinian polity, a final-status agreement with Israel is impossible.

Fateh, on the other hand, is a secular national movement, whose active ideology is to bring about an end of occupation and the establishment of an independent state by negotiating peace with Israel. Hamas also threatens Fateh and the secular national Palestinian camp beyond the Israeli context. If Hamas states in principle that Islam is all encompassing and there can be no liberation except by means of Islam, this leaves no room for a secular national movement and the current PLO leadership.

There is no ideology that can bridge the two approaches to the long-term goal, and Hamas believes that the religious bloc will ultimately swallow the national bloc. This explains why Hamas demands that a unity agreement give it a 40 percent share of the PLO. Its representatives then become a Trojan horse that facilitates a takeover of the PLO without the need to establish a competing organization. Here it is worth recalling that it is the PLO that represents Palestinians in negotiations with Israel.

The alternative way, regardless of the possibility of a symbolic signing in Cairo, is to leave the status quo in place while taking a number of steps: opening the Gaza passages as a consequence of a dialogue between Abu Mazen and Israel; continuing to isolate Hamas at the international level; strengthening the PA in the West Bank by releasing of prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti; preparations for elections, even if held only in the West Bank; maintaining the positive momentum of the Salam Fayyad policies regarding security, economy, infrastructure and constitutional issues; removing checkpoints and additional Israeli gestures in the West Bank; and last but not least, accelerating the peace process with close international backing and supervision based on the Olmert-Abu Mazen parameters.

This course of action would of course be condemned by Hamas. Yet an examination of Hamas' ideology and behavior over the past two decades points to the likelihood that if Israel and the PLO reach agreement, Hamas would have no alternative but to accept it as a fait accompli. For Hamas, adjusting to reality reflects an ideology of flexibility and maneuverability that will eventually lead to the Islamic objective. This is what happened in the late 1980s when Hamas, unlike Islamic Jihad, did not invoke violence against Israel because the long-term goal permits postponement of confrontation. This also explains why Hamas has agreed (as a first step) to a state within the 1967 borders: in view of the popularity of the PLO's 1988 declaration of independence, Hamas once again adapted to a foreign idea and bent to the will of the majority. In principle Hamas would prefer, for lack of an alternative, to coexist with an Israeli-Palestinian deal and oppose it from within than to end up with "fitna"--civil war.

Right now Hamas senses that time is working in its favor and that an agreement with Fateh will help it carry out a hostile takeover of the West Bank, as it did in Gaza two years ago. On the other hand, if Abu Mazen signs a peace agreement with Israel and the public broadly supports it, Hamas would have no alternative but to adapt to a new reality. Hamas listens to the public; even terrorist attacks that may seem uncoordinated are linked to public opinion, and Hamas feels at times obliged to reduce the violence. Accordingly, the relatively moderate current in Hamas could accept, even if ostensibly temporarily, the reality of an agreement that creates a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and ultimately contains a realistically-sized Hamas (8-15 percent) within a Palestinian state living in peace and security next to Israel.


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