published Friday, May 6th, 2011

Palestinian unity? Perhaps

Fatah and Hamas, the rival factions whose competing philosophies led to two separate governments in the Palestinian territories and made almost every discussion of peace with Israel an exercise in futility, announced Wednesday that they had reconciled. Residents in the territories greeted the announcement with wild celebrations. Such public rejoicing might be premature. An announcement alone does not mean the two groups will be able to effectively work together on issues beneficial to the Palestinian people, or to secure meaningful peace with Israel.

Indeed, the initial announcement prompts more questions than it answers. While the pact ostensibly ends direct hostility between Hamas and Fatah, it does not guarantee that the more moderate Fatah and the relentlessly militant and often violent Hamas can agree on domestic issues. And nothing was said — publicly, at least — about the unity government’s view of the Palestinian relationship with Israel. Useful internal and external policies must be crafted and employed if the reconciliation is to have real meaning.

Fatah and Hamas officials say they will meet soon to flesh out the details of the new agreement. Doing so might prove difficult. Fatah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have indicated a willingness to talk with Israel about peace in return for Palestinian statehood. Hamas calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. Reconciling those views will be hard.

The difference of opinion, in fact, played a major role in the current state of Palestinian affairs. An earlier attempt at a unity government came unglued in 2007, prompting armed conflict between the groups. When the smoke cleared, Hamas controlled the Gaza Strip., and Abbas’ Palestinian Authority remained in charge of the West Bank. Successfully merging the two governments in a way that pleases followers of each group likely will prove to be a monumental, task.

Building a new relationship with Israel — and much of the rest of the global community — could prove to be just as daunting for the unified government. Israel’s first reaction to the unification announcement was negative. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the agreement was “a mortal blow to peace.”

Netanyahu’s remark reflects a belief that Hamas’ militancy is likely to prevail over the moderation of Fatah. Much of the international community apparently feels the same way. That view was voiced by Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who now represents the interests of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia in the Mideast. He said the new government must recognize Israel. Neither Fatah nor Hamas indicated Wednesday if such recognition was forthcoming.

Israel and the rest of the world have little choice other than to wait to see if Hamas and Fatah can put words into action and create a unified government that serves the interests of the Palestinian people and that increases the possibility of meaningful Mideast peace talks. Until there is proof that is the case, the announced reconciliation of the two groups remains, at best, a work in progress that must be viewed with caution rather than as a done deal.

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