On Wednesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal will meet again in Cairo to discuss the implementation of the Fatah-Hamas unity pact that was first signed in May. Though the Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh reports there are still significant differences between the two groups, the resumption of the talks between them indicates that there is still a much greater chance of peace between the Palestinian factions than between the PA and Israel. Abbas’ desire to prefer “unity” with the Islamists of Hamas to negotiations with Israel illustrates the bankruptcy of a peace process that is predicated on the idea that “moderates” such as those running the PA are ready to recognize Israel’s legitimacy.
Though some Palestinian apologists claim the unity deal will housetrain Hamas, this contradicts everything we know about the terrorist group. Far from the deal illustrating the willingness of Hamas to acquiesce to Israel’s existence, the relative shift in strength between the two movements since May as well as the growing influence of Islamists in Egypt shows progress toward implementation of the pact makes peace with Israel impossible.
No matter what the final terms of this unity pact turn out to be, it should first be understood that by choosing to embrace Hamas rather than seeking to eliminate their influence, Abbas and Fatah have indicated their lack of interest in ending the conflict with Israel. Former U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell used to like to analogize the Middle East conflict to Ireland and say that if the Irish and the British could learn to live with each other then so could the Israelis and the Palestinians. But what he always failed to understand is that the leaders of the Irish independence movement made a critical decision in 1922 when Michael Collins chose peace and partition over the maximalist demands of his Irish Republican Army colleagues. Collins and the peace faction didn’t just sign an agreement with Britain; they were prepared to fight a bloody civil war against their extremist brethren. Their victory in that conflict, which cost Collins his life, enabled the two-state solution in Ireland that persists to this day.
But Mahmoud Abbas is no Michael Collins. Rather than fighting Hamas and eliminating its influence — which is the primary obstacle to peace — he wants them inside the Palestinian governing tent.
It must also be pointed out that the balance of terror between the moderate rejectionists of Fatah and the more extreme rejectionists of Hamas is shifting. Hamas’ 2006 coup in which they seized control of Gaza gave them a power base they will never surrender. This Hamasistan is, for all intents and purposes, an independent Palestinian state where they exercise sovereignty and have been able to impose their Islamist beliefs on the area. Given the upside down ethos of Palestinian politics in which anti-Israel violence conveys legitimacy, their continued policy of terror has made them more, not less, popular on the West Bank. The Gilad Shalit ransom deal further enhanced their prestige.
Just as important is the fact that Hamas’ Muslim Brotherhood allies are now major power brokers in Egypt. The overthrow of the Mubarak regime ended Egypt’s cooperation with international efforts to isolate Hamas. That strengthened Hamas’ strategic position and increased its leverage in talks with Abbas who has already, according to previous reports by Abu Toameh, conceded that PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad — a favorite of Western governments who has sought to improve the economy of the West Bank — will lose his job once the pact goes into effect.
Far from differences over peace with Israel being an impediment to fulfillment of the treaty between the two, the main obstacle appears to be Fatah’s fear of losing an election to Hamas. Given that Abbas’ term of office expired years ago and that he has chosen to continue without benefit of re-election, it’s fair to say that Fatah is not likely to want to face off against Hamas in a scheduled May 2012 ballot.
In the meantime, Hamas continues to make clear they will use their growing power to pursue war against Israel. As Elliott Abrams wrote last week, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya told a huge rally in Gaza last week:
We affirm that armed resistance is our strategic option and the only way to liberate our land, from the [Mediterranean] sea to the River [Jordan]. God willing, Hamas will lead the people… to the uprising until we liberate Palestine, all of Palestine.
Haniya is planning a tour of the Middle East in a sign of Hamas’ strength. Americans who seek to pressure Israel to accommodate Palestinian demands should take that vow seriously. Unlike Fatah’s supposed acceptance of the peace process, Hamas means what it says and will use any unity pact to help implement their vision of Israel’s destruction.