Reconcilable Differences?

By Jewish Light Editorial

A rally in Gaza this week celebrating the 48th anniversary of Fatah was notable not for what was said, but for the mere fact that it occurred at all.

The militant Islamist Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, and during that time Fatah’s presence hadn’t been tolerated by the governing party. However, as the Washington Post reported last Friday, “Hamas granted permission for the Fatah rally in Gaza after it was allowed to hold two anniversary rallies last month in the West Bank, parts of which are controlled by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Since their split five years ago, each faction had banned public gatherings by its rival.”

The recent reciprocity has caused analysts to speculate whether the largely secular Fatah and the Islamist Hamas might come together in a government of national unity. If so, the further question becomes what impact this reconciliation would have upon Israel.

Both Fatah and Hamas received recent boosts in their popularity among Palestinians.  On Nov. 29, despite strong objections from the United States and Israel, the United Nations General Assembly, by a huge majority, upgraded the Palestinian Authority from observer status to “non-member observer state,” providing a more substantial level of recognition to what until recently had been an interim ruling authority.  

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The favorable U.N. vote was received warmly in both the West Bank and Gaza, and Hamas leaders congratulated Palestinian Authority President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas on his diplomatic achievement. Meanwhile, Hamas enjoyed an uptick in its popularity after a cease-fire with Israel was negotiated successfully by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, longtime kindred partner to Hamas.

Both factions’ leaders have benefitted from recent events. A mid-December poll by the Palestine Center for Survey Research showed Abbas’ approval rating at 54 percent, up from 46 percent in September “after a year of free-fall.” Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza received an even larger boost, to 56 percent from 35 percent, suggesting that Haniya would defeat Abbas in a head-to-head race among all Palestinians.

The trick in reading the tea leaves is grasping which way the tug of war between the factions will go. In his first visit to the Gaza Strip after years of exile in Syria, Khaled Meshal, the Hamas political chief, delivered a fiery rejectionist speech in which he vowed that Palestine “will be liberated from the river to the sea.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose ruling coalition is facing elections later this month, warned that Hamas could “take over” the Palestinian Authority and condemned Abbas for considering a full partnership with them.

On the other hand, if Fatah is successful spending the political capital gained at the U.N., it might pull Palestinians away from Hamas and toward at least a smidgen of hope for an effective, if not downright messy, peace process.

Israeli officials have said that the only way Hamas could be a legitimate partner to peace talks would be for it to renounce violence and terrorism, including the firing of rockets and missiles into Israeli territory, to recognize Israel and its right to exist and to agree to abide by any and all previous and future agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  Absent those assurances, there is no way that even the most pro-peace elements of Israeli politics could sit at the same table with Hamas representatives.

Both Abbas and Haniya are riding a wave of increased popularity and recognize that a majority of Palestinians strongly favor reconciliation as a fulfillment of the goal of a truly viable Palestinian state, rather than one that now exists “virtually” and largely on paper.  Leaders of both factions are expected to travel soon to Cairo, where Morsi, who successfully negotiated the Hamas-Israel truce, will attempt to persuade the two factions to come together.  Despite some worrisome actions within Egypt, Morsi played a constructive role in the recent negotiations, and has thus far honored his nation’s treaty with Israel.  

If Morsi is able to persuade Hamas that the only rational path forward is to renounce terrorism and agree to the “Roadmap for Middle East Peace,” supported by the international community, it will be an essential step in the right direction. If he succumbs to the terrorist proclivities of Hamas that the Muslim Brotherhood has historically supported, there will be no chance for peace in the near term.  Any joint platform of the Palestinian parties that denies the very right of Israel to existence, safety and security is a non-starter.