Yossi Alpher
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
May 9, 2011 - 12:00am

The signing of the Fateh-Hamas reconciliation agreement last week provided us with a host of policy statements by Hamas leaders that could conceivably shed light on the likelihood of the agreement actually reaching fruition. Some may be tempted to see in them an indication of creeping moderation. But overall, the circumstances point to negative prospects.

Shortly after the signing ceremony in Cairo last week, itself marred by Hamas-Fateh bickering, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told a US daily that Hamas now demands "a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines with Jerusalem as its capital, without any settlements or settlers, not an inch of land swaps and respecting the right of return". He added, "where there is occupation and settlement, there is a right to resistance," but "we are ready to reach an agreement on how to manage resistance". In parallel, a number of statements by Hamas leaders seemingly indicated that the movement understood it was now obliged to maintain a ceasefire with Israel.

Nowhere did Hamas spokesmen indicate anything approaching specific acceptance of the Quartet conditions for engaging Hamas: rejecting violence, accepting past Israel-PLO accords, and recognizing Israel's right to exist.

Members of the Hamas leadership also publicly mourned and eulogized assassinated al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, in sharp contrast to statements made by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and others in the West Bank.

What we learn from these statements is, first, that Hamas remains committed to violence against Israelis and to militant Islamist terrorism in general, but understands it has to suspend violence for the time being. That, of course, is at least short-term good news for anyone living within rocket and mortar range of the Gaza Strip. But the longer-term implications must concern Fateh, Israel and the international community.

Second, Hamas embraces Fateh's territorial negotiating positions in the most superficial manner. Yes to a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines with its capital in East Jerusalem. No to the land swaps that could conceivably make it possible and no to settlers remaining behind under Palestinian jurisdiction. No mention of a two-state solution or of security arrangements. And beyond territorial issues, ongoing insistence on the right of return, which is understood by Israelis, not without reason (see Hamas' charter and the Muslim Brotherhood's basic ideology regarding Jews and Israel), to mean rejection of Israel's right to exist.

In short, the hope that Hamas has "turned a corner" regarding Israel and violence appears to have little foundation. The notion that the reconciliation experience will gradually modify Hamas' positions, based on the movement's superficial concessions thus far, is pure speculation. On the other hand, whether or not such a process takes place, Israel has little influence over the matter as long as violence is avoided.

If we factor Hamas' positions into the reality of the Fateh-Hamas reconciliation agreement and prospects for a Palestinian state to emerge as a consequence of some sort of United Nations recognition, we encounter the following scenario. Israel will (and should) be obliged to work with the next Palestinian Authority government with regard to security and finances because, as an apolitical, technocrat institution, the PA government will not represent Hamas policy. In the best case scenario, it will take weeks and possibly months to put that government together. Meanwhile, both Fateh and Hamas share an interest in presenting the perception of a united and peaceful Palestine at the UN in September.

Implementation of the remainder of the agreement--elections, a unified security mechanism, merging Hamas into the PLO--is almost certainly postponed until after the UN and in any case is even more doubtful. After September, and bearing in mind that PA President Mahmoud Abbas does not intend to run for reelection, the situation is as murky as is the fate of virtually all other aspects of the Arab revolutionary wave that catalyzed this agreement.

All this takes place against the backdrop of a non-existent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Abbas' accurate perception that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not a genuine candidate for such a process undoubtedly contributed to his readiness to countenance the problematic agreement with Hamas at this particular juncture in Palestinian and Arab history.

For his part, Netanyahu presumably knows that Israel faces genuine risks in the prospect of Hamas, despite the odds, becoming the dominant Palestinian movement not only in Gaza but in the West Bank as well. A substantive peace process might have obviated this agreement and kept the two separate, where it is easier for Israel to manage its affairs with them. But regardless of what he intends to propose in the US Congress on May 24, Netanyahu's credibility in Ramallah is so low as to be unsalvageable. He apparently sees peace moves as an Israeli-American affair, not Israeli-Palestinian.

Paradoxically, Netanyahu's credibility may be higher with Hamas, if we speculate that the recent success of Israel's new Iron Dome defense system in neutralizing rockets launched from Gaza against Israeli cities helped convince Hamas to opt, at least for a while, for the diplomatic track.

As matters stand, then, the next real arena of decision-making about Palestine remains the UN in September. The Palestinians hope to arrive in New York with a stronger and more united image. Israel continues to be outflanked, isolated, and woefully unequipped to deal with whatever emerges there without doing further damage to its international standing. In both the Israeli-Palestinian and the internal-Palestinian arenas, no one knows what happens after that.


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