The new Palestinian “unity” government is a paradoxical pastiche of the Fatah movement, which says it wants a peace settlement with Israel, and Hamas, which remains committed to the Jewish state’s destruction. The ideological divide has been papered over with the appointment of an interim Cabinet of technocrats and a plan to hold long-overdue elections this year. The Obama administration has chosen to regard this shaky coalition as worth engaging, while Israel has condemned both the government and the West’s acceptance of it. Washington has taken the more pragmatic course.
Several previous attempts by Palestinian leaders to mend the seven-year-old split between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-ruled Gaza have failed, mainly because of the split over Israel and the refusal by Hamas to give up its armed wing. That Hamas now is agreeing to back a Cabinet that recognizes Israel and previous agreements with it reflects the significant weakening of the Gaza administration, which has seen its economic link to Egypt severed and its popularity among Palestinians decline.
The accord makes continuation of the peace process unlikely, as Israel has refused to negotiate with a Palestinian leadership that is bound to Hamas. But progress toward a settlement is unlikely under the two sides’ present leaders. In the meantime, the deal offers the prospect of a continued respite in Hamas-sponsored attacks on Israel as well as an election that could bring a new generation of leaders to power. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, 79, has shown himself unable and unwilling to muster a Palestinian consensus for realistic peace terms; his retirement would be a necessary step forward.
Israel and its allies in Congress argue that the United States should force Abbas to choose between an alliance with Hamas and U.S. aid. Yet a severing of U.S. assistance would risk the collapse of Palestinian security forces that have played a crucial role in keeping peace in the West Bank. Having quietly insisted that the interim Cabinet meet Western conditions, the Obama administration would do better to focus its diplomacy on promoting an election that could bring about a unified Palestinian Authority capable of keeping the peace and bargaining seriously with Israel.
That is admittedly a long shot. Hamas would either have to change its doctrine or be excluded from the election on the grounds that it has failed to disarm or renounce violence. Abbas shrank from imposing those terms before the 2006 election, confident that his party would win, only to be shocked by a Hamas victory. Though the Islamists are less popular now, it is vital that Palestinians enforce the principle of “one gun, one law” if they are to present a credible case for statehood. The ugly alternative is another Lebanon, where the Hezbollah militia achieves its political objectives by force of arms.
The internal contradictions of the Palestinian coalition very well may lead either to its collapse or to a government that is unacceptable to Israel and the United States. But Palestinian politics have reached a dead end under Hamas and Abbas. So have international efforts to work with a divided Palestinian leadership. The unity movement offers at least the possibility of change and renovation; the Obama administration is right to give it a chance.