The two leading Palestinian factions – Fatah and Hamas – announced this morning a unity agreement, part of which will include the formation of a cabinet that brings the Fatah-controlled West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip under the control of a single government. The two territories have been ruled separately since 2007, when Hamas fighters violently expelled Fatah officials from the Gaza Strip in a week-long battle that saw at least 118 people killed and over 550 injured. The division has been pointed to as one of four structural barriers blocking the formation of a Palestinian state.
In that specific sense, a Palestinian unity government will be viewed by some as a small step forward. Any theoretical gains are likely to be overwhelmed, however, by the specific composition of the new government. Palestinian media is reporting that Hamas operatives will fill key positions in the cabinet, and may even head the new government. The incorporation of Hamas into the Palestinian Authority (PA) seems set to confirm the worst fears of peace process skeptics and would bring the PA into direct conflict with U.S. legislation and diplomacy.
The land-for-peace formula has always required the Israelis to give up tangible, functionally irreversible concessions in exchange for Palestinian commitments on issues such as recognition and the renunciation of violence. The concern has been that the Palestinians would extract concessions as long as they could, then pocket what they’ve gained and walk away. Hamas has long insisted that any unity government be in harmony – at a minimum – with its refusal to accept Israel’s existence. Hamas has recently made moves to restore Iranian backing, and of course remains ideologically, politically, and militarily committed to the eradication of Israel.
Abrogating the PA’s previous commitments to recognize Israel, which the Jewish state gained in exchange for decades of territorial concessions, would all but confirm that skepticism. Early media coverage indicates that this morning’s announcement is already being read in exactly those terms.
Concerns over meeting past agreements and obligations
The central diplomatic and psychological role played by Palestinian commitments is one of many reasons that the international community has long demanded that any Palestinian government meet its previous obligations. A January 2006 statement by the international Quartet group was explicit [PDF] on the core issues of renouncing violence, meeting previous agreements, and recognizing Israel:
It is the view of the Quartet that all members of a future Palestinian government must be committed to nonviolence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the Roadmap. We urge both parties to respect their existing agreements, including on movement and access.
The point has has also been echoed by American and international diplomats for the better part of a decade, and every time the Palestinians made stabs at forming a single government. In February 2012, Hamas and Fatah representatives met in Doha, Qatar, to reach political reconciliation, prompting EU commissioner Catherine Ashton to insist that “the new government should remain committed to achieving a two-state solution with Israel and to a negotiated peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict accepting previous agreements and obligations, including Israel’s legitimate right to exist.” In May 2011, when PA President Abbas said he was working to establish a new unity government, President Barack Obama emphasized that “Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.”
Similar statements were made in 2011 by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-White House Chief of Staff William Daley, in 2009 by Middle East Envoy Tony Blair, in 2007 by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and in 2006 by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and then-President George W. Bush.
Unity government with Hamas likely to run afoul of U.S. legislation
U.S. legislation explicitly conditions assistance to the PA on among other things ensuring that terrorists be kept out of the PA’s leadership positions. Per the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, there is very little wiggle room on the conditions, which the President is obligated to make a determination on:
(1) no ministry, agency, or instrumentality of the Palestinian Authority is controlled by a foreign terrorist organization and no member of a foreign terrorist organization serves in a senior policy making position in a ministry, agency, or instrumentality of the Palestinian Authority;
(2) the Palestinian Authority has–
(A) publicly acknowledged Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state; and
(B) recommitted itself and is adhering to all previous agreements and understandings by the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority with the Government of the United States, the Government of Israel, and the international community, including agreements and understandings pursuant to the Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (commonly referred to as the `Roadmap’)
Previous unity talks in May 2011 saw senators pointedly reminding the administration that it was obligated to cut off aid to the PA if it incorporated Hamas.
Palestinian intentions under scrutiny
Israeli leaders are blasting Fatah officials – with whom they had until very recently been engaged in active peace talks – for turning to a group that openly and quite enthusiastically seeks to destroy Israel. The same concerns have been expressed by American diplomats and community leaders in the United States.
This morning Josh Block, President and CEO of The Israel Project, issued the following statement:
By embracing a genocidal terrorist organization that according to its own charter explicitly exists to destroy Israel and slaughter Jews, the Palestinian Authority has not only shown its true colors by turning its back on peace and reconciliation with Israel. It has also chosen Iranian-backed murderers over the West, undermining U.S. and European diplomacy and violating the fundamental Quartet principles that demand a renunciation of violence and terrorism, an acceptance of all previous agreements and a recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Once again, a failed Palestinian leader’s tragic choice hurts the Palestinian people most of all.
[Photo: AFP News Agency / YouTube]