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The US should accept Palestinian unity

Apr 28,2014 - Last updated at Apr 28,2014

While Palestinians celebrated the reconciliation agreement signed between Fateh and Hamas, the reactions in Washington and Israel were reminiscent of the biblical “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.

American political commentators were dumbfounded by the news of the pact, terming it “a dark day”, “a setback for peace” or “a serious complication”.

Members of Congress, meanwhile, were uniform in their threats to withhold aid if the Palestinian Authority goes forward with the unity arrangement.

Israeli government reactions were predictably harsh in their criticism of the Palestinian move. Those on the far right, who never supported the “peace process” in the first place and who had threatened to abandon the Netanyahu government if he signed any agreement with the Palestinians, saw the Fateh-Hamas pact as justification to call for an immediate end to the peace negotiations.

I detected more joy than anger in their overly heated pronouncements.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had undoubtedly the most disingenuous line of the day, asking of PA President Mahmoud Abbas: “Does he want peace with Hamas or peace with Israel?” — as if to suggest that “peace with Israel” was actually in the offing but for Abbas’ “disappointing” decision.

Putting aside all these displays of faux anger and misplaced regret, the Palestinians are right to celebrate. Reconciliation and national unity are not only good, in and of themselves, they are necessary if there is to be a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In the first place, the Palestinian people desperately want this unity in order to put their political house in order. They know that they have no viable future living in two captive Bantustans.

In the face of continued existential challenges, the public has been demoralised by their squabbling, fractured leadership.

Increasingly frustrated by their divided leaders’ failure or inability to bring an end to occupation, there has been a growing feeling among Palestinians that unity would provide a solution.

In a world that was out of control, healing their internal division was the one thing they felt they could control.

Unity, of course, is not magical and will not, by itself, produce independence. But the public’s instinct was right in understanding that unity, on the right terms, would be essential for independence.

It is also important to understand the degree to which the leaderships of the PA and Hamas were facing challenges to their legitimacy.

During the past seven years, Hamas made a mess of its rump “statelet” in Gaza. Its indiscriminate rocket fire and deplorable use of suicide bombers, which it bizarrely termed “resistance”, only served to damage the Palestinian movement and image.

At the same time, this behaviour and the insecurity it created among Israelis empowered Israeli hardliners, enabling them to impose cruel collective punishment that brought increased suffering to the entire Gaza Strip.

Hamas, reduced to badly managing an impoverished population, was facing growing dissatisfaction with both its ideology and its governance. Polls now show that this once popular Islamic movement had a significantly diminished support base.

The Palestinian Authority, thanks to Israeli ill will and intransigence, fared no better. It made a strategic decision to pursue a non-violent path to liberation by cooperating with the US and negotiating with Israel. Its reward: it became financially dependent on the US and Israel; it was repeatedly humiliated by aggressive and acquisitive Israeli settlement expansion; and it continued to be subjected to Israel’s efforts to impose its will on its every move.

As a result, the Palestinian public became increasingly cynical, despairing of the possibility of peace.

And so, in the face of a new breakdown in negotiations, Israel’s refusal to deliver on a promised release of prisoners, and the announcement of yet another expansion of settlements, Palestinians turned instead to heal their divided polity.

From what is known of the terms of the Fateh-Hamas pact, it provides for the establishment of a national unity government of technocrats. This government will serve for several months preparing for national elections.

The agreement also empowers Abbas to continue negotiations and endorses his leadership in seeking a two-state solution that provides for peace between Israel and an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in East Jerusalem.

While Israel has flat out rejected reconciliation, the success of this effort to establish unity will depend on the US response. Up to now, the US administration has not formally rejected the agreement and has been somewhat circumspect in its comments.

It would be a big error if, without finding out the exact terms of the reconciliation pact, the US were to reject it out of hand and punish the PA.

Likewise, it would be an enormous error if the US were to force Abbas to turn his back on the pact. This has happened before.

At this point, such a move would not be accepted by the Palestinian public and would severely compromise the PA leadership.

If, as senior Palestinian spokesmen affirm, the terms of the agreement comply with the well-known Quartet conditions, the US would be well advised to be supportive of the effort and insist that Israel continue negotiations with a now-strengthened Abbas.

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