Palestinian Reconciliation Remains a Pipe Dream

For years, speculation that Hamas and Fatah are about to reconcile and agree on new Palestinian elections has been the stuff of silly-season journalism. Even when there have been formal announcements of intended rapprochement, the rival political factions have been too comfortable in their respective strongholds of Gaza and the West Bank, and too far apart ideologically, to follow through.

So when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last week again promised national reconciliation and new elections, it was a cue for eye rolling.

But both sides seem to be more sincere now than at any time since the last elections in 2006. Abbas decreed three specific dates: May 22 for the election to the legislature, July 31 for the presidential vote, and Aug. 31 for the reconstitution of the Palestinian National Council. That’s not an airy promise, it’s a very specific — and very ambitious — agenda.

Both sides, it would appear, are responding to a wave of reconciliation across the Middle East, which presents a new challenge to Palestinian national aspirations.

While bickering amongst themselves over turf and ideology, Hamas and Fatah have long relied on a unified block of Arab countries to pursue the broader Palestinian objective of independence from Israel. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which promised normalization with Israel only after it withdraws from territories occupied in the 1967, served as a substitute for a Palestinian national strategy — and by extension, for a nationally-minded leadership.

But several Arab states are now pursuing normalization with Israel individually, weakening any leverage they may have had collectively. The Palestinian groups have little choice but to come up with a national strategy. That, in turn, would require unified purpose and credible institutions. Hence, the sudden seriousness about Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and national elections.

It helps that many foreign backers of both factions are pushing them towards reconciliation. Hamas is being pressed by Qatar, its main financier, as well as Turkey; Fatah by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, its key backers.

But not everyone is so keen. Egypt and Jordan, not coincidentally the two states that border Gaza and the West Bank, are decidedly nervous about the prospect, fearing chaos and uncontrolled change in volatile areas along their borders. They have more to lose than to gain, since the status quo suits both just fine.

Iran, too, only stands to lose from a successful Palestinian process. Tehran maintain links to Hamas and to some leaders in Gaza, but a reconciliation would squeeze it out and strengthen the influence of Turkey and Qatar on one side and the UAE and Saudi Arabia on the other.

Israel, too, appears to have little to gain from Palestinian reconciliation or elections. For Israeli leaders, Palestinian disunity forestalls compromise and provides cover for continuing and deepening the occupation.

And the view of the Americans and Europeans isn’t clear, especially given the fiasco of the 2006 legislative elections: Hamas triumphed, and the West essentially repudiated the results. A repeat of that result will be just as hard to swallow.

But it may never come to that: The political and structural obstacles to a national election are overwhelming. Although Hamas has made a significant concession in dropping its opposition to separate votes for the legislature and presidency, the two parties are divided on the distribution of power between the two institutions. Contemporary Arab politics almost always favors the executive, which doesn’t augur well for Hamas: It is much better at winning small local elections than at having one of its members accepted as a national leader.

The two factions haven’t yet agreed to a common set of rules for campaigning, or even voting. Hamas will likely demand a new electoral court to certify the results; Abbas won’t agree, since that would undercut his own authority.

It’s hard to imagine anything like normal campaigning, given restrictions of the Israeli occupation, especially the extreme difficulty of movement, and the readiness of both Palestinian sides to use violence in their own area of control. And it is unlikely that the losing side will respect the results.

It is much more probable that the election plan will fizzle out, and that attempts at reconciliation will end in the usual recriminations. Hamas will hunker down in its Gaza redoubt and launch sporadic rockets into Israel, while Abbas tries to restore relations with the U.S., secure more aid and rally international support.

Few people on earth need political change more than the Palestinians; even fewer are more hopelessly trapped in their status quo.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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