By Khaled Diab
Palestinian reconciliation offers a golden opportunity for a peace deal. But reaching one requires Israelis, Palestinians and the international community to recognise some hard facts.
Friday 13 May 2011
The Egyptian-brokered Palestinian ‘national unity’ agreement between the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, took the world by surprise when it was announced on 27 April.
Palestinians hope this internal peace deal – officially inaugurated in Cairo last Wednesday – will bring an end to years of infighting and conflict between Fatah, which currently dominates the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza, and mend the burnt bridges between the two Palestinian territories. With national unity, Palestinians also hope they will get a government that can best serve their immediate and long-term national interests.
However, the agreement is so vague and brief that it raises questions as to whether it can serve as a basis to heal the deep-seated political and ideological rifts between the two parties. But if it enables the Palestinians to create the infrastructure for a state-in-waiting, then it will serve a useful purpose. Encouragingly, it also details a clear path to elections, which will enable the Palestinian people to choose between Fatah and Hamas.
Although much of the world welcomed the news of the deal and saw in it an opportunity to inch towards an eventual Palestinian-Israeli peace deal, Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, immediately rejected the agreement, calling on the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, to cancel it.
“The agreement… is a hard blow to the peace process,” he said following a meeting in Jerusalem with former British prime minister and Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, and just ahead of a European tour aimed at mobilising European opposition to the deal.
Netanyahu’s position has raised Palestinian suspicions that Israel prefers a ‘divide and rule’ approach to the Palestinians in order to keep alive the idea that Israel has “no partner for peace” while it quite literally cements its hold on the West Bank through settlement building.
Of course, Hamas’s own pronouncements do not help matters. In response to Nethanyahu’s rejection of the Palestinian unity deal, Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh, who is the prime minister in Gaza, called on Fatah to withdraw its recognition of Israel in wake of its “denial of the rights and unity of the Palestinian people”.
To the minds of many Israelis, this confirms Netanyahu’s assessment, when he asked: “How is it possible to achieve peace with a government – half of which calls for the destruction of the State of Israel…?” Of course, Netanyahu is conveniently overlooking that his own Likud party’s political platform “flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river”.
Haniyeh’s comment is particularly unwise when considering that it is targeted at a society in which memories of mass murder and near-extinction at the hands of the Nazis are still alive and traumatic, as illustrated by the sombre spectacle of the annual Holocaust Memorial Day in May. The prism of the Holocaust makes the symbolic recognition of Israel an issue of paramount importance to many Israelis.
If Haniyeh’s heart is really with the Palestinians and he truly wishes to serve “the interests of our people”, then refraining from such harmful statements would be a first step. This is especially true since he and other senior Hamas figures have, since coming to power, indicated their acceptance of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, as recently reiterated by Hamas’s Khaled Mashal in Cairo.
It is high time for the Hamas leadership to stop beating about the bush, in order to appease hard-liners within the movement, and come out with a clear statement that it recognises Israel’s right to exist within its pre-1967 borders.
Among Israelis, although concern over Hamas’s record of violence and its refusal to recognise Israel is understandable, it is important to distinguish between the symptoms (strident Islamism in Gaza) and the disease (a crushing occupation, poverty and denial of a people’s rights).
It is also wise to recall that Israel helped empower Hamas by illicitly supporting the movement and its precursors as a counterbalance against the secular PLO in order to avoid negotiating with Yasser Arafat and then by refusing to deal with it once it came to power. Such blowback illustrates that the only way to break the cycle of hardening positions is for Israel to recognise Hamas and Palestinian statehood, just as Hamas should recognise Israel.
The gun has failed to deliver peace. It’s time to give the olive branch a real chance.
This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.