This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 02/05/2011
The signing of the Palestinian reconciliation agreement between the authority and the Hamas movement is an extremely belated step. Throughout many months, this agreement remained quasi-impossible, but the Arab action, from Tunisia to Syria going through Egypt, Yemen and Jordan, was behind the activation of reconciliation, as the Palestinians felt that their cause was no longer the first item on the agenda of the Arab capitals facing a busy domestic schedule. At this level, it would be enough to mention the major transformation witnessed in Egypt, i.e. the side that is the most involved in the case of the Gaza Strip that is controlled by Hamas, and which has constituted and still constitutes the only gateway for any possible solution.
The situation in Egypt changed following the departure of the regime which was never comfortable about Hamas’s rise, and even deployed pressures on the West to ensure the postponement of the parliamentary elections in the occupied territories in 2006, while warning against the movement’s possible victory. It thus tried to caution the Americans and the Europeans but to no avail. It feared the establishment of an “Islamic Emirate” on its Eastern border, at a time when it was engaged in an ongoing confrontation with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and was afraid of seeing Iran reaching the border of Sinai owing to its support of the movement and the other factions opposing the Palestinian authority and the peace settlement. In the meantime, Cairo was presenting itself as a key partner in this settlement, a thing that was proven by the recent agreement that will be signed this week. However, there is no comparison between a regime that went back to Washington and Israel before making any step and was always accused of contributing to the tightening of the blockade, and one whose success in sealing the reconciliation deal came as a surprise to Washington and Tel Aviv which were never consulted or informed about it!
Egypt has changed and is still changing, which prompted the sides that used to oppose President Mubarak’s regime to go along with this change and relinquish their stringency. The poles of the new regime announced their intention to resume the normalization of the relations with Iran and reconnect what was severed with Syria. They also promised to reopen the Rafah crossing to alleviate the impact of the blockade, and are trying to restore Cairo’s influential role in the region. Consequently, Tehran and Damascus could no longer uphold their obstinacy which prevented the facilitation of reconciliation in the past.
But Egypt is not alone. Syria is changing as well, and the factions which it provided with political and security protection have started to grow fearful over what the next days will bring. Indeed, the latter factions know that the inevitable change, regardless of its size, will limit their previous “privileges.” They also feel that part of the international-regional “trade-off” with Damascus revolves around its relations with the Islamic Republic and its support of the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements, at a time when some Arabs wish to see it becoming closer to the League than to Iran’s “rejectionism,” and are seeking Egypt’s reinstatement of its major role. Hence, Hamas’s leaders in Damascus might find themselves seeking another position to which they might be pushed by the circumstances, and it would be useless to recall at this level their good relations with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that will have the biggest share in the new regime in Cairo.
For its part, the Palestinian authority which humored Mubarak’s Egypt in its public campaign against Iran and its proclaimed coldness with Damascus, is finding itself – in light of the current action – alone in the face of its two archenemies. Even the Jordanian lap to which it often resorted is now seeking protection from the strong winds sweeping the region. Indeed, Amman is keeping an eye on the domestic arena and another on the developments in its northern neighbor that has started “exporting” immigrants to it, although it is unable to even provide water for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.
While the authority feels it has lost a supporter with Mubarak’s fall and while Hamas is concerned about what is happening in Damascus, the authority’s gains from the agreement are numerous and are only matched by those of the movement which preferred to “sell” its reconciliation decision to Cairo and no one else. Abu Mazen, who is reproached by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government because he only represents part of the Palestinians, can now address the world with national unity, as the Promised Land following the proclamation of the independent state in September will no longer be divided between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The state that will be proclaimed will be unified for a unified Palestine. And if President Barack Obama’s administration has something to offer to the authority to activate the negotiations before that date – provided he meets the aspirations of the Palestinians – that would be fine as well. In this context, Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip Mahmoud al-Zahhar, assured that his movement will not try to prevent Fatah that is leading the Palestine Liberation Organization from reaching a peace accord with Israel.
In the reconciliation agreement, both sides expressed their wish to brandish the banner of unity and leave the details that constitute the object of dispute to be dealt with based on the outcome of the fast transformations seen everywhere. In other words, the unity government whose members will be chosen by the two movements will include independent figures and technocrats, and will proceed with the work of Salam Fayyad’s government that was setting the required foundations and completing the preparation of the institutions to welcome and manage the upcoming state. As for the details, they were put on hold for a year, during which the situation will become clearer.
Throughout a long time, Israel was acting with ease due to the Palestinians’ divide and their partition of the land between a Strip and a Bank. The time has thus come to place it before a real predicament, knowing it has already conveyed its fury vis-à-vis this surprise. Israel was not expecting reconciliation, and its position may not be due to the agreement as much as it might be due to the detection of a possible solution that might be put forward to activate the negotiations. Indeed, the United States and Europe cannot wait long and cannot keep tolerating the arrogance of Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister Lieberman, at a time when the Arab world is witnessing major transformations that will force the international community to reconsider its relations in the region on all levels, from the Palestinian issue to the security and oil issues. For their part, some circles in Tel Aviv still believe that if the Palestinian state “is established as a result of real negotiations with Israel, this will force the Palestinians to accept three things: the relinquishing of the right of return, the acknowledgment of the fact that the agreement will feature the end of the conflict, and the recognition of the state of Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians are not ready to make any concessions at this level, which is why they are tempted to establish a state via a United Nations resolution that will not ask them to relinquish anything.” It is as though Israel has been doing its best throughout a decade and a half to ensure the success of all the attempts to conclude a settlement!
Also, and for a long time, Washington kept warning the authority against including Hamas in any national unity government. However, the European position which will cooperate with the national unity government will embarrass Barack Obama’s administration. And as much as this cooperation will constitute a delayed recognition of the legitimacy of the movement that achieved a majority in parliamentary elections – which the international observers said at the time were free and honest – it means that Hamas, which is classified as being a “terrorist organization”, has become a partner without announcing its acceptance of the conditions of the Quarter Committee, i.e. the recognition of Israel’s right to exist, the recognition of the agreements concluded by the PLO with Tel Aviv since Oslo and until this day, and the rejection of violence – which signifies the discontinuation of the resistance. It has now become an observer watching the steps of the organization to revive the negotiations, in case the American president were to mention in his imminent speech in regard to the region – before Netanyahu’s tour – references for any new talks, i.e. a timetable for the negotiations, the handling of all the final status issues, the 1967 border and the exchange of lands.
The different positions toward the reconciliation are clearly revealing the confusion prevailing over the Obama and Netanyahu administrations. But now the ball is in their court and the Israeli threats related to retaliatory measures and the American threats to sanction the authority and discontinue the aid will be useless. This language will not deter the authority, as it did not prevent Abu Mazen from forming a government of partnership under Riyadh’s sponsorship following the 2006 elections, and did not prevent him from signing the Egyptian reconciliation paper two years ago. Moreover, the pressures deployed by Obama in person did not stop the Palestinian president when he headed to the Security Council to ensure the issuance of a resolution against the settlement activities, and none of the other attempts will prevent the Palestinians from restoring their unity. This is due to the fact that the Palestinians are now convinced that this unity is essential to keep their cause alive, to keep the Arabs behind this unity and to get the world to recognize the establishment of the state.