“The enemy of my enemy is my friend:” It turns out the old saying is true.
Once thought by many to be separated by an unbridgeable gap following their 2007 civil war, the secular, pro-peace and Westward-looking Palestinian faction Fatah and the Islamist, Israel-rejectionist and Syria-and Iran-friendly Hamas militia and terrorist group signed an accord on Wednesday–in Egypt, which is still in the midst of a democratic revolution of uncertain ideological destination.
A conventional wisdom will likely emerge that only Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could bring Fatah and Hamas together after their violent separation, radically-diverging ideologies and complete geographical separation; this conventional wisdom is probably right. After Sharon’s controversial but necessary withdrawal of Jewish settlements in Gaza and remote parts of the northern West Bank and Olmert’s understated peace negotiations in the context of a failed premiership, Israel has a prime minister who has adamantly refused further settlement withdrawals without a general peace agreement. It’s right there in the Likud Party platform (under the heading “No more unilateral withdrawals”), along with an insistence that Israel receive no Palestinian refugees and that East Jerusalem remain a part of Israel in spite of its centrality to the West Bank rather than the Israeli economy. Netanyahu actually left Ariel Sharon’s government and forced the schism on the right that prompted Sharon to form the the centrist Kadima party in response to Sharon’s withdrawal of those most-fragmented and imposing settlements in 2006. There is that old Vulcan proverb: “Only Nixon can go to China.” Nixon in this case was Ariel Sharon, a Likudnik and long a darling of the Israeli right, who on his own motion implemented the first in an intended series of withdrawals to prepare the way for a 2-state solution on territorial terms favorable to Israel. Granted, Sharon wasn’t negotiating with anyone at the time; the point was that he had the “street cred” to justify the unilateral withdrawal of the deepest Israeli settlements on his own motion, at least aiding Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas by preparing the way for Palestinian territorial continuity. Benjamin Netanyahu, in this story, is a previously-unnamed John Bircher who suspects Nixon’s recognition of Communist China is the result of Communist subversion. A Likud Prime Minister who dismisses his negotiating partners don’t exist and simply increases the physical entanglement of Israelis and Palestinians, stopping only to catch his breath and occasionally evict legally-resident Palestinians, is a waste of good hard-line status that should have been leveraged to push the process towards a 2-state solution forward.
Since settlement construction in the West Bank continues under the Netanyahu government, current Israeli policy creates a situation in which neither moderate nor hard-line Palestinian factions can achieve the political cover needed to negotiate with Israel; again on account of the rapid settlement construction that continues at this late date, party leaders in both Fatah and Hamas have been given little incentive to negotiate, as Netanyahu seems bent on simply erecting or expanding Jewish settlements in whichever parts of the West Bank his government considers expedient. Now the separate wings of Palestinian politics, once bitter enemies, have come to a fundamental agreement on principles and on reconciliation–to each other. The New York Times had interesting insights on this development on both Thursday and Friday.
This is not unmitigated cause for alarm: Khaled Meshal, the leader of the military wing of Hamas and President Abbas’ counterpart at the Cairo meeting where the pact was announced, actually went so far as to say that he had accepted Fatah’s formal bargaining position of “a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines with Jerusalem as its capital, without any settlements or settlers, not an inch of land swaps and respecting the right of return.” Granted, Fatah had negotiated with this as a starting-point, meaning talks inevitably tended in the direction of a Palestinian state with smaller-than-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as a prize to aspire to, with some large and contiguous settlements incorporated into Israel, and land swaps and limited invitations of Palestinians to move into Israel for a several-year window. 2 things must be said about Hamas’ assent to Fatah’s ideal bargaining position, in place of their past official stance of total rejection of the State of Israel:
1.) Hamas may well see itself as staking its credibility on accepting Fatah’s ideal terms for peace but with no concessions from those terms.
2.) In principle, Hamas is only accepting Fatah’s terms for peace temporarily.
I emphasize “in principle” because I actually think this pact between Hamas and Fatah–if it proves durable–means Hamas is preparing its hardline supporters for recognition of Israel. While Mr. Meshal darkly described the difference between what political actors have to accept as political provisions and what they might desire, that frank admission sounds to the Liberal Ironist like an admission of defeat–to Fatah:
“When Israel made agreements with Egypt and Jordan,” Meshal said, “no one conditioned it on how Israel should think. The Arabs and the West didn’t ask Israel what it was thinking deep inside. All Palestinians know that 60 years ago they were living on historic Palestine from the river to the sea. It is no secret.”
Another open admission of what the Palestinians have lost may simply sound as ominous as any–until one considers that Mahmoud Abbas reminisced on the trauma of his family’s loss of its land in the 1948 war shortly after his election as President of the Palestinian Authority. He recalled his family’s lost land in order to say “I am a Palestinian like you: My family lost everything it had, so you know that I don’t say it lightly when I insist we must move forward and negotiate a political settlement with Israel.” Mr. Meshal has said no more here than “We all feel something of the same loss as Palestinians, but we still have to negotiate.”
Does this agreement between Fatah and Hamas vindicate Netanyahu’s hard-line stance against unilateral settlement withdrawals or peace talks, and settlement construction within the Palestinian territories in the absence of a unified Palestinian negotiating partner? No, it really doesn’t. Netanyahu’s strategic freedom just contracted, perhaps permanently. Having a unified Palestinian opposition insisting that the 1967 Israeli border with Jordan is the legitimate border between Israel and Palestine pushes the separate peace Israel could have brokered with Fatah beyond reach. For years Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who sometimes engaged in stern talk but who was friendly towards the West and eager to push negotiations with Israel forward, had nothing to show for the desired talks. Now he faces an indisputably-weaker but reunified opponent that is deeply (and justifiably) skeptical of his intentions, with a more-democratized power base behind it than it truly enjoyed the last time such skepticism towards Israel prevailed, and a democratic revolution which toppled an old ally in Egypt which will probably leave the Camp David peace agreement intact but will probably mean the end of the Gaza blockade on Egypt’s side, inevitably easing Hamas’ capacity to arm itself.
Now, as mentioned in the New York Times this past Friday, Mahmoud Abbas’ recent lobbying of the Great Powers to rally support for United Nations consent for a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence this September seems to have borne fruit. Gently rebuffed by Chancellor Merkel of Germany, Abbas seems to have elicited some sympathy from President Sarkozy of France: In a Thursday interview, the Times reported, President Sarkozy said that a unilateral declaration of independence might make sense if the Israeli government didn’t budge on peace negotiations through the summer. Sarkozy has issued warnings of this sort before, including recently; it remains to be seen whether the hardline Prime Minister who casts himself as Israel’s soberest defender possesses the acuity and the independence he will need to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough to mollify Fatah and Hamas before September.
Netanyahu’s current predicament isn’t owing to Israel’s place in the World, or the current Arab uprisings, or Iran and Syria–the latter’s sudden weakness probably pushing Hamas closer to the political mainstream. Netanyahu finds his hand suddenly and perhaps drastically weakened because he is such a crude statesman: Having failed to elevate political actors who wanted to be his friend, he has brought his friends and his enemies together. The Liberal Ironist believes that in politics, grievances accrue and gain a broader coherence when those with power simply do whatever they please in spite of them.