Palestinian unity is problematic

Palestinian unity is problematic

February 7th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Monday's announcement that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will lead an interim unity government to prepare for upcoming general elections in the Palestinian territories is stunning on several levels.

It signals reconciliation between Abbas' Fatah movement and the far more militant Hamas. The two Palestinian groups have rarely agreed on anything in the past. In the not-so-distant past, followers of each party engaged in street battles over philosophy, domestic politics, how best to deal with Israel and how to promote the creation of a Palestinian state. Monday's agreement suggests that the two groups now will act in concert. Time will tell if the hostilities of the past will give way to the implied amity of the present.

Abbas' appointment and the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation it celebrates also ends the very slim hope that the international effort to reopen talks between Israel and the Palestinians about peace and statehood will bear fruit. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, made that emphatically clear Monday. "It's either peace with Hamas or peace with Israel. You can't have both," he said. His view is understandable.

While Abbas and Fatah have gingerly pursued rapprochement with Israel, Hamas has refused to acknowledge the Jewish state's right to exist. Given that, the Fatah-Hamas partnership could be a threat to Israel and could strengthen the hand of Israeli hard-liners opposed to any deals with Palestinians.

Abbas new role also changes the international Mideast dynamic. It could cause rifts in the Quartet -- the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- that has promoted peace and discussion in the Mideast. Quartet members have long said they would deal with any Palestinian government that renounces violence, recognizes Israel and supports a negotiated peace deal. That's why it has supported Abbas in the past. What happens next is anybody's guess.

Whether a government that includes Hamas will meet those standards and thereby retain diplomatic and financial support from the international community is uncertain.

The European Union already seems supportive of the unity government. A spokesman said Monday's move was positive. Some governments aren't so sure. Washington, at this writing, has not commented on the issue. Other nations are uncertain if they will continue to provide financial and other aid to Palestinians in the wake of events.

What is certain is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no closer to resolution today than it was last month or last year. It that sense, unified leadership changes little. No one -- least of all the principals involved -- can yet predict with any certainty if a new Palestinian government will hasten peace or promote greater and more dangerous division in the Mideast.