Ever since Fatah and Hamas announced their most recent effort in what often seems like never-ending rounds of reconciliation talks, many analysts have been skeptical that anything substantive would come out of it. While each side’s circumstances have changed in major ways, Palestinian announcements that the Fatah-Hamas breach has been healed and Palestinian national unity has been restored are like the recurring Saturday Night Live bit where Chevy Chase would announce that Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead, with this being the seventh entry. While both sides have been unusually publicly adamant that this is finally the unity agreement that has eluded the Palestinians for a decade, the chances that the reconciliation agreement will break down are still relatively high. As a result, Israel and the U.S. should be planning accordingly in case the current détente does indeed prove to be fleeting.
Watching Fatah and Hamas during this latest round of unity talks reminds me in many ways of watching the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Neither side is ready to take the necessary steps to end their disagreement once and for all, but in order to please an influential outside party, they put on a kabuki performance. While the Israelis and Palestinians engage in peace process theater, amongst themselves the Palestinians engage in reconciliation theater. In this instance, they are doing it for the benefit of Egypt, which wants to assert itself in Gaza, pull Hamas out of Iran’s orbit, and shape the direction that Palestinian Authority takes once Mahmoud Abbas is gone from the scene. Grant Rumley and Neri Zilber have an excellent rundown of precisely how Egypt took advantage of the situation by exploiting Hamas’s isolation and dire economic straits and spooking Abbas by engaging with his archrival Mohammed Dahlan, but the gist of it is that the Egyptians forced both sides’ hands.
The problem is that neither side is actually prepared to engage. From Fatah’s standpoint, its strategy of squeezing Hamas through a variety of sanctions and demonstrating its complete impotence to govern without assistance from the PA was working. Hamas was pressured in an unprecedented manner as life for Gazans became even bleaker, and it had no real way out of its bind. That ordinary Palestinians bore the brunt of Abbas’s decision to effectively cut Gaza’s fuel supply and access to medical care in Israel did not seem to bother Abbas nearly as much as the prospect of Hamas having to turn Gaza back over to the PA excited him. Egypt’s intervention now gives Hamas the lifeline that it was desperately seeking, and so while it was primarily Abbas’s punishment strategy that drove Hamas to make concessions, this is not the type of total concession for which Abbas was hoping. The last thing that Abbas and Fatah want is to have to form any type of government that legitimizes Hamas or gives it a foothold inside the PA itself.
On the Hamas side, there is simply no scenario in which it gives in to Fatah’s demand to completely disarm and disband the 30,000 member al-Qassam Brigades. To do so would mean the end of Hamas, and while it seems to recognize that it bit off more than it could chew when it comes to governing Gaza, it has not moderated its credo of violent resistance in any tangible way. Hamas essentially wants a unity agreement that leaves Fatah and the PA with all of the responsibility of governing and the subsequent inevitable blame for doing a poor job, while it continues to rail against the Zionist enemy and rebuild its reputation as the revolutionary holdout to cooperation with Israel.
What compels both sides to continue this charade as long as possible – aside from Egyptian pressure – is that Palestinian reunification is enormously popular with the Palestinian public, and neither side wants to be the one to dash that dream. So despite the fact that the PA has no intention of ending sanctions yet on Gaza, and Hamas has publicly declared that it will not entertain the idea of entering into talks to disarm, they will both keep up the farce of a reunification agreement for as long as possible so as not to fall afoul of public opinion. Both sides are wary of the costs of a nasty public fallout, but not enough to concede on any of their entrenched positions.
Given all of this, what Israel should do is sit on its hands and keep quiet. The Israeli government wants to have its cake and eat it too; when Fatah and Hamas are divided, it says that there can be no negotiations with a divided Palestinian polity, as any deal will not address the status of Gaza. When Fatah and Hamas attempt to unify, it says that there can be no negotiations because Hamas has not accepted the Quartet conditions of recognizing Israel, renouncing violence, and honoring past agreements. The truth is that Israel does not want to deal with Hamas in any political or diplomatic way, and so it is rooting against Palestinian reconciliation being successful. The cabinet’s statement on Tuesday that the government will not negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas is little more than bloviating given that a unity government has not been formed and is unlikely to be formed. But the best way to ensure that the Palestinians are somehow able to overcome their differences is for Israel to be vocal in its insistence that it is placing preconditions on talks with any Palestinian government, so if Israel wants to keep Hamas sidelined, it should get out of the way and let this fleeting Palestinian unity fail of its own accord.
Finally, there are important policy implications for the U.S. here. For over a decade, the U.S. has declined to formulate any policy that takes Hamas into account as a permanent and rooted force in Gaza. The American approach toward the Palestinians has assumed that Hamas can be waited out, and sooner rather than later the U.S. will only have the PA to deal with. This assumption has been wrong for some time, and it is time to lay it to bed. No matter the outcome of the Palestinian reconciliation talks, Hamas is here to stay; either it will be an accepted part of the Palestinian government in some form, or it will remain ruling over Gaza. Either way, the U.S. needs to start seriously thinking about how American policy toward the Palestinians needs to evolve in order to take this into account, whether it means adopting an active strategy for dislodging Hamas from Gaza, or following Israel’s lead in unofficially coordinating with Hamas on big picture items (which is how both Israel and Hamas have kept Gaza quiet since Operation Protective Edge). The U.S. can no longer be handcuffed by the fantasy of a unitary Palestinian actor that does not include Hamas.