Tom Phillips
Sir Tom Phillips KCMG
Former Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
Palestinian legislator Mustafa Barghouti; Palestinian Fatah delegation chief Azzam al-Ahmed; Hamas prime minister in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya,;Hamas deputy leader Musa Abu Marzuk; and secretary-general of the Palestinian Arab Front (PAF) Jameel ShehadPalestinian legislator Mustafa Barghouti; Palestinian Fatah delegation chief Azzam al-Ahmed; Hamas prime minister in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya,;Hamas deputy leader Musa Abu Marzuk; and secretary-general of the Palestinian Arab Front (PAF) Jameel Shehadeh, pose for a picture in Gaza 23 April 2014. Photo by Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images.

For Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, last week’s move towards reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas looks to have been either a tactical error or a calculated strategic move.

The key question about the deal announced on 22 April is whether President Abbas is playing a tactical game or a strategic game.

If viewed tactically, then the deal is merely one of the signals he is seeking to send to the Americans and the Israelis to show that he has options. If they do not, in his eyes, offer a serious prospect of negotiating a meaningful two-state solution, then he could: 

  1. Dissolve the Palestinian Authority (PA)and ‘hand the keys’ to the UN or Israel (as recently suggested by Palestinian officials), putting the weight of the occupation on Israel’s shoulders in the hope of bringing the Israelis face-to-face with the reality of what the loss of a two-state outcome would mean for any aspiration for a ‘Jewish state’;
     
  2. Seek to consolidate Palestine’s standing as a state on the international stage (hence his 1 April signature of applications for 15 international conventions); or
     
  3. Finalize the Fatah/Hamas reconciliation deal and boost his low reputation in Palestinian eyes, as well as signalling to the US and Israel (and more widely) that the game has changed.

If Abbas is playing a strategic game, then he has realized that there is no prospect of US Secretary of State John Kerry persuading or pressing Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu to sign up to anything resembling a two-state solution which would meet bottom-line Palestinian requirements. He may thus have concluded that the only way to keep the Palestinian cause alive is to overcome the deeply-rooted enmity between Fatah and Hamas and strengthen the Palestinian position in whatever negotiation eventually takes place – however far down the track – while also hoping to bolster his own legacy, at least in Palestinian eyes.

Much of course – as with every previous attempt at Palestinian reconciliation – will depend on the small print as the Fatah/Hamas deal is worked up, and the historical track record indicates there must be a major question mark about whether and how long any such deal will last. While there is little prospect of Hamas itself formally signing up to the conditions laid down by the Quartet after Hamas’s victory at the polls in 2006 (terms: renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept previous agreements), there are many ways to structure a new Palestinian government and its platform which would satisfy at least the Europeans (thereby ensuring EU funding for the PA continues) and, just conceivably the Americans, if not the Israelis. Abbas is certainly signalling that he considers this a circle which can be squared.

There is also uncertainty about Hamas’s reasons for renewed interest in the reconciliation agenda. Arguably, their current weakened position in the region, particularly since the departure of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo, means they desperately need to find a new way to bolster their position. But such an analysis might mean they are being driven to greater realism about the unlikelihood of ever achieving more than a two-state solution, or – as many Israelis fear – that they are looking for new ways to play a tactical game with an unchanged maximalist long-term agenda.

Some will also point to inconsistencies in Israel’s own position. Why, for instance, is it okay for Israel to negotiate with Hamas in order to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, but it is not acceptable for anyone else – at least any of its Western allies – to talk to the same organization?  What would be the problem were Hamas to join the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) because of the deal, since that could be interpreted as their implicit recognition of the Oslo framework to which the PLO remains committed?  And – looking more widely and remembering failed and successful peace processes elsewhere in the world – such enquiring minds will wonder whether any government  serious about concluding long-standing and deeply-rooted conflicts could do it without having to deal with the ‘hard men’ on the other side. Hamas’s record on observing such understandings as it has reached with Israel over the years is arguably not a bad one.

The two-state solution is fading

That of course raises the question of whether the Israeli/Palestinian negotiating model of recent years ever had any chance of success, given that it was based on the assumption that the Americans would be able to mastermind a process which would secure a Palestinian state on something like the terms set out in the Clinton parameters or the Geneva Agreement. All this with enough overall positive international and regional backing for a triumphant Abbas to be confident that Palestinian opinion − not only in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but also in Gaza and perhaps even in the diaspora − would give majority support to the deal, and that Hamas would accept the result of a referendum.

Partly because of the apparent position of Netanyahu’s government on some of the key issues, and the ongoing systematic settlement expansion which is whittling away any prospect of a sustainable two-state solution, that model has long looked unrealistic.

One thing at least seems clear. In the blame-game both sides have been playing for several weeks – neither believing the Kerry process is going anywhere; both manoeuvring in the hope that the other would take the blame for its breakdown – Abbas’s move may have been a major miscalculation, if it was designed to be merely a tactical one, giving Netanyahu all the scope he needed to pull back from a process which inevitably represented a threat to the cohesion of his government.

In any event, this further check to Kerry’s hopes can only strengthen the assessment of those who – like myself – have reluctantly reached the gloomy conclusion that the window of opportunity to achieve a two-state solution has now closed. This despite however much such a solution would have been the right one in terms of meeting the national aspirations of both sides − and despite the lack, for the foreseeable future, of any alternative to continued conflict.

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