Seven years after their violent split, Hamas’ and Fatah’s decision to reconcile has predictably drawn mixed reaction. Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird referred to the announcement as a ‘setback’. The U.S. State Department articulated it was ‘disappointed’ by the announcement and ‘troubled’ by its timing fearing it could derail peace efforts made by Secretary of State John Kerry. The European Union welcomed the news, stating it was an important step towards a two-state solution. Though this development has understandably attracted concern, and will derail peace talks between Israel and Palestinians in the near term, it may eventually prove to be a step in the right direction towards a peace agreement.
In the short run, the reconciliation looks set to deliver yet another major blow to John Kerry-led peace talks. Kerry, who recently expressed disappointment over the role Israeli settlement expansion was having on peace talks will now likely see his extensive efforts go up in flames as it is difficult to imagine Israel willing to engage in peace talks with a faction that does not recognize Israel’s right to exist. Israel unsurprisingly suspended the peace talks following the announcement saying it would be impossible to negotiate a peace deal with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.
A power-sharing agreement between Hamas and Fatah is not a foregone conclusion. Reconciliation between the two factions has failed to materialize twice in recent years. While there is plenty of reason to be sceptical of Hamas’ inclusion in the new Palestinian reconciliation government, there is also significant room for optimism.
Hamas negotiated its pact with Fatah from a position of weakness. Hamas has been largely isolated by the international community since winning Gaza Strip elections in 2006. An Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip has contributed to Hamas’ weakness, and they have experienced further isolation since the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power in July 2013 and replaced by a military government that has cracked down on smuggling tunnels. The tunnels, which brought in food, fuel, consumer goods, and arms for Hamas had been crucial to Gaza residents and Hamas’ financial well-being. Hamas has also found itself increasingly isolated in the region. Due to its opposition to the Assad regime since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Hamas has recently lost two regional allies in Syria and Iran.
Not only was Hamas unpopular abroad but has also seen domestic support plummet due in large part to blockades set by Israel and Egypt. With Gaza’s economy in such dire straits, Hamas has faced increasing pressure locally. Thus, because of its political and financial weakness, it is in Hamas’ best interests to work out a compromise with Fatah.
Fatah’s popularity has also suffered in the wake of increased Israeli settlement and the failure of peace talks. Fatah’s motivations for reconciling with Hamas include improving its own legitimacy at home and strengthening the Palestinian Authority’s external bargaining powers. However, while Fatah remains weakened, its international legitimacy which affords it access to diplomatic support and international financial assistance, means that it can survive with or without Hamas. In fact, Fatah has used its financial advantage (compared relatively to Hamas’) to help Palestinians in Gaza, which has finally begun to yield political dividends for Fatah as Hamas has demonstrated more willingness for reconciliation.
Though details of the reconciliation remain vague, the two sides announced that in the coming weeks, they would form a national unity government comprised of technocrats, with Fatah leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as head, that would rule over the Palestinian territories until parliamentary elections are held within the next six months. This too provides reason for optimism as the technocratic government will be bipartisan – which also means free of Hamas influence. As a result, we can expect that the new Palestinian unity government will respect Israel’s right to exist and will abide by previous Israel-Palestine international agreements. If this is the case, then the prospects of a future two-state solution improve greatly. As former U.S. President Jimmy Carter pointed out, it would be impossible to implement a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians without Palestinian unity.
Hamas remains entrenched in its unwillingness to recognize Israel. However, reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions may eventually lead to a change in Hamas’ position. As implausible as this may seem, Mahmoud Abbas stated a Palestinian unity government, which would include Hamas, would recognize Israel. Abbas continued by saying the unity government would be under his authority and would reject violence and terrorism. He also stated he was willing to continue peace negotiations with Israel immediately, which indirectly suggests Hamas is open to a diplomatic solution with Israel.
Sceptics may point out that democratic elections scheduled to be held later this year in the Palestinian Territories may again yield the unfavourable outcome of Hamas coming to power. Though it remains too early to predict what the outcome of the future elections will be, Hamas is in a much weaker position now than it was during the 2006 elections, which may eventually lead to an ideological shift and a more accommodating position towards Israel.
The Kerry-led peace initiative looked unlikely to succeed from the outset and due to recent developments, on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, Kerry may have to concede defeat on the prospects of a peace agreement under the Obama administration. Nonetheless, the prospects of a Palestine unity government that includes a more domesticated Hamas may improve peace prospects in the long run.