How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Soon after the Arab revolts began, thousands of West Bankers and Gazans took to the streets. Unlike their fellow Arabs, however, the Palestinians clamored for new unity efforts rather than new leaders. For their parts, both the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Hamas’ de facto government in Gaza had professed a desire to reunify ever since they broke apart four years ago. But the enmity and differences between them had been too great to overcome. As Fatah and Hamas’ patrons fell from power or were severely weakened, Palestinian leaders realized that they would need to renew their legitimacy from within and that unification would be their best bet. For better or worse, this week’s unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas would never have occurred had the ongoing Arab uprisings not changed both parties’ political fortunes.
Now Palestinians are committed to a dangerous course -- many of the unity agreement’s critical details remain either unknown or unresolved. Although the Palestinians may be on a path toward political reunification, true reconciliation is unlikely and peace negotiations with Israel are now off the table for the foreseeable future. A United Nations vote granting Palestine membership in the General Assembly this September would only complicate matters. It could lead to unilateral Israeli actions on the ground and renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence.
When the Arab uprisings first started in Tunisia last December, Palestinian politics were already in tumult. Negotiations with Israel over the establishment of a Palestinian state were stalemated with no prospect of renewal in sight. Meanwhile, Hamas had been pummeling Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the umbrella group recognized by Israel and most of the world as the representative of the Palestinian people, and the PA over Al Jazeera’s January 24 publication of some 1600 leaked internal documents, which portrayed Palestinian peace negotiators as having been overly accommodating towards Israel after the 2008 Annapolis peace conference without gaining much in return.
In the days that followed, the lead Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, tendered his resignation. In the West Bank, PA leaders who had long sought peace with Israel as a path toward nationhood hardened their terms for resuming the peace talks. Demonstrators there denounced Qatar and Al Jazeera for interfering in Palestinian affairs. Meanwhile, in Gaza, Hamas-sponsored protesters denounced the PA for its purported willingness to make fundamental concessions, especially over Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
In February, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster came as a shock, especially to Abbas. Throughout his rule, Mubarak had helped maintain the legitimacy of the PA’s quest for negotiated peace with Israel by adhering to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and also claiming an active role in inter-Arab politics. Mubarak had also provided a line of communication between Abbas and Israel’s leaders and had given Abbas political mentorship.
Now, with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations stalled, unrest raging throughout the Arab world, and Mubarak’s political cover lost, Palestinian leaders tried to shift the national agenda from peace with Israel toward reestablishing legitimacy and unity at home, lest the calls for regime change infect Palestinian territory. In February, Abbas called on Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, an independent, to disband the PA government and reshuffle the cabinet. Meanwhile, the Fatah-dominated PLO called for municipal elections across the West Bank and Gaza in July, and presidential and legislative elections no later than September.
For Hamas, Mubarak’s fall was a godsend. Gone, along with Mubarak, was his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, whose hostility towards Hamas was barely veiled. Both men had routinely pressed Hamas to make concessions to Fatah. Frequently, they had closed the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza to keep Hamas effectively sealed off from its ideological brethren, the banned Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. With Mubarak and Suleiman now gone, the Muslim Brotherhood back in the fore, and Cairo pursuing a new “independent” foreign policy, Egypt was no longer as closely aligned with Washington and far less hostile to Hamas. Indeed, just after Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt’s new government started talking about reopening the Rafah border crossing.
When tens of thousands of Gazans took to the streets to call for reconciliation with the West Bank, Hamas used violence to suppress them. The organization continued to reject Abbas’ call for a new unity government of independents, clinging to its demand for the formation of an interim government, which would be comprised in part by Hamas members.
Despite popular protests in Gaza, Hamas appeared to be on the ascendance until the Arab revolt spread to Syria. Hamas’ avowed neutrality between the Syrian government and the protesters strained ties between Assad and the Hamas leadership, much of which is based in Damascus. Unsure how much longer its Syrian base would last, Hamas agreed to fundamental concessions that made unity possible. In secret negotiations brokered by Egypt, Hamas dropped its longstanding insistence on its participation in the new caretaker government. On May 4th, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaas and Abbas signed the unity accord.
Most Palestinians were surprised when the agreement was announced. It creates a neutral caretaker government to oversee the transition to an elected PA president, parliament, and PLO National Council. The government that manages this transition will not be empowered to advance the peace process with Israel, nor will it be structured to pursue Palestinian statehood -- those tasks will be left to whomever wins the elections. But by ostensibly bringing together the rival factions, the agreement at least represents an attempt at enhanced legitimacy and an opportunity to further the state-building process.
Still, it papers over many key differences between Fatah and Hamas, including disagreements over how security services should be managed and the future political platform of the PLO. Uncertainty also remains about whether Fayyad will head the new government. A leading proponent of reform, Fayyad had been among first to call for reconciliation once the Arab uprising first broke out. His focus on financial probity and security has antagonized both Fatah and Hamas, who seek more latitude for their own parochial interests. Both parties would prefer to see a less powerful figure that Fayyad assume leadership.
Although there have been some reports that Fayyad will not be considered to head the new government, he is, in fact, not out of the running. His solid international reputation is the Palestinian’s best hope for continued Western assistance and for the continuation of efforts to strengthen Palestinian institutions and the private sector. If a Hamas-led government took power, aid would surely be cut off and Palestinian nationbuilding would stagnate.
Perhaps the greatest challenge after the interim government takes over will be holding fair elections and creating a representative government while preventing Hamas from usurping the process. For years, the PA and the PLO have accepted mutual Israeli-Palestinian recognition and the peaceful resolution of outstanding conflicts as key tenets of Palestinian politics. But Hamas has always rejected these ideas. Should Hamas continue to refuse to recognize Israel and commit to non-violence, the Palestinian national movement will either split once again, or will have come full circle to its position in the 1960s, that violent resistance and rejectionism are the means for achieving Palestinian aspirations. As has recently been the case, the ongoing Arab Spring will shape the decisions all Palestinians take in the period ahead.