Could Palestinian reconciliation be a positive step toward Middle East peace?

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Few outside observers had predicted the new agreement on Palestinian reconciliation reached on April 23rd between Al Fatah (which rules the West Bank) and Hamas (which controls the Gaza Strip). Not many more can say whether it will actually be implemented. On the contrary, the immediate consequences of the announcement are clear. The Netanyahu government halted its participation in the peace talks and implemented sanctions against the Palestinian Authority (PA) while the Obama administration has stated it will take a “pause” from the peace process. Yet, if fully implemented, this agreement could become a supporting element of the “two-state solution”.

The reconciliation agreement, signed in a refugee camp in Gaza, is just a commitment to implement two previous agreements reached in Cairo and in Doha in 2011 and 2012 respectively. They remained dead letter due to several practical problems, two of which stand out as still very hard to overcome in the current situation. First, reconciliation would imply the merging of the two governing apparatuses of the Palestinian Authority and of Hamas’ government in Gaza. This would be highly problematic because structures and jobs have been duplicated since the intra-Palestinian split began in 2007, particularly in the security sector where it is never too wise to leave people without a job. Second, given the regional struggle between the conservative monarchies and Egypt on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other side, there is little appetite in many Arab capitals for the legitimization of Hamas (which is the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood).

Nevertheless, if implemented, national reconciliation would bring about two important changes that would ultimately support negotiations: new presidential and parliamentary elections in the PA and a reform of the PLO to make it more inclusive. In this respect, one crucial element is often lost: negotiations with Israel are conducted by the PLO, not the PA. The national unity government included in the reconciliation agreement is that of the PA and therefore does not directly affect negotiations. Moreover, both Hamas and Fatah have once again restated that their final goal is to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital, and Hamas’ inclusion in the PLO would not alter this position which goes back decades and is coherent with those of the US and the EU. Finally, Hamas has stated already in the past that it would accept negotiations led by President Abbas, provided their outcome is submitted to a referendum.

It is no wonder then that the EU expressed support for the agreement, or that the Obama administration – even showing “disappointment” and a willingness to disengage from the process – did not actually threaten any sanctions against the PA.

The recent agreement can indeed be seen as a way to address the crisis of domestic legitimacy that has affected Abbas and the whole Palestinian leadership in recent years. This was aggravated by the failure of the mediation efforts led by Secretary of State Jonh Kerry to deliver anything tangible – or even to show long-term prospects of delivery.

In fact, current negotiations were not at all tackling final status issues such as borders or security. Kerry gradually scaled down his goal from reaching a comprehensive agreement, to agreeing on a framework of basic parameters for continuing talks, to eventually just discussing how to extend talks beyond the April 29th deadline set by Abbas when he joined the negotiations last July. Ultimately, what was interrupted by the Israelis in reaction to the national reconciliation agreement was not a peace process but just talks about how to talk more.

Two elements are needed to have meaningful negotiations which can lead in a reasonable time frame to a final status agreement. First, as Kerry himself noted, the domestic politics of both Israel and Palestine need to be more conducive to the two-state solution. On the Palestinian side, a peace deal can be supported effectively only by a legitimized leadership resulting from fresh elections (the last were held eight years ago) as well as from a national dialogue that brings together all parts of the Palestinian society behind a political strategy to achieve statehood. This is why national reconciliation and the end of the West Bank/Gaza split are needed, and the sooner they start the better.

On the Israeli side, Kerry’s initiative has shown what was clear the moment after the current ruling coalition in Jerusalem was formed: that few of the cabinet members are on record supporting the two-state solution, while the third largest party of the coalition (The Jewish Home) as well as many members of Netanyahu’s own party openly reject the birth of a Palestinian state. The only element that has opened a debate about peace within Israeli politics was the perception that refusing to move toward the two state solution would imply “losing Europe” with all the economic and cultural ties that are so vital for Israel.

Thus, changes in the Palestinian and Israeli domestic politics are badly needed, but while the former will come from within (if things go smoothly), shifting the Israeli mainstream will need some help from the outside in terms of incentives for peace and particularly disincentives for continuing the status quo.   

The second element that is needed to restart negotiations is indeed the responsibility of external actors, particularly Americans and Europeans. Current talks have started without clear terms of reference on the main elements of the discussion: borders, East Jerusalem, security arrangements and the Palestinian refugee issue. Ultimately, the Middle East Peace Process is about one country that has won some territories in a war 40 years ago and now has to decide to withdraw from them without having lost a war. Laying down a map on the table to discuss this withdrawal while displaying clear incentives for it should be the first steps.

It is unlikely that these elements will come together in the short term and a lot of personal effort from the US Secretary of State has proven an ineffective substitute. As a consequence, the US will be tempted to step back from leading the process and leave the parties on their own. An open collapse of the talks and the beginning of finger-pointing against President Abbas would benefit no one by increasing instability in the Palestinian territories: something that is neither in Israel’s security interests nor in those of the West (for which the West Bank now looks as an island of relative stability in the region). A unified Palestinian leadership, too, would need to show that it did not kill the “process”, in order to make its relations with the US and the EU smoother – and for all the rhetoric from its Arab partners, it’s the West that foots most of the Palestinian bills. Nevertheless, the past nine months have demonstrated how an inconclusive “process” can itself be a source of unrest rather than an element of stabilization.

Ultimately, the new agreement on Palestinian national reconciliation may not be implemented at all, with the negative consequences on the already shaky domestic legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership that can be easily imagined. Alternatively, it could be implemented with the goal of providing some kind of cover to Abbas while negotiations are on hold, but it is unlikely that this would solve his crisis of legitimacy if the daily lives of the Palestinians do not improve.

The third option is that a real Palestinian reconciliation is seen by all actors, within and outside of the Palestinian Territories, as one of the crucial elements of a path that leads in a reasonable time frame to the two-state outcome. Whether Europeans and Americans are willing to walk the extra mile to achieve this third scenario is open to question.