The Fatah-Hamas decision to reconcile, form a joint government, and hold elections seems to be a short-run maneuver that might have some very long-range consequences.
Fatah’s motive seems to be to have a united front when it goes to the United Nations in September to seek recognition of a unilateral declaration of independence. Standing in the way of such a move was the objection that the Palestinian Authority does not rule almost half the territory it is claiming.
For Fatah, it is also a popular move. A recent poll by Near East Consulting says that 89 percent of Palestinians want the dispute settled and believe it will help the Palestinian case at the UN.
But while September is the minimum time for this agreement to last, May 2012 is the maximum timeline. That is the approximate date set for new elections and the side that expects to lose would probably pull out of the pact. Hamas has no intention of yielding control over the Gaza Strip to a Fatah-dominated PA, while Fatah feels the same way about letting Hamas extend its control over the West Bank.
Which of the two groups is more popular? Ironically, more Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, fed up with Hamas’ repressive rule and destructive policies, might vote for Fatah candidates than last time, while West Bank Palestinians, fed up with Fatah’s continuing corruption, might give more votes to Hamas.
On its side, Fatah’s election slogan could be that the PA has delivered relative prosperity; Hamas offers ideological and religious fervor.
There are, however, three big problems that the merger — if it is at all applied in practice — creates for Palestinian politics and for the peace process.
First, radicalization. Hamas has more advantages for radicalizing Palestinian public opinion, the PA, and Fatah than Fatah has for moderating Hamas. Hamas is a disciplined organization with a clear ideology. It has a strong social welfare component — albeit only to build its political base — and has not been caught in high-level corruption. Moreover, it can play the card of Islam and of militancy against Israel and the West.
True, Fatah has on its side West Bank prosperity and providing the people with greater stability. But it has not delivered a state. In the past, Hamas’ talking points have done better than those of Fatah.
Yet the issue is not just what the people think but what the militants think. Fatah people have defected to Hamas and Islamist ideas have developed within the Fatah militias. Groups that exist to fight admire the most energetic, effective fighters. The younger generation of Fatah people has worked alongside Hamas and doesn’t bear the hatred of its elders toward a rival group.
Finally, Hamas’ sponsors have done better than Fatah’s sponsors. In fact, Fatah has no real sponsors in the Middle East. In contrast, Hamas is backed by Iran, Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood, and now the Egyptian government. These forces seem to Middle Easterners on both sides to be getting stronger at the expense of the United States and the West.
The second factor is the Western perception of the Palestinian Authority. The PA’s image is not enhanced by bringing into the government as an equal partner an organization rejecting peace with Israel and advocating genocide while extolling and committing terrorism. On top of this, Hamas sponsors are no great strategic friends of the West.
Will Western governments be willing to give money to a regime that includes Hamas? One whose classrooms will teach that Israel should be destroyed and the Jews are subhuman? One very possibly containing a movement that continues to fire rockets and mortar shells into Israel?
Possibly, but it won’t be easy.
Finally: How will this alliance affect PLO policies?
A PLO that has absorbed Hamas will not be able to negotiate seriously with Israel. Indeed, set on the unilateral independence strategy, it will not want to talk seriously with Israel. On no issues — borders, security guarantees, Jerusalem, refugees — will it be able to make the tiniest compromise. It will certainly not reduce incitement to violence or terrorist attacks.
There is also the question of structural changes within the PA. Many within Fatah already want to get rid of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the man mainly responsible for the West Bank’s economic progress. Joined by Hamas partners, they would almost certainly succeed in forcing Fayyad out. If there are Hamas ministers, they will use their positions to bring their cadres into the government and turn the PA in a more radical and Islamist direction.
It should be stressed that for the PLO to be a real partner for peace, one of the most important tasks would be to reinstall its (or, perhaps one might better say, Fatah’s) hegemony over Hamas. This is not at all what is happening now. Either the partnership will break down or it will make Hamas stronger, the PA more radical and, hence, unsuccessful in producing peace, prosperity, or progress toward an actual Palestinian state.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. He wrote this essay for bitterlemons.org.