The day after last week’s announcement of a Fatah-Hamas rapprochement in Cairo, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas said he would keep pursuing peace talks with Israel. Almost concurrently, top Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar said Hamas would stick to its stance of neither recognizing nor negotiating with Israel, but “if Fatah wants to negotiate with Israel over trivialities, they can.”
Notable here is that Abbas cannot “keep pursuing” talks with Israel because he has almost totally abandoned such talks since 2009. Instead, his statement appears to reflect a strategy of retaining his image as a moderate despite the reconciliation with Hamas – and al-Zahar’s grudging agreement suggests Hamas is willing to play along with the game.
And at whom is the strategy aimed? Not at Israel, which, Abbas knows, would not negotiate in any case with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it:
“The PA must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. There is no possibility for peace with both. Hamas aspires to destroy Israel and fires rockets at our cities at our children.”
Probably not at the U.S. either. Senior congressmen have already threatened to cut off aid to the PA if the deal with Hamas holds. The Obama administration – which has already come out against the PA’s push for a unilateral recognition of statehood at the UN in September – also reacted coolly.
But if, as observers generally agree, the Fatah-Hamas deal aims to allow Abbas to present himself as the leader of a united “Palestine” – both the West Bank and Gaza – at the UN in September, thereby strengthening his pitch for statehood, and if the deal can’t reasonably be seen as an attempt to raise his stock with the U.S., then a likely target is Europe.
Abbas knows that merely getting the standard General Assembly bloc of Muslim and underdeveloped countries to recognize “Palestine” would have little impact. Europe – especially the key countries Britain, France, and Germany – hasn’t yet taken a clear stance on the statehood push. Abbas knows he can’t have “peace” – that is, can’t get along – with both Hamas and Israel, or Hamas and the U.S. for that matter.
But Abbas would like to get along with both Hamas and Europe; he would like to have “unity” with Hamas and a ringing European endorsement of his state, too. Being able to claim he represents all of “Palestine” – while still professing readiness for nonexistent “peace talks” with Israel – could be a way of getting Europe on his side.
As for the UN itself, its Middle East envoy Robert Serry blessed the Fatah-Hamas announcement the day after it was made. And as for the EU, it stated that while it still needs to “study the details” of the deal, “We have consistently called for reconciliation and peace under the authority of Abbas as a way to end the division between the West Bank and Gaza ”
In other words, while preferring that Fatah have the upper hand, the EU hardly rules out Hamas – even though it officially defines it as a terror organization.
Much depends on whether a Fatah-Hamas unity government will indeed be formed and, if so, whether it will last until September. That would require fewer than five months; the previous 2007 Fatah-Hamas unity government lasted only three months before dissolving into bloody strife in Gaza. But these are different times, and some believe Hamas was driven to the deal by alarm over the possible fall of its patron in Damascus.
Much will also depend, presumably, on what such a government would do between now and September. One point of the agreement reached last week, for instance, is a mutual prisoner release. Hamas is supposed to release Fatah prisoners held in Gaza with Fatah doing the same for Hamas prisoners held in the West Bank. That would mean hundreds of Hamas terrorists roaming freely in an area where hundreds of thousands of Israelis live.
No doubt the U.S. would react negatively, since those Hamas terrorists were imprisoned in the first place by U.S.-trained Fatah forces under the strategy of helping supposedly moderate Fatah suppress and defeat Hamas. But would Europe see such a move as part of “reconciliation and peace”?