As dust settled on the ceremonial announcement of Palestinian reconciliation in Gaza Wednesday evening, two camps emerged: one claiming that unity with Hamas is the kiss of death for talks with Israel, the other arguing it is the only way talks could continue.
The leading spokesman for the first group was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz on Wednesday, just hours before the ceremony in Gaza, that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas must choose between “peace with Israel and peace with Hamas.” Netanyahu’s position, reiterated after the announcement of the pact, reflected that of almost all his coalition members, including dovish chief negotiator Tzipi Livni.
At the head of the other group stood Abbas, who declared shortly after the agreement that intra-Palestinian unity would “strengthen the ability of the Palestinian negotiator to realize the two-state solution.”
Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog apparently found some merit in Abbas’s reasoning, commenting that now Gaza would come under the sway of moderate Abbas. But the US administration seemed to come down on Netanyahu’s side, as State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Israel could hardly be expected “to sit down and negotiate with a group that denies its right to exist.”
The truth of the matter is that Abbas did not turn to Hamas for the sake of negotiations with Israel, but rather for the sake of national elections
The truth of the matter is that Abbas plainly did not turn to Hamas for the sake of negotiations with Israel, but rather for the sake of national elections in the Palestinian territories, in a bid to regain something the Israeli government has long argued he sorely lacks: legitimacy to rule.
And so, Abbas finds himself in a double bind. Damned if he reconciles with Hamas as the US frantically tries to extend negotiations; and damned if he shuns Hamas and continues to negotiate with Israel while a third of his population remains under Islamist rule, four years after his presidential mandate has officially lapsed.
National elections were Fatah’s central demand in discussions with Hamas, whose primary condition was re-forming the PLO to allow its entry. Hamas grudgingly agreed to elections six months after the formation of an interim technocrat government which will rule over Gaza and the West Bank. Fatah initially demanded elections within three months.
Could Abbas have played things differently? Perhaps. Psaki of the State Department said the problem with reconciliation was one of “content as well as timing.”
Whether or not the reconciliation agreement comes to fruition in the form of Palestinian elections in seven months — or even in the creation of an interim government in five weeks — the damage to trust with Israel has already been done. In that sense, Psaki is right in saying that the timing of the agreement is highly problematic.
But what about “content”? Abbas and other Palestinian officials have repeatedly claimed that Hamas has publicly agreed to negotiations with Israel. That willingness was never put to the test by Israel or the international community. Indeed, Israel never demanded Palestinian unity as a precondition for talks, but such unity — with a clear mandate to deal with Israel — remains a prerequisite for any credible peace deal in the future.