On November 24 Palestinian Authority Chairman and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to meet Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Cairo. There, according to a statement by senior Fatah official Mohammad al-Nahal, the two are supposed to announce the formation of a new Fatah-Hamas unity government. In a statement on Saturday, Nahal said, “The Palestinian people will witness in the next few days the birth of reconciliation.”
That “birth of reconciliation” is actually a “renewal of reconciliation.” Fatah and Hamas signed a reconciliation agreement in May. But for six months that deal has remained unimplemented. The reason that implementation has been delayed is because Abbas had until recently rejected Hamas’s demand to fire Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Abbas’s refusal owed to the fact that the U.S. made continued aid to the PA contingent on Fayyad’s remaining in office.
According to Nahal, the current “birth of reconciliation” owes to Abbas’s decision to accede to Hamas’s demand. According to him, Abbas and Mashaal are now considering several candidates to replace Fayyad as prime minister.
There have been a number of contradictory assessments of the significance of current Fatah-Hamas negotiations. Last week the Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh argued in a commentary published by Hudson New York that Abbas’s decision to dump Fayyad in favor of unity with Hamas proves Hamas is the strongest force in Palestinian society.
After Abbas’s bid to bypass a negotiated peace with Israel and attempt to achieve statehood through UN recognition failed, according to Abu Toameh, Abbas was left with no option other than to make a deal with Hamas. As Abu Toameh put it, Abbas “is basically hoping that instead of being denounced and ridiculed by Palestinians for the failure of the statehood bid, he will now be praised for having ‘reunited’ the Palestinians.”
He concluded that Abbas is fooling himself by believing he can gain domestic political popularity for his actions. Hamas will gain international legitimacy from this deal and be well on its way to securing victory in the next round of Palestinian elections that are tentatively scheduled to take place sometime next year.
In contrast, some commentators are saying that in the end, economic considerations will win the day. The U.S. threat to cut off all funding to the PA in the event a Fatah-Hamas government is formed will force Abbas’s hand. As before, he will fail to implement the deal and Hamas will remain outside the PA government. That is, when caught between the Hamas rock and the U.S. hard place, as before, Abbas will choose the U.S. over Hamas.
How one assesses prospects for eventual peace between Israel and the PA generally, and how one comes down on the question of whether or not the U.S. should continue to fund the Fatah-controlled PA specifically, is to a large degree dependent on which interpretation of the Fatah-Hamas unity talks one favors.
If you believe the deal is proof Fatah is resigned to accommodating Hamas and will inevitably be dominated by the jihadist terror group, then you also likely have no faith in prospects for peace between Israel and the PA and oppose continued US aid to the doomed PA. After all, this interpretation assumes it is inevitable that all the resources now at the PA’s disposal will eventually fall under Hamas control. Since Hamas is openly committed to Israel’s destruction, and since the U.S. has defined Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization, it naturally follows Israel should abandon its relations with the PA and the U.S. should cut off all aid.
On the other hand, if you believe this is just a ruse, and that neither Hamas nor Fatah is capable of implementing a deal, in all likelihood you will continue to believe in the prospect of eventual Palestinian statehood in the framework of a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and the PLO. Similarly, you will support continued U.S. aid to the Fatah-dominated PA, under the assumption that this aid buys the U.S. significant leverage over the Fatah leadership.
In truth, it is not clear that events in Cairo substantiate either interpretation of events. Fatah may still be stronger than Hamas. It may steal elections. And it may be capable of militarily defeating the jihadist movement if it decides to do so. On the other hand, it is possible both sides feel they get more out of negotiating than they do out of implementing a deal and will therefore continue negotiating and fail to implement anything.
While these talks tell us less than meets the eye about the relative strength or options of Fatah and Hamas, they do tell us something important about the nature of Abbas and the organization he heads. The Cairo unity talks show us that Fatah lacks all credibility as a political or strategic force. Fatah is in the business of staying in business. Fatah leaders will tell everyone precisely what they want to hear in order to keep their hands on the levers of power and finance. They are equal opportunity liars.
Just as they did in May, today in Cairo Fatah negotiators are telling Hamas they will dump Fayyad and join Hamas’s terror war against Israel. They are promising Hamas international legitimacy and partnership in PLO institutions. They are promising Hamas a cut in the international aid scam they have been running since 1994.
It makes perfect sense for Abbas to be doing this. Not only was Fatah weakened by its failure to gain UN membership as a sovereign member state, but Hamas has been strengthened by the Egyptian revolution that has empowered its allies and brethren in the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas’s military arsenal has grown massively since Egypt’s military junta opened the border between Gaza and the Sinai in March. The open border has enabled Hamas to import, at will, sophisticated weaponry from Libya through Egypt to the Gaza Strip.
Politically, U.S. support for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as well as for Islamist Turkey and the new Islamic governments in Tunisia and Libya has strengthened Hamas’s credibility in the West without connection to Fatah.
So Abbas’s interest in negotiating a deal with Hamas is clear. At the same time, implementing a deal with Hamas will take away Abbas’s ability to leverage the threat of cutting a deal with Hamas against the U.S., the EU and Israel. And so he probably won’t implement it. (Obviously if he does implement it, Abu Toameh’s conclusions will be proven correct.)
What this means is that in the best case scenario, Abbas is negotiating a deal with Hamas in order to extort more concessions from Israel and more money from the U.S. and Europe.
But it also means that in the best case scenario, Abbas feels compelled to negotiate with Hamas because Hamas is so strong. And since Hamas is so strong, there is no way Abbas will ever make peace with Israel. This means Israel, the U.S. and the EU get nothing from the concessions they make in order to keep Abbas from implementing a unity deal with Hamas.
In a recent blog post analyzing Abbas’s Hamas unity bid, Jonathan Tobin, Commentary’s senior online editor, wrote that President Obama must respond to the Fatah-Hamas talks by telling Abbas that “if he dumps Fayyad, he will lose every penny of the hundreds of millions of dollars he gets from the U.S. annually and that Washington will work to cut off every other avenue of aid.”
No doubt such a statement by Obama would make an impression on Abbas. But the basic realities will remain unchanged. Abbas is never going to make peace with Israel because his people don’t want peace. He will use his opposition to Hamas to coerce the U.S. and the EU to fund him and Israel to appease him. Abbas cannot defeat Hamas because the political tides in the Arab world are with Hamas and because a significant portion of the Palestinians support Hamas. These are the facts. Neither reconciliation with Hamas nor non-reconciliation with Hamas will change them.
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