Six Questions for Mouin Rabbani

by The Editors | published April 24, 2014 - 10:37am

Yesterday in Gaza representatives of Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization announced a blueprint for talks about forming a government of national consensus (Arabic text here). Hamas and the PLO’s dominant Fatah faction have been at loggerheads, and occasionally at war, since 2007, when the Islamist movement expelled Fatah security men from their Gaza posts and took over the coastal strip. The political antipathy is far older, of course, and was sharpened greatly by the willingness of President Mahmoud ‘Abbas and his Ramallah wing of the Palestinian Authority to countenance and assist the international blockade of Gaza that was tightened like a vise upon Hamas’ victory in 2006 legislative elections. Since then, there have been parallel PA administrations in the West Bank and Gaza, with Hamas kept outside the periodic attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a comprehensive peace. Another such attempt commenced earlier this year under the auspices of Secretary of State John Kerry, who set an April 29 deadline for an agreement. Israel reacted to yesterday’s news by canceling a working negotiators’ meeting that was slated for the evening. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “It’s hard to see how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a government that does not believe in its right to exist,” and hinted that US aid to the Ramallah PA might be in jeopardy. We asked our contributing editor Mouin Rabbani, a veteran observer of the Palestinian political scene, for his thoughts.

Hamas and Fatah have made efforts at reconciliation before, to no avail. Is this time for real?

It will be real if and when, and only if and when, it is implemented. The number of things that can go wrong, and developments that can lead one or both parties to reconsider their commitments, are numerous. It bears mention that many sober analysts and observers, and proponents of reconciliation, were at best conflicted about the meetings that produced this agreement because they were absolutely convinced the negotiations were either not serious or would fail, and would therefore deepen the schism.

That said, there are also reasons to consider this agreement more serious, or at least more conducive to implementation, than its predecessors. These include:

The agreement was signed with the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip rather than the external leadership. Previously, and particularly after the Doha agreement signed by Mahmoud ‘Abbas and Khalid Mish‘al, opposition to reconciliation arrangements within Hamas has been led by powerful elements in the Gaza leadership, in part in keeping with their struggle to gain the upper hand within the Islamist movement, and in part because as the actual rulers of the Gaza Strip they have the most to lose in terms of power, governance and interests. This time most of the key players, including Isma‘il Haniya and Mahmoud Zahhar, personally signed the agreement. The Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip increasingly holds the balance of power within the movement and has the capacity to thwart reconciliation. The exile leadership has much less leverage these days on such matters and is in any case more open to such agreements.

Second, each of the rival parties is experiencing a serious crisis. For Hamas, the problem consists primarily of the military overthrow of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, the loss of its base in Damascus and consequent reduction of Iranian support, and pressure on the Brothers throughout the region. According to some reports, the pressure might culminate in loss of Qatari sponsorship. Egypt’s unprecedented hostility to Hamas has furthermore led to a virtual shutdown of the border crossing into Gaza Strip -- particularly below ground. The government in Gaza is facing growing difficulty running the economy and, more important, experiencing budgetary problems as well.

For Fatah, the latest round of US-sponsored negotiations with Israel have produced new lows as Kerry has aligned the American position closer to the Israeli than any of his predecessors. Mahmoud ‘Abbas’ commitment to continue discussions with Israel despite every latest outrage left him more unpopular and isolated -- even within his core constituency -- than at any time since taking office. In terms of the regional situation, Hamas’ loss has not necessarily been Fatah’s gain either. The initial euphoria in Ramallah about the coup in Egypt, for example, has dampened considerably because it has also led to the reemergence of Muhammad Dahlan, erstwhile Fatah strongman in Gaza. One important motivation for ‘Abbas with this latest agreement is to forestall the prospect of a rapprochement between Hamas and Dahlan, which would have given the latter a base within the Occupied Territories from which more effectively to challenge ‘Abbas.

I also think the absence of Egyptian mediation should lead us to take this agreement more seriously. Hamas and Fatah reached it bilaterally because each of them had an interest in doing so, as opposed to going through the motions to please a powerful sponsor that itself had vested interests in the form and results of the agreement.

Netanyahu recently said that the Ramallah PA can either have peace with Hamas or peace with Israel. How do you interpret that statement?

Not seriously. Simply stated, there can be no peace or even meaningful negotiations with Israel with Netanyahu at the helm. It would be wrong to say he has failed to make an acceptable offer to the Palestinians or that the maximum he is prepared to concede falls short of the minimum ‘Abbas could accept. The fact of the matter is that his government is so extreme and so confident of American backing that it has not even made a bad offer. Israel has, for example, refused to present a proposal on borders to the Palestinians during the past nine months -- and this refusal in negotiations purportedly about a permanent settlement.

I think Netanyahu’s statement should be interpreted as part of the so-called blame game, of who will be held responsible by the Great White Father in Washington for further obstacles or a potential collapse (which I consider unlikely) of the process. Israel will say things went south because ‘Abbas preferred to consort with “terrorists” rather than negotiate. ‘Abbas will now point to Israel’s decision to call off talks in response to the agreement. In the surreal world of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, such issues are apparently important, particularly in light of Kerry’s April 9 Congressional testimony that explained the chain of events leading to the current impasse and made quite clear it was the result of Israeli rather than Palestinian action.

More broadly the statement is a bit rich coming from Netanyahu, given that his major achievement in the current talks has been Kerry’s adoption of Israel’s position of “negotiations without preconditions.”

Abbas recently said that “preparations” for resumed talks under the Kerry aegis could proceed after the April 29 deadline has passed. Does today’s news portend the official death of those talks (and perhaps the Oslo framework)?

One thing I find suspicious about this agreement is its timing -- it transpires only days before the expiration of the April 29 deadline. Some have interpreted this fact as further evidence that ‘Abbas has already decided to withdraw from the Kerry mission in a few days, and will pursue internationalization and reconciliation instead.

Perhaps. Alternatively, the agreement is a desperate roll of the dice, a shot across the bow if you will, through which Abbas hopes to light some fire under Kerry’s posterior in the hope and expectation that the latter will now cajole or compel the Israelis to give the Palestinians something to enable them to return once more to the negotiating table.

If ‘Abbas has indeed already made his peace with the end of the peace process in its current form that would of course be a wonderful and significant development. I however consider that very unlikely, particularly if it’s seen as a strategic decision lasting more than several weeks.

If this agreement is by contrast simply a scare tactic for the attention of the Americans, that would be tantamount to a guarantee that the schism will deepen considerably, making it that much more difficult to resume talks on reconciliation at a later stage. Hamas will have been hoodwinked and used as a crutch by ‘Abbas to limp into the negotiating chamber with Netanyahu, and will assume his negotiators are acting in bad faith the next time they visit Gaza.

It would be interesting to learn if ‘Abbas is, in fact, taking a page out of Israel’s playbook. Just as Netanyahu and each of his predecessors bar none have used Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy as a political cover to consolidate control over the Occupied Territories through settlement expansion and the like, ‘Abbas may have come to the conclusion that he cannot afford to engineer the collapse of Oslo but will now begin to use it as a cover as well -- to move forward with internationalization and reconciliation. It’s an interesting thought, but a purely speculative one.

What are the main obstacles to the success of this reconciliation effort?

Time, Oslo, Israel, the United States and unresolved issues. These last include security, which the parties have agreed to address only after the elections, and the elections themselves, which one or both parties may decide to obstruct and, if they don’t, can be frustrated by Israel. The current agreement basically leaves the situation on the ground unchanged, or to be addressed by the government that will be formed after the elections.

There is also the matter of the absence of a common political program or national strategic consensus on how to confront Israel and related issues like American-sponsored diplomacy. The agreement calls for the activation of a provisional leadership committee, which is the first step toward the integration of Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the PLO and gives them a role in decision making until that process is completed. But its activation has been agreed upon previously and thus far nothing materialized. It is my understanding that in the latest negotiations Hamas put considerable emphasis on this issue, so they may have received meaningful assurances in this respect.

How has the regional turmoil affected the calculations of the Gaza and Ramallah wings of the PA?

I’ve dealt with this topic in response to your first question. I would add that Fatah appears confident that the agreement can withstand the coming American-Israeli onslaught, particularly financially. Some don’t take these threats seriously, because they understand that in its present form the PA serves an Israeli and Western interest more than Palestinian ones, and that Israeli civil servants will be sent home before Palestinian ones if the survival of the PA is at stake. Others believe that if Congress once again goes more berserk than Israel and tries to bring down the PA, that the Gulf states and, most important, Saudi Arabia will come to their financial rescue, particularly in the current environment of American-Saudi differences on Iran, Syria and other issues.

For Hamas, in addition to the role that regional turmoil has played in their calculations, they may also hope to use this agreement as a bridge to repair relations with these same Gulf states. That is a tall order, however, considering that Saudi Arabia and its closest GCC allies have declared open season on the Muslim Brothers to whom Hamas belongs.

Internationally, the key player to watch if the agreement is consummated is the EU and its leading member states. Will they as in 2006 once again and against their better judgment slavishly fall into line behind the Americans, as Quartet envoy Tony Blair has doubtlessly already begun agitating for, or will they demonstrate a capacity to learn from their mistakes and sprout a spine? It’s a difficult question to answer.

Isn't there a basic contradiction between Israel-PA security “coordination” and effective Fatah-Hamas reconciliation? If this deal is for real, then does that mean coordination is off or that Hamas is taking a further step toward collaboration with Israel?

In theory yes, but in practice no. The present agreement, to the best of my understanding, leaves the security sector unmolested until after the elections. That means that Hamas is not being integrated into the existing infrastructure of coordination that exists in the West Bank.

More important, the Gaza agreement was not signed at a time when Fatah is coordinating with Israel while Hamas is engaged in struggle against it and demanding an end to such cooperation as a condition for implementation. Rather, in the Gaza Strip, Hamas has become the guarantor of Israel’s security by maintaining its own ceasefire and enforcing it to the best of its ability on everyone else. Hamas’ coordination with Israel is unlike that of Fatah -- informal and arguably tactical -- but it is there nonetheless.

And, of course, we should ask what this prospective deal might mean for the majority of the Palestinian people, who live outside the areas administered by either wing of the PA. For them, the deal is potentially significant, to the extent that it leads to rejuvenation of the PLO as the national representative of the Palestinian people rather than a secondary department of the PA. In this respect, the agreement also specifies that elections will be held for the Palestinian National Council, as well. That could be an important step toward the revival of the Palestinian national movement as an inclusive and representative body. But the challenges in this respect are huge and unlikely to be resolved by a piece of paper. Furthermore, and not entirely without justification given present realities in the region and the challenges of reconciliation, such issues are at least initially likely to be addressed through a variety of quota arrangements -- assuming they are implemented.

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