HOW THE STORY BEGAN
The story began with two meetings a Fateh delegation (consisting of Saeb Ereikat, Azzam al-Ahmad, and Mohammad Shtayyieh) held in the Qatari capital of Doha with Hamas Politburo Head Khalid Mish’al.
The meetings dealt with ways to implement the [February 2012] reconciliation agreement. The two parties agreed to form a new government and hold legislative and presidential elections within six months. Thus, all obstacles standing in the way of reconciliation were ostensibly removed.President Abbas had insisted that two decrees should be issued simultaneously: one ordering the formation of a new government, and the other setting the date for elections three months hence.This problem was apparently solved in Doha after a flurry of phone calls between Abbas and Mish’al, Ismail Haniyeh and Abbas as well as contacts between al-Ahmad, [Hamas Deputy Politburo Head] Musa Abu-Marzouq, and [Hamas Gaza PM] Haniyeh.In the meantime, [senior Fatah official] Jibril Rajoub met with Mish’al to confirm that implementation was on track. The two also stressed the need to agree on a political program; a step that was understood to imply that Abbas wanted reassurances that Hamas would support his position vis-à-vis peace talks with Israel – or at least, that it would not oppose negotiations too stridently. All eyes are now focused on al-Ahmad's upcoming visit to Gaza, which is supposed to put the finishing touches on the agreement prior to implementation.But why has the process of reconciliation suddenly come back to life?Hamas has undoubtedly grown more flexible after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, and the new Egyptian regime decided to tighten the blockade on Gaza. It was then that Hamas began to call for the reconciliation agreement to be implemented. Ismail Haniyeh thus tabled an initiative inviting other factions to participate in Hamas' administration in Gaza. He also expressed Hamas's readiness to hold municipal and trade union elections in Gaza, release [Palestinian political] detainees, and allow [political] fugitives to return.But what really set the reconciliation ball rolling was the growing realization that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts were rapidly approaching the moment of truth. The time for taking the decisive and fateful decision on whether to accept or reject Kerry's proposals on a framework agreement, and prolonging talks (which means adopting a new terms of reference that would impinge on Palestinian rights) is almost upon us.The fact of the matter is that President Abbas now needs to reconcile with Hamas, whether a framework agreement is achieved, or whether the talks collapse. Should the talks succeed, he will need Palestinian cover in order to proceed especially as there is widespread disagreement even within Fateh and the PLO on whether to pursue the peace talks and how to deal with Kerry's proposals.Abbas hopes that in order to end or at least alleviate its present crisis, Hamas would be prepared to disregard his consent to Kerry's framework agreement. Hamas could easily justify such a position by saying that the negotiations will never result in a full agreement because of Israeli intransigence and American bias. Should Kerry fail, there would also be a need for the Palestinians to unite in order to face up to the consequences of failure, including sanctions, pressures, and even confrontations.In the first case, the U.S. – and perhaps even Israel – may tolerate reconciliation going ahead, because it would provide cover for the continuation of the peace talks. In case of the peace talks failing however, Washington and Tel Aviv will use the reconciliation process as a means to demonize the Palestinians and portray them as terrorists who are against peace.If disagreement on whether to hold elections in three or six months was the real sticking point that prevented the reconciliation process from moving forwards, that obstacle has now been removed. But everyone knows that it was not the major stumbling block. There are numerous Israeli, American, Arab, regional, and Palestinian factors that prevent reconciliation. The most important factor is the struggle for power between Fateh and Hamas. Each of the two factions looks to the process of reconciliation to uphold its own interests. While Fateh seeks to consolidate its hold on power, Hamas wishes to seize it.In other words, if the opportunity arises for either faction to achieve its aim without reconciliation (as for example, when Hamas bet on the rise of political Islam in the Arab world), it would seize it. For its part, Fateh put its money on the Muslim Brotherhood falling, which it hoped would lead to the collapse of Hamas.But neither did Fateh collapse with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the fact that peace efforts led to nowhere, nor did Hamas implode with the Muslim Brotherhood's fall and the fact that its program of resistance reached a dead end. For Hamas, resistance became a means of self-defence against Israeli aggression and a tool for self-preservation. This, after Hamas justified its armed takeover of Gaza [in 2007] by saying that it did so in order to protect the resistance.Azzam al-Ahmad recently said that President Abbas could issue a decree setting a date for elections and form a new government in six months. This implies that the election date is not the real sticking point, and that holding elections is a political decision that is not for the Palestinians alone to decide upon. Israel, the United States, and other Arab, regional, and international parties also have roles to play in making such a decision.It would be impossible to hold elections in the immediate future if peace talks end in failure. For one thing, Israel would not be in the mood to strengthen the Palestinians by encouraging their unity and legitimizing it through the ballot box. Israel and the United States will only support elections if they would lead to legitimizing the peace process.The moment of truth is rapidly approaching, and the Palestinians must take the difficult decision to change course completely. This requires changing the rules of the game, as well as local and regional players. It is simply not possible to continue with bilateral talks away from Palestinian and international terms of reference and away from the UN and other world players. Similarly, it is no longer possible to use the tactic of threatening reconciliation, mass resistance, and going to the UN in order to resume peace talks and improve their terms.The record shows that this is a failed policy. Persevering with bilateral peace talks under American tutelage with the balance of power hopelessly skewed, the Palestinians divided, and the Arabs weakened against the backdrop of continued settlement expansion, can only result in giving Israel more time to complete its expansionist plans, neutralize the world, and abort other options.Fateh or certain individuals or groups within it cannot be allowed to commandeer Palestinian policies in Fateh's name at a time when the PLO is completely paralyzed and the Palestinians are split down the middle. Fateh's monopoly must be broken, and the only way to so is through genuine political participation. The time when one individual or faction could steer the Palestinian boat to safety is past.Palestine now faces serious challenges that could only be confronted by all the Palestinian people.