Ghaith al-Omari
The Orlando Sentinel (Opinion)
October 10, 2007 - 12:00am,0,654434.s...

The Hamas takeover of Gaza in June and the resulting West Bank-Gaza split has raised serious questions. What are the short-term prospects for reunification? Can serious political progress be made with Israel without Palestinian reconciliation? What are the elements of a successful and lasting future reconciliation?

There is no doubt that ultimately for political, economic and geopolitical reasons, the West Bank and Gaza must be one territorial unit. Hamas represents a sizable Palestinian constituency that must be engaged and become part of the political system. But the chances of that happening in the near future are slim. Engaging Hamas without a reversal of its Gaza takeover and its acceptance of the two-state solution paradigm and all related agreements will serve only to legitimize that takeover. It would also result in the re-freezing of direly needed international aid to the Palestinians and abort current peace prospects.

In addition, the Gaza takeover was conducted by elements of Hamas representing the hard-line ideological as opposed to pragmatic nationalist strains within the organization. Engaging these elements would validate their violent takeover and weaken the more moderate elements. However, official and unofficial messaging to Hamas must stress that their current isolation is not an effort to destroy them, but would end conditionally.

With reconciliation not a near-term option, concerns have been voiced that any agreement reached with Israel would lack legitimacy, since it excludes a sizable minority of the Palestinian people. In addition, Hamas may sabotage any agreement through violence against Israel, with the resultant and inevitable harsh Israeli response.

It is important here to distinguish between reaching an agreement and implementing it. It is entirely possible for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to reach an agreement with the Israelis after the fall Mideast meeting without Hamas if a meaningful process toward Palestinian statehood is started following a document of principles setting the general contours of a peace agreement.

The process itself must include elements distinguishing it from previous ones, such as staggered Arab participation, rewards for both parties, reversal of Israeli actions in occupied East Jerusalem and a settlement freeze that goes beyond the declarative. In tandem must be a parallel process of internal security and governance reform in the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority.

Success will depend to a large degree on Israel. If no serious movement toward a political agreement is made and Israeli actions on the ground continue to undermine Palestinian statehood prospects, any PA security, governance and economic achievements will be spun by Hamas as the price the PA was paid for accepting and supporting the occupation.

Implementing a peace agreement will require Palestinian reconciliation, however. If such an agreement meets Palestinian national aspirations and is backed by key Arab countries, namely Saudi Arabia, it is hard to imagine Hamas opposing it and risking alienating the Palestinian people. In fact, a new telephone survey conducted in Gaza by Near East Consulting found that most Gazans do not regard the de facto Hamas government as legitimate and support a peace agreement with Israel.

Given the deep ideological differences between Hamas and Fatah and the fact that past attempts at national unity had papered these differences over, the reconciliation must include Hamas accepting the PLO charter, U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 and the two-state solution paradigm. Hamas must understand that even elections that legitimately brought it to power do not give it license to attempt to take over the PLO and dismantle the whole structure of "statehood through negotiations." Fatah for its part must relinquish its monopoly over governance and security institutions once Hamas accepts the above elements.

The PA's basic message -- liberation through negotiation -- needs serious rehabilitation through significant, concrete and credible progress toward a permanent status deal and the establishment of a Palestinian state. If such progress is made, Hamas will find itself in the untenable and losing position of campaigning against a Palestinian state.

If, on the other hand, the national secular movement as represented by the PLO fails, the outlook will be bleak. We will witness either a full disintegration of the Palestinian polity or a Hamas takeover of the Palestinian society and political system. The Palestinian national cause will regress to where it was in the late 1960s: a movement fighting for recognition at the margins of the international system. The implications of this for Israel, the Arab world, and the West are best avoided.


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