(By Joel Migdal)
The unity agreement announced last week between Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization drew swift, negative reactions from Israel, including suspending its participation in the U.S.-sponsored peace talks. Israel said flatly it would not negotiate with a team that included those dedicated to its destruction.
The response by the United States to the deal was less draconian (indeed, the Israeli government officially called the U.S. statement “weak,” further fraying relations between the two). Still, the State Department did express its “disappointment” in the agreement and found it “troubling.” It stood by the Quartet’s previous conditions for accepting such a pact: Hamas’s formal recognition of Israel, acceptance of previous PLO-Israel agreements, and renunciation of violence.
For both Israel and the United States, though, the new agreement might actually present more opportunities than dangers.
Hamas-PLO reconciliation efforts have dotted the political landscape since they fought a short, intense civil war in 2007. Street battles in Gaza between the two began after Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestine Authority legislative elections, which broke the monopoly of the PLO and its dominant faction, Fatah. In the 2007 civil war, Hamas forces overwhelmed PLO fighters and took control of the Gaza Strip.
Even as the fighting flared and then in the years following, almost every conceivable power in the region—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey—tried to mediate the dispute and repair the rupture in Palestinian politics. The agreements they brokered sound like a geography of Mideast cities: the Mecca Agreement, Sana’a Agreement, Cairo Agreement (2011), Doha Agreement, and another Cairo Agreement in 2012. Two of these were actually signed by Hamas and the PLO, but in the end every one of them fell apart.
A variety of issues have divided the two—power-sharing arrangements, procedures for elections, arrests of opponents, personalities, and more. The current agreement addresses some of these—a unity government within five weeks, elections in half a year, a restructured PLO, and mutual release of prisoners.
It is not clear if this agreement will have any more staying power than previous ones. But there are powerful motivations—probably stronger on the Hamas end—to make this one stick. Hamas has faced numerous setbacks, including falling support in the Gaza Strip and the challenge of other Islamic groups, which claim that Hamas has lost its revolutionary ardor. Also, in the wake of the Arab Spring, Hamas broke with Asad’s regime in Syria, forcing it to move its headquarters from Damascus. This move led to a souring of relations with Asad’s (and its own) principal backer, Iran.
The break with Iran might have been offset by the electoral success in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that originally spawned Hamas. But the Brotherhood’s government, led by Mohamed Morsi, was noticeably cool to Hamas. And, once the Egyptian military ousted Morsi, Hamas’s relations with Egypt completely unraveled, leaving it with no major patron. A rapprochement with the PLO could open the way for Hamas’s acceptance by Arab states lined up against Syria and Iran.
The PLO also has good reasons to seek reconciliation. Its popularity has plummeted through the repeated failures of negotiations with Israel. Engagement with Israel held clear opportunities, but it was also perilous. The largest risk was being seen as Israel’s handmaiden. With the recent round of talks, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, all but dead, unity with Hamas could reinvigorate the PLO and reestablish its credentials as the sole representative of the Palestinian people in their struggle against the occupation.
U.S. and Israeli rejection of the unity agreement and their policies aimed at continuing Hamas’s isolation may be shortsighted. For one, these policies could drive Hamas towards reconciliation, with Iran. There have been soundings of Hamas-Iran fence-mending for several months. The Hamas-PLO agreement, cheered by a group of Arab countries deeply opposed to Iran, would almost certainly scuttle any Hamas-Iran reconciliation. Hamas’s defection to the anti-Asad, anti-Iran Arab camp would work in favor of the United States and Israel, helping to break Iran’s efforts to reestablish its bloc stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.
What may be equally important is that, just as the U.S. and Israel moved the PLO of the 1980s away from its own vow to destroy Israel, they have the opportunity to nudge Hamas in that direction now. While Hamas will not accept formal recognition of Israel, its incorporation into the PLO and a unity government would involve its agreement to past and future PLO agreements with Israel, including the end of armed conflict and the establishment of Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Additionally, incorporating the Gaza Strip back into the Palestine Authority will put a partner with which Israel has cooperated on the West Bank back in charge of Gaza.
Participating in a unified Palestine government would enable Hamas to engage in a long-term truce, or hudna, with Israel, something Hamas leaders have alluded to for years, without officially recognizing Israel. For the United States and Israel, the Hamas-PLO agreement could provide a path out of the seemingly endless Palestine-Israel conflict, rejuvenate their own frayed alliance, and focus on the larger and more dangerous Iranian and Syrian issues.
Joel S. Migdal is professor at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and author of the recently published Shifting Sands: The United States in the Middle East (Columbia University Press):