Now, with the Palestinians as strongly divided as they ever were on the wisdom and need for resuming peace talks, it seems that reconciliation is even more difficult to achieve. What made matters worse were the attacks each side launched against the other in the media, as well as a so-called 'document war' of mutual accusations and recriminations.
Even before Mursi was deposed, reconciliation proved impossible to achieve despite a series of agreements, understandings, and timetables (a government of national unity was supposed to be put in place, today, August 14th). But there were many Palestinian, Arab, regional, and international reasons that prevented the parties from implementing those agreements. It seems now that only a miracle can bring the two parties together.
Although the upheavals of the Arab Spring provided an ideal opportunity for ending the split between Fateh and Hamas, as most Arab, regional, and world powers were preoccupied with these events thus giving the Palestinians the freedom to pursue the process of reconciliation, they failed to avail themselves of that chance. This was despite the fact that Hamas began to move away from the so-called [Iranian/Syrian-led] 'resistance camp' and adopt a more moderate stance. In fact, Hamas and the PLO almost became part of the same [Gulf-led] axis. Its relations with the Syrian regime collapsed, forcing Hamas leaders to relocate to Doha and Cairo. Hamas' ties with Tehran and Hizbollah also deteriorated markedly.
Hamas put all its bets on the rise of political Islam, especially after Mursi won the 2012 Egyptian presidential election. It believed that it was about to secure Arab and international recognition, particularly since it took what it believed to be a path of moderation (including its adherence to a ceasefire with Israel). Hamas also declared that it would henceforth pursue the path of popular non-violent resistance instead of armed struggle. Hamas Politburo Head Khalid Mish’al, mandated PA President Mahmoud Abbas in May 2011 to negotiate with Israel for a full year, despite the fact that the political climate at the time was not conducive to a resumption of peace talks without new Palestinian concessions.
Hamas demonstrated flexibility regarding the reconciliation process; Mish’al signed the [February 2012] 'Doha declaration,' which called for the formation of a government of national unity under President Abbas. But there was no such reconciliation, despite the fact that Hamas was acting from a position of strength at the time. Now, reconciliation has become even harder to achieve, after Mursi's downfall and the hostility to Hamas manifest by the new Egyptian government and a large segment of Egypt’s population, including political parties and the media. Hamas is therefore facing a dilemma. It cannot proceed with the process of reconciliation unless on its own terms and conditions, otherwise it would be seen to be capitulating to Fateh.
What is making matters worse is the fact that unconditional peace talks with Israel have now resumed. Should Hamas agree to reconciliation today, it would appear to be providing political cover for the so-called peace process at a time when most Palestinian factions as well as Palestinian public opinion have expressed their disapproval. Also, with peace talks underway, American-Israeli opposition to reconciliation is more effective than it was.
Reconciliation is still possible, however, if a deal can be made in which both parties can see themselves as winners. Reconciliation only failed because both parties have insisted that the agreement should satisfy all their conditions. Also, there was no effective popular political pressure to force the protagonists to end the split on patriotic and democratic bases and in a spirit of true partnership. Hamas now fears that Fateh's objective is to regain control of Gaza through the ballot box – the same route that Hamas took to come to power in the first place.
After Mursi’s ouster, many in Fateh and the PA are calling for the Egyptian scenario to be replicated in Gaza, given the new Egyptian regime’s extreme hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot. In the last few weeks, and after the peace talks resumed with Israel, President Abbas has renewed his call for the formation of a new government on the basis of his political program, and for holding new legislative and presidential elections within three months without reforming the PLO but via elections for the PLO’s PNC (Palestinian National Council) or through national consensus. This increased Hamas' fears that it was required to meekly follow the Fateh-led PA as a junior partner that cannot alter the decisions of the majority.
Hamas, which prefers to keep control of Gaza to anything else, was understandably unenthusiastic about this offer before the recent developments because it would lose in all cases. If it won in the elections, Hamas would be required to adhere to the term set by the International Quartet (in other words, it would be required to follow the path it was originally founded to oppose). While Hamas has indeed moved some way towards moderating its positions, agreeing to abide by the Quartet's conditions would remove its raison d’etre in exchange for recognition. If it refuses to abide by those conditions however, it would not be able to rule the West Bank. It will be hunted down, its leaders and MPs arrested, and the blockade of Gaza tightened (thanks also to the strained relations between Hamas and the Egyptian authorities). If Hamas loses the elections, it would be required to relinquish control of Gaza and start to behave as a minority that cannot influence the decisions of the majority.
With all this in mind, Hamas is banking on Mursi's reinstatement or at least on a political settlement in Egypt that would allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in government, either of which could improve ties between Egypt and Hamas. Hamas has also been making efforts to mend ties with Iran and Hizbollah, although this could threaten its alliance with Qatar with no guarantees that its relations with the Iran-Hizbollah axis would return to normal, especially with the Syrian crisis still on-going.
Should all these options fail, Hamas could be forced to reactivate the option of armed struggle and resume firing rockets at Israel. This would be an extremely dangerous course to take, but Hamas could decide to take it as a last option. It is therefore in the national interest to provide Hamas with a face saving way out that allows it to re-join Palestinian politics as a genuine partner in a new strategy designed to rebuild the PLO and put the PA in its proper place at the service of the national interest.
Meanwhile, Fateh has been behaving – until now at least – as the victor. With one eye on Hamas' woes, Fateh believes that the resumed peace process – even if no settlement were achieved - would provide it with enough political and economic support to enable it to continue ruling the West Bank and improve the lives of Palestinians under occupation. Fateh is determined to ignore the grave damage its decision to resume negotiations (with no point of reference, no settlement freeze, and no Israeli commitment to recognize the borders of 1967) did to the Palestinian cause.
Reconciliation is impossible to achieve without the courage necessary to draw up new strategies designed to revive the Palestinian cause and its national project, as well as to rebuild the institutions of the PLO on sound patriotic and democratic foundations and in a spirit of true partnership in such a way as to restore its position as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. It would simply be not enough just to call on Hamas and other factions to join the PLO in its present form. The PLO needs to change and reform even if Hamas and Islamic Jihad do not join it.
For its part, the PA cannot continue with business as usual after it failed to achieve national independence, after Israel binned the unfortunate Oslo agreements, and after Palestine gained UN recognition. The PA needs to change radically and urgently. The best the PA can hope to achieve is to preserve the status quo or reach a transitional settlement that would be worse than Oslo. The PA has proved that it is nothing more than a semi-autonomous entity that exercises limited control over an occupied collection of Bantustans.
The PA could be described as a 'state' in a new agreement, but it would be far from being one in reality not to mention being able to fulfil the aspirations of the Palestinian people, even those of them living in the West Bank and Gaza.