Failure of Fatah-Hamas talks hide deeper realities of Palestinian and regional politics

Question: What does a great power do when it suffers an unexpected defeat and a major setback in its plans for achieving an acceptable solution to a problem?

Answer: It sits back, regroups, deflects public attention to other issues, and works quietly behind the scenes to prepare the ground for a new attempt to achieve its objectives by some other strategy in future.

This is basically what we are seeing in terms of US and Israeli attitudes to the Palestinian issue a matter of months after Israel’s humiliating failure to destroy Hamas or achieve any of its other declared goals in its war in Gaza in December and January. Faced with a massive boost for their greatest enemy on the Palestinian side, the Hamas Islamic movement, and a global surge of sympathy and support for the dispossessed Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation and aggression, Israel and the US, its closest allies, have evidently decided that this is not the time for any major new initiative. Local issues aside, this also suits US president Barack Obama, who is clearly intent on pursuing a charm offensive towards the world’s Muslims in the first months of his presidency, trying to make his administration look as different as possible from the discredited Bush era, and knows that little could damage this campaign more than obvious evidence of his administration’s pro-Israel bias, as would quickly emerge were there to be any moves of substance in Israeli-Palestinian politics.

Instead, attention has shifted , as it so often does in such times, to internal politics in both camps. On the Israeli side, we have a new coalition government headed by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, with the Labour party of Ehud Barak as a junior partner and the ultra-hawkish Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister, taking the brunt of international anger at Israel’s swing to the right and making even Netanyahu look relatively reasonable for when Israel is ready for talks again sometime in the future.

The nature of this government should finally end the pretence that supposed ideological differences between so-called doves and hawks has any relevance in terms of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians; rather, it is an almost entirely artificial division that may have some limited relevance in internal Israeli politics but means nothing as far as Israeli policies towards the Palestinians are concerned. These are driven by a deeper, long-term strategy that remains largely the same regardless of who is in office in Tel Aviv; it is the immediate imperatives of that strategy, depending on circumstances of the time, that define Israeli policy at any time, as can be seen by the fact that it was the supposed hawk Ariel Sharon who negotiated the “withdrawal” from Gaza in 2005, while it was the supposed dove Ehud Olmert who planned and implemented the recent war on Gaza. Netanyahu himself, supposedly the hawk in mainstream Israeli politics, dealt with the Palestinians under Arafat when he was prime minister from 1996-99, notably in terms of the Wye River Agreement on October 1998.

Much has been made of Obama’s supposed disappointment with the Israeli government, particularly the appointment of Lieberman as foreign minister, based on his comment that it did not make the achievement of peace in the Middle East any easier. But given the long history of close cooperation between US administrations of both parties and Israeli governments of all hues, as well as Obama’s own overtures towards Israel during his presidential campaign, his refusal to criticise the Israeli war in Gaza, and his appointment of several well-known Zionists in his administration, this is best seen as part of his attempt to portray himself as a new and different kind of US president in response to the unprecedented global contempt and hatred for the US generated by the policies of the neocons, rather than anything of substance. When it comes to further dealing between Israel and the Palestinians, the likeliest scenario is that the Netanyahu administration’s reluctance to even enter into talks, and Obama’s supposed attempts to persuade it to cooperate, will be used to put pressure on the Palestinians to make further concessions to Israel in the name of “being reasonable” and proving to Israelis that they are serious “partners for peace”.

On the Palestinian side, meanwhile, the main focus of politicking has been on the “national dialogue” talks between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo. These are a continuation of the talks which took place on-and-off throughout last summer, while Israel prepared for its attempt to destroy Hamas. After the Gaza war, they were relaunched with great enthusiasm from most Palestinians, in the expectation that international sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians of Gaza, anger at Israel’s murderous strategy and pressure on Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas would make it possible for Hamas to be readmitted into the Palestinian political process. There were also signs in western discourse suggesting that people were realizing that they would have to deal with Hamas rather than trying to destroy it.

As this issue of Crescent goes to press, the talks are due to resume on April 26, after a break for fact-finding missions and behind the scenes discussions. Little is expected from them, as the initial hope of the post-war period has quickly given way to disillusion and, among the many Palestinians suffering in Gaza, despair. The reason for this is difficult to see. The initial hope was that the talks would this time achieve their stated objective of finding common ground between the two largest and most important Palestinian factions, and a way of establishing a genuinely representative Palestinian government reflecting both the historical importance of Fatah to the Palestinian struggle, and the fact that Hamas as emerged as truly representing Palestinian political hopes and aspirations.

Instead, what has emerged has been only a marginal change in the positions of Fatah and its western and pro-western allies. Instead of trying to marginalise and destroy Hamas, as has been the strategy for the last three years since Hamas’s election success in January 2006, the strategy –” dictated almost certainly from Tel Aviv or Washington –” is now to try to establish a form of “unity” government in which Hamas are apparently included but without having any power or say. In order to put pressure on Hamas and the Palestinians to accept such a deal, western countries and organizations are maintaining their position that they will not deal with any Palestinian government which includes Hamas, and the Egyptian and other Arab governments are putting pressure on Hamas to accept a subordinate role for the good of the Palestinian people. The various proposals that have emerged for a so-called unity government, mainly from proposals from the Egyptian authorities which are acting as go-betweens in the Fatah-Hamas talks all lean in this direction, for example that a government of non-aligned technocrats be set up under Salam Fayyad, the “prime minister” of Abbas’s government in the West Bank since Fatah’s overthrowal of the elected Hamas government there, or that Abbas lead a government of non-factional representatives from the West Bank and Gaza while both Fatah and Hamas apparently take a back seat.

These proposals have all been bitterly criticised by Hamas leaders for blatantly supporting the positions taken by Abbas and other Fatah leaders in the talks, rather then reflecting Egypt’s role as supposedly impartial brokers in the talks. Hamas leaders have also pointed out that it is inequitable that Egypt’s dealings with the two groups have been very different. Egypt deals with Abbas and the Fatah leaders through its political institutions, particularly the foreign ministry, as the head of the Palestinian state, such as it is; while its dealings with Hamas are channelled through its intelligence and security agencies. This is, of course, not particularly surprising; the Mubarak government is a close ally of the US, and by extension almost as close an ally of Israel. Its real role is not to be fair and impartial in pursuit of justice for the Palestinians, but to assist its powerful allies in pursuit of their strategic goals, as reflected in its recent attacks on Hizbullah, the Lebanese Islamic movement that is a close ally of Hamas.

The result is that just months after the success of the Gaza war, the Palestinians are still facing massive problems in trying to achieve their legitimate rights. Hamas not only emerged stronger than ever from an all-out Israeli and Western attempt to destroy it, but with greater understanding for its position among people all over the world. Israel, meanwhile, was exposed both for its political hypocrisy and its murderous brutality. But the weight of international public opinion means nothing to the powers that be in the West and the Middle East; they still remain committed to promoting Israel’s interests at the expense of those of the Palestinians, and so it is that the politics of the Palestinian struggle are settling back into a familiar pattern once again.

There is, however, a factor that the powers-that-be may find harder to ignore than world public opinion; and that is public opinion within Palestine, and particularly the determination of the Palestinians not to allow their rights and aspirations to be sold away by political leaders willing to be manipulated by the international powers allied with the zionis state. And this is Hamas’s greatest strength, for everything that Fatah does to try to destroy it only seems to increase its support and credibility among Palestinians, not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank, where the Islamic movement has been under political suppression since the Fatah takeover there in 2007.

Last month saw student union elections at Birzeit University, traditionally one of the most important indicators of Palestinian political opinion. And despite the repression of Hamas, and the full support of the government available to Fatah students, the Islamic movement greatly strengthened its position, winning 22 seats to Fatah’s 24, and greatly cutting the Fatah faction’s previous domination of the body. The results are widely regarded as reflecting political opinion in the West Bank as a whole, and were greeted with dismay among supporters of Fatah and Abbas’s political strategy. There are now increasing signs that even within Fatah, Abbas’s leadership and the direction in which he is trying to lead Palestinians, is under question.

With presidential and parliamentary elections due in Palestine in January next year, it is clear that whatever may or may not be agreed in Cairo, the real and growing support for Hamas among Palestinians generally will continue to be a political factor that will be as significant as any political manipulation attempted by Israel, the West and their allies in the Arab world.