Would a Palestinian Unity Government Preclude Negotiations With Israel?

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Anyone paying a modicum of attention to Israeli-Palestinian issues knows that the reason there’s little prospect of progress in negotiations between the two sides is not the decision by President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party to form a unity government with Hamas. Negotiations have been deadlocked because of the chasm between the two sides on the fundamental final-status issues such as borders, Jerusalem, settlements and refugees. Even then, the suggestion that Hamas-Fatah rapprochement somehow precludes further negotiation with Israel is also misguided.

For those struggling to figure out the implications for negotiations with Israel of a unity government administering the Palestinian Authority, it’s not all that complicated: Sure, Hamas spokesman Dr. Mahmoud Zahar says that such a government would not negotiate with Israel. And his statement mirrors the insistence of Israel’s leaders that they will not negotiate with such a government.

But while the New York Times report implied that Zahar’s statement might be at odds with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ insistence that he plans to continue negotiations with Israel, there’s not necessarily a contradiction between the two.  Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in search of an agreement to end the conflict have never, in fact,  involved the Palestinian Authority (PA); they have always been conducted between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

PA President Mahmoud Abbas, like his predecessor Yasser Arafat, is also Chairman of the PLO — and it’s in that capacity that he negotiates with the Israelis. Indeed, it was such negotiations that led to the creation of the PA as an interim administrative body to govern parts of the West Bank and Gaza pending the outcome of final-status negotiations that were expected to result in the creation of a Palestinian state. No such agreement has been achieved, of course, putting the status of the PA in limbo — and prompting a serious debate within Fatah circles over whether to simply dissolve the PA in order to force a choice on Israel of either resuming full control of the West Bank and responsibility for its citizens, or accepting Palestinian terms for a two-state solution. But it is the PLO, not the PA,  that is charged with negotiating such a solution.

The distinction is not simply bureaucratic: The PA is an administrative body supposed to be governed by an executive and legislature democratically elected by Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. The PLO is an umbrella body recognized by the United Nations as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”, meaning it is deemed to speak for the millions of registered refugees in the Diaspora. Both bodies have a problem with their democratic mandate: Abbas was elected President in 2005; his term has expired. So too the legislature of which Hamas was elected as the ruling party in 2006, although it was prevented from governing and took control of Gaza in the resulting power struggle. A key element of the unity government deal is the agreement to hold new elections within a year.

The PLO, by contrast, is not directly elected, and while its councils include Fatah and a range of minor factions, Hamas is not represented. Hamas spokesmen have said the reconciliation plan includes restructuring the PLO to include Hamas after PA elections have been held, perhaps involving new elections to its leading body, the Palestine National Council. That, of course, could change the complexion and outlook of the PLO. But for now, Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nounou, insisted that his organization would abide by any PLO negotiations in the interim. Hamas’ longstanding position has been that it has no interest in negotiating directly with Israel, but would accept the outcome of negotiations between Israel and the PLO if those were approved in a Palestinian referendum. (That, of course, offers the movement a huge get-out clause; if it opposed the terms of a settlement it could simply lobby for a no-vote.)

But Hamas is skeptical, along with most Palestinians and most in Fatah, that Israel will offer the Palestinians a deal that satisfies their minimum requirements. (Hamas leaders have previously indicated that while they will not recognize Israel they will accept Palestinian statehood based on the 1967 lines, suggesting that leaders in the movement — although not all of them — are fudging their way to accepting some version of a two-state solution.)

That’s the reason Abbas is planning to go the U.N. General Assembly in September to ask for recognition of Palestinian statehood on the 1967 lines. Whether that remains his goal, or a return to the negotiating table before then, even some Israeli leaders see the unity agreement as a positive. Former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, for example, argues that such a move, particularly if Hamas accepts Abbas’ role as negotiator, negates the claim that Abbas does not speak for all Palestinians because of the West Bank-Gaza division. That would also strengthen his appeal to the U.N., says Beilin. And then, of course, there’s the reality that any peace process based on the assumption that Hamas can simply be ignored or marginalized is likely to fail. Difficult as the challenge may be, integrating Hamas, securing its consent and binding it to the terms may be a precondition for an successful peace agreement.

The Bush-era policy of dividing the region into a camp of “moderate” autocrats aligned with Israel and the U.S. against the “radicals” of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizballah has been rendered moot by the Arab Spring: A more democratic Egypt is already normalizing relations with Hamas and Iran, for example. That doesn’t mean Egypt is embracing them; it simply means that the U.S.-Israeli idea that these elements can be wished or blown away simply has no significant support among the people of the region, even if Mubarak had been willing to play along.

As much as a Palestinian unity government doesn’t preclude negotiating with Israel, it also doesn’t bring any such negotiations closer. Given U.S. efforts over the past five years to prevent Fatah-Hamas rapprochement, the agreement — if it is implemented, which is never a safe bet — marks a Palestinian declaration of independence from Washington.

Netanyahu warned Abbas that he could either negotiate with Israel or he could negotiate with Hamas, but not with both. But Abbas appears to have made his mind up on the basis of what Netanyahu was willing — and unwilling — to offer.