Reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is an opportunity for Israel, not a threat
The Israeli public is doubtful about the negotiations underway with the Palestinian Authority. Israelis are asking themselves whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas represents all Palestinians and whether he has a mandate to negotiate with Israel while the Palestinians in Gaza are under Hamas rule. Yet it is precisely at this time, and in light of the Palestinian split and the Arab Spring, that the renewal of the peace process represents an opportunity for Israel.
The Arab Spring did not lead to any significant political turmoil in the Palestinian territories. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip did not launch insurgent activities and demand their share in decision-making and designing their national destiny. This is due to a number of factors.
- The Palestinian public tends to regard Israel as responsible for most of its problems. Then, too, Israel's control over large parts of the West Bank and the major roads that traverse it prevents Palestinians from gathering at a central location which could become the hub of a revolution, similar to Cairo's Tahrir Square or other squares in the Arab world.
- In the Gaza Strip Hamas holds an almost total monopoly on military power, and the violent June 2007 coup remains etched in the consciousness of the residents, who suffer severe oppression on daily basis.
- The internal Palestinian divide prevents a genuine political upheaval. While crowds flooding the streets of Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries roared the slogan "the people want the fall of the regime," the residents of Ramallah and Gaza conducted a low-key campaign under the slogan "the people want an end to the split (between Fatah and Hamas)." But even this limited measure has had an impact, with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas moved to initiate a dialogue.
The Palestinian process of reconciliation will be affected by negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas, which Israel views as a terror organization, is not taking part in the talks but has the power to thwart them. But Hamas is currently grappling with the consequences of the Arab Spring and trying to win political legitimacy in the Arab world, which would constitute a springboard for much-desired international recognition.
Paradoxically, it was Israel's 2009 Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza that increased the measure of political legitimacy enjoyed by the group, helping Hamas break out of its diplomatic isolation. During the operation, Gaza became a place of pilgrimage, with visits from the foreign ministers of the Arab League as well as the Egyptian prime minister and Turkish foreign minister.
As a result of that operation, Hamas also achieved a cease-fire with Israel, backed by international guarantors, and fashioned itself as a key political player in the region. This trend was weakened with the ouster of one of its strongest backers, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.
The process of reconciliation between the Palestinian movements will be long and grueling. But the relative weakness of both parties - Fatah and Hamas - can produce a golden opportunity for Israel to accelerate negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, driving toward agreement on the two-state solution, while ensuring Israel's security interests and keeping large settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty.
Abbas is definitely with his back to the wall. In addition to the economic crisis plaguing the Authority, he needs a real political achievement, not just a symbolic one such as the status upgrade he received at the UN and joining UNESCO as a full member in September 2011. Achievements for Abbas in talks with the Israelis will also have an impact on developments vis-à-vis Gaza.
The Palestinian split can be viewed as an independent variable, meaning that Israel should ignore it while seeking a comprehensive agreement with the West Bank leadership. But it would be wise to treat the Palestinian reconciliation process as an opportunity, rather than a threat. It would be wrong to put to the PLO an ultimatum, whereby it is required to choose between negotiations with Israel and rapprochement with Hamas. If a reconciliation agreement is signed, any political process led by Abbas with Israel would also bind Hamas.
Ido Zelkovitz teaches in the Department of Middle Eastern History and is a research fellow at the Ezri center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa. He is a fellow at Mitvim, The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.