In line with previous reports of a change in strategy on the part of Hamas, the news that the Islamist terror group has agreed to join the Palestine Liberation Organization may be viewed as further evidence of their moderation. But anyone who imagines that this move will bring the Middle East closer to peace is the victim of a deception. Rather than the PLO moderating Hamas, the integration of Gaza’s rulers into the ruling structures that govern the West Bank merely guarantees it will be even more difficult, if not impossible, for Israel to have a Palestinian negotiating partner.
The talks between Hamas and Fatah – the ruling faction of both the Palestinian Authority and the PLO — are fraught with tension, but the ongoing negotiations between the two factions in Cairo are testimony to the commitment of both to unite their efforts. Such a common front will not only close the door to talks to Israel (which the PA has avoided for three years) but will also raise the question of whether it will be possible to avoid a new round of violence.
Some readers may be wondering why the two groups are fussing about membership in a group many thought ceased to exist once the Oslo Accords brought Yasir Arafat to power via the Palestinian Authority. The PA is the governing structure of the West Bank as it had been in Gaza until Hamas seized power there in 2007. But the PLO remains the group that is widely recognized around the world and at the United Nations as the representative of the Palestinians. Thus, the integration of Hamas into the PLO is historically significant.
The PLO was always a coalition of various Palestinian terror groups of all stripes of which Fatah was once headed by Arafat and now PA President Mahmoud Abbas was the largest and most important. Including Hamas in the group means that for the first time, Fatah will have a coalition partner that is a major rival.
The PLO membership agreement, along with the other aspects of the unity deal, makes it clear what we are seeing is an attempt at a genuine power sharing treaty that will ultimately integrate Hamas into the security forces and the government of the West Bank as well as Gaza. Though optimists will hope this means they will become, as Fatah has been, partners with Israel in joint security arrangements, what this really means is the assumption about the emergence of a moderate Palestinian state on the West Bank living peacefully alongside Israel was just wishful thinking.
In pursuing this course, Fatah is bowing to what it sees as the inevitable tide of Palestinian opinion opposed to recognition of Israel and peace. Though Hamas may say it is giving up armed struggle, what it is really telling us is that it is concentrating on its short-term goal of transforming Palestinian political culture into an extension of the Hamas worldview rather than its long-term goal of eradicating Israel.
The unity deal underscores two aspects of Palestinian politics that are rarely discussed in the West.
The first is that the distance between Fatah and Hamas on questions of ideology toward Israel and even their desired organizing principles of Palestinian society was always exaggerated. The two groups may be different in some respects, but they are more compatible than most foreign observers understand. Fatah may have put itself forward to Western journalists as basically secular, but the PA has never distanced itself from fundamentalist Islam in its state-funded mosques and broadcast and print media. Nor has it sought to counter the influence of Islamism in Palestinian culture. Both also share a commitment to promoting anti-Semitic hate.
The second point is that the reason why Hamas has gained the upper hand over Fatah and forced them to negotiate rather than to fight them is that violence conveys legitimacy to their efforts that cannot be overcome by Fatah’s flirtation with good government principles via the programs of soon-to-be-ousted PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. In the upside-down ethos of Palestinian politics, Hamas’ dedication to violence has trumped Fayyad’s attempt to improve the standard of living on the West Bank.
While there is no way of knowing exactly how the Fatah-Hamas romance will play out, the one thing that is certain is that it forecloses any possibility of peace with Israel. Those seeking to endorse this pact or to interpret it as a precursor of negotiations with Israel simply have little appreciation for Hamas’ devotion to its Islamist ideology or for the support it has won.