To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of his country’s independence from France, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune brought together Mahmoud Abbas, president of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Ismael Haniyeh, the Hamas politburo chief. In their first meeting in several years, the rivals shook hands for the cameras, encouraging speculation that Hamas and Fatah were prepared to reconcile. But that is doubtful. The more plausible explanation for the show of goodwill in Algiers is that the PA owes a substantial debt to Algeria and Hamas wants to stay relevant as Sunni Arab states increasingly normalize ties with Israel.
Relations between Abbas and Haniyeh have been frosty since the civil war in Gaza in 2007, during which Hamas operatives summarily executed close to 100 Fatah operatives and tortured numerous others. Yet Algeria remains on good terms with both sides and has been a steadfast financial supporter of the PA, even while other Arab nations have ceased their donations.
Last December, during an Abbas visit to Algeria, Tebboune announced the launch of Palestinian reconciliation efforts. To sweeten the deal for the Fatah leader, Tebboune pledged $100 million to the PA.
As its support wanes in Arab capitals, Hamas is desperate for the spotlight
In January, Algeria hosted the first round of reconciliation talks with six factions participating, including Fatah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Additional rounds followed in March and then earlier this month. Hamas and PIJ are tied closely to the Iranian regime, while Abbas has often relied on US support, despite a tumultuous relationship with Washington.
The reasons behind Algeria’s interest in reviving moribund Palestinian reconciliation efforts are not clear. One possibility is that Tabboune wants to counter the Moroccan peace with Israel concluded in December 2020. As part of the Moroccan-Israeli peace, Washington recognized Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, home to the separatist Polisario Front, reportedly sponsored by Algeria.
Over the past century, Morocco and Algeria have often taken opposing and sometimes adversarial postures on global issues. While monarchist Morocco maintained excellent ties with America and the West during the Cold War, the revolutionary Algerian regime sided with the so-called Global South and the Soviet Union. Accordingly, Morocco leaned toward Israel, while Algeria has been a fierce critic of the Jewish State.
In 2021, Algiers went as far as severing ties with Rabat, citing Morocco’s normalization with Israel as one of its main reasons. Meanwhile, Algeria intensified its effort to bridge the intra-Palestinians divide.
Hamas and Fatah had their reasons for showing up and shaking hands, but Palestinian divisions run deep. The visit was an empty gesture and comes on the heels of a tense month in the West Bank that saw Fatah accusing Hamas of attempting an armed takeover. The PA ended up arresting more than a dozen Hamas militants.
As its support wanes in Arab capitals, Hamas is desperate for the spotlight and whatever Arab recognition it can get. Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood – the parent organization of Hamas – has become either unwelcome or outlawed in countries that include Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain.
Meanwhile, Abbas, an octogenarian who suffers from failing health and shrinking legitimacy, is clinging to his presidency. As more Arab capitals inch closer to normalizing ties with Israel, the largesse they once showered on the PA has dried up. Often, they cite Abbas’s corruption as the cause, but that is an excuse. Desperate for revenue, the Palestinian president has become more reliant on Algerian cash, lauding Tebboune’s “constant and honorable position on the Palestinian cause”.
Since Hamas expelled Fatah from Gaza in 2007, the two sides have reached reconciliation agreements in Mecca, Sanaa, Cairo, and Doha. None of these agreements stuck, nor ended the division and profound animosity between the two factions.
Why then Algeria – one of the Arab countries with the least influence outside its borders – thinks it can succeed where every other influential Arab government failed is anybody’s guess.
The most likely answer is a classic one. Whenever an Arab regime finds its legitimacy shaken, it champions the Palestinian cause, a tried-and-tested populist pitch.
Between 2019 and 2021, hundreds of thousands of Algerians took to the streets to protest the tyranny and corruption of a ruling military junta.
Since becoming president in late 2019, Tebboune has shown little ability to improve living conditions for Algerians. As a former prime minister and member of the establishment, Tebboune was not likely to fix its problems. His vision for change includes expanding an already bloated bureaucracy and continuing reliance on the country’s energy resources to float the economy.
When it comes to the fractured Palestinian political landscape, the Abbas-Haniyeh handshake is largely meaningless. Hamas and Fatah disagree about too many fundamental issues for reconciliation talks to make a difference. Mahmoud Abbas’s approval rating hovers around 30%, while over 70% wish to see him step down, so he knows elections would spell an end to his rule. Change will only come when Abbas’s health finally fails him, or there is a second Hamas-Fatah war.
Enia Krivine is the senior director of the Israel Program and National Security Network and Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow Enia on Twitter @EKrivine and follow Hussain @hahussain
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