Michael Young
The National (Opinion)
May 5, 2011 - 12:00am

Much uncertainty still surrounds the outcome of yesterday's signing in Cairo of a reconciliation accord between Palestinian factions. However, there is no question that the arrangement was facilitated by the dramatic recent developments in the Arab world. The regional constraints faced by the main Palestinian organisations, Fatah and Hamas, are likely to reframe the debate over Hamas's participation in a Palestinian government, regardless of the movement's position on a settlement with Israel.

Hamas has budged little on its ultimate stance toward peace with the Israelis. But the movement's ambition to become the primary Palestinian interlocutor has suffered setbacks. Hamas has faced growing discontent in Gaza, amid general dissatisfaction with leaders in the Arab world. A major sponsor of the movement, Syria, is struggling to crush an upheaval at home, and Hamas's alleged reluctance to side publicly with the Assad regime has reportedly led to tension between the two. And Egypt, whose influence Hamas had sought to reduce, is reinventing itself, after Hosni Mubarak's ouster, as an even-handed mediator between Palestinians and Israelis.

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his Fatah movement have also had to recalibrate. Negotiations with Israel, on which Mr Abbas's credibility had hinged, are at a dead end. The United States has avoided quarrelling with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over settlement construction. And Mr Abbas has had to watch one of his strongest backers, Mr Mubarak, removed from office.

Who gains most from reconciliation, Fatah or Hamas? It is too early to tell, but the downfall of the Mubarak regime may prove a blessing in disguise for Mr Abbas, while instability in Syria, and the potential negative repercussions for Iranian interests, could be devastating to Hamas. A government in Cairo seen in the Arab world as more independent from the United States and Israel, but that also supports a Palestinian-Israeli accord, could bring Mr Abbas much-needed legitimacy in dealing with Hamas. The Palestinian president would also relish Syrian and Iranian marginalisation in Palestinian affairs.

Hamas officials have denied a news story in the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat that the movement's leadership in Damascus, including the head of its political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, intends to leave the Syrian capital. However, given the instability in Syria and the fact that Hamas only loses by being associated with an Assad regime repressing its own people, the account seems somewhat plausible. Although the Syrian revolt has not been led by Islamists, Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, a sister organisation to Hamas, as well as the influential Sheikh Yusif al Qaradawi, have sided with the protestors, making Hamas' continued cooperation with Syria riskier.

If Hamas officials decide, or are forced, to depart from Syria and move to Qatar, as Al Hayat has claimed, this could substantially alter the Palestinian equation. The movement would find itself under greater Qatari, and presumably Saudi, sway, limiting its options against Mr Abbas. As one Syria-based Hamas leader told The New York Times, Qatar would welcome hosting the movement's leadership in exile, as this would "bring Hamas back to the Arab side away from Iran". Regardless of why the official made that statement, breaking Hamas's links with Iran is indeed a priority in the Gulf.

That appears to be why the Obama administration has left itself some room to manoeuvre on the Palestinian reconciliation. For now, with no serious alternatives on the table, Washington sees an advantage in allowing things to evolve. A "made in Egypt" solution to paper over Palestinian divisions may eventually presage a "made in the Arab world" approach that helps bolster Arab-Israeli dialogue. This will not happen anytime soon, but an administration that has systematically sought to cut back on its Middle Eastern obligations is loath to block potential progress without any scheme of its own to put forward.

Nor is President Barack Obama in a mood to do Mr Netanyahu any favours. The administration is constrained by previous conditions it imposed on Hamas, and by law in dealing with what the US has labelled a terrorist organisation. But Mr Netanyahu's swift rejection of the reconciliation project did not find a sympathetic echo in the White House, which has viewed the Israeli leader as inflexible on the Palestinian issue. If creative solutions are found to put together a unified Palestinian government that can dance around Hamas's intransigence, Mr Obama may be tempted to go along with this.

The rationale is that the old paradigms are changing. The Arab world is no longer what it was only two months ago. Ambient volatility in the region invites an open mind by all the main political actors, even if there is no guarantee of who will come out on top. Both Fatah and Hamas are trying to catch the regional wave, hoping it will play out to their advantage, but both are also sensitive to the discontent of the populations they are governing. In that sense Mr Abbas may do better than Hamas, thanks to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's efforts to ameliorate Palestinian institutions, often against the Fatah old guard. Not surprisingly, Mr Fayyad may be shunted aside in any new government, his integrity making him a target for both Hamas and Fatah.

In the coming weeks, the details of the Palestinian reconciliation pact will be parsed and argued over. But the Arab states and the international community, including the US, are liable to give the protagonists room to make their agreement work in accordance with their own requirements. Fatigue has set in over Palestinian-Israeli affairs. The sense, doubtless naive, is that now is the time to let things happen, and regional dynamics will sort out the complications.


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