Aaron David Miller
Bloomberg (Opinion)
May 1, 2011 - 12:00am

As spring breaks out for Palestinian unity, winter arrives for the Middle East peace process.

The prospective Hamas-Fatah unity agreement was driven primarily by domestic politics: Both of these long-term rivals are seeking to energize their bases, preempt discontent on the streets and dangle the always-attractive illusion of Arab unity before their constituents.

This peace at home will guarantee greater political conflict with both Israel and the U.S. and, if Palestinians aren’t careful, tensions with the broader international community. One thing is clear: An already mortally wounded peace process is, for now, dead.

Tip O’Neill’s observation that all politics is local is as true in Beirut as in Boston. More than anything else, it was the Arab Spring -- which so far has toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia -- that pushed Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas toward an accord they could have signed a year ago.

In many ways these two nominally national liberation movements have become old, tired and frozen. Each in its own way has failed to deliver -- Hamas with fixing the economy in Gaza, Abbas with ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

So against the backdrop of political turmoil sweeping the Arab world, there was logic to getting ahead of the curve by unifying Palestinian ranks, if only as a tactic. Unity buys time and space with constituencies and might allow improved coordination of public services, better security and a stronger front against the Israelis. Moreover, if you’re Hamas and you see unrest in Syria, an important sponsor, why not hedge your bets?
Making It Work

Whether these two rivals can make unity work is another matter. Their rivalry isn’t just over seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. It’s a strategic difference that cuts to the core of what and where Palestine should be.

Tensions, vendettas and blood feuds still abound from Hamas’s 2007 coup in Gaza, which ousted Fatah. The battle over who controls the security services will make cooperation hard. Abbas has to be nervous that Hamas might want to use this moment of reconciliation to expand its influence in the West Bank at Fatah’s expense.

The unity project also raises serious questions about Hamas’s military actions, including rocket attacks against Israel. Agreeing to join a unity government, Hamas must have made a commitment, even if unstated, to abandon armed struggle, for now. If not, Hamas risks Abbas’s credibility with an international community from whom the Palestinians want statehood in the fall.
Respite From Attacks

If Hamas picks up the gun now, it will force Abbas to condemn or support attacks. Both are untenable options with the two sides governing together. So it’s possible, on the good-news front, that we might see a real respite from Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.

On the other hand, Abbas doesn’t seem to care much about Israel or the U.S. Dealing with Hamas will complicate U.S. assistance to the Palestinians and undermine the Palestinian Authority’s successful efforts at institution building. Will Abbas now agree to take money from one of Hamas’s principal backers, Iran?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gains some maneuvering room. After all, how can anyone criticize Israel for not wanting to deal with a Palestinian Authority that has Hamas in it? U.S. President Barack Obama’s hopes to revive the peace process -- never terribly realistic -- will become dimmer still.
Good Theater

So long as Hamas won’t accept the international community’s insistence that it recognize Israel and abandon violence -- and it won’t now -- it’s hard to see where the unity brings us. It’s good politics, a savvy read on how to stay ahead of the Palestinians who are increasingly unhappy with their economic and political lot, and good theater at a time when the entire Arab world is a dramatic stage.

But without a broader logic that delivers real benefits to Palestinians, unity will falter. Sooner or later, it will fall victim to the inexorable tensions and different goals that still characterize Fatah-Hamas relations. Without a way to co-opt both Israel and the U.S., Palestinians may find themselves further than ever from realizing their goal of a state of their own.


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