Good news for peace

The reconciliation agreement that was initialed between Fateh and Hamas and will be signed by them in Cairo, next Wednesday, is good news for both the Palestinian people and the peace process. A united Palestinian people is more conducive to a successful peace process than Palestinians splintered and in conflict. This is especially true if they are united on a political basis compatible to the fundamental requirements of the peace process and international legality.

For years now, Israel has been questioning the readiness of Palestinians for peace on the basis of their disunity. Now, ironically, Israel is questioning the readiness of Palestinians on the basis of their reconciliation. This negative Israeli attitude is consistent with its isolated position on many other issues pertaining to the conflict. Indeed, Israel was the only country to react in a hostile way to the agreement.

The United Nations, through its secretary general, welcomed the efforts for reconciliation and proffered hope that they would enhance peacemaking efforts. The European Union, through its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, also welcomed the reconciliation efforts and encouraged the parties to pursue peace. Even the United States didn’t come out in opposition to the pact, instead reminding everyone of the Quartet conditions as applied to any future Palestinian government.

This agreement should not come as a surprise to anybody. The creative proposal by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad a few months ago opened the door to a new approach to the reconciliation dialogue. He suggested that the political and ideological reconciliation between factions be separated from the formation of a unified government able to take care of all aspects of Palestinian life except security. He proposed that since both Fateh and Hamas seem to be committed to non-violence, as shown by their recent actions, and because the West Bank is under Israeli security control, that the security status quo could be maintained under a government of national institutions.

Hamas, which did not object to the proposal, instead asked questions, saying that it expected to hear from Fateh leaders, particularly the president. A few weeks later, Mahmoud Abbas, in response to an invitation by Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, proposed that he visit Gaza to finalize a deal for an agreed-on national unity government composed of independent technocrat ministers.

Behind the scenes, recent months have witnessed modifications in the positions of Fateh and Hamas that enabled them to come to a compromise. There have been three factors contributing to their flexibility. The first is the ongoing failure of the peace process and the weakness of American mediation that in turn weakened the Palestinian leadership–especially at a time when it was unable to conduct elections and renew its legitimacy. The second factor was regional: the ongoing changes in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt (which was the primary supporter of Fateh) and the changes in Syria (which hosts the Hamas leadership) narrowed both sides’ room to maneuver.

The third factor is local, as there has been a significant increase in public pressure on both Hamas in Gaza and Fateh in the West Bank to come to some kind of deal. This pressure culminated in the middle of March during the wave of popular demonstrations initiated by youth inspired by the "Arab spring".

For these reasons, the tendency towards unity should be encouraged, particularly that its only immediate practical outcome is an interim government that has a political platform consistent with that of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Internal political dialogue over the course of the coming year until new elections are held should be used to attract Hamas to become part of the Palestinian political system rather than remaining outside it as a spoiler, capable of ruining any serious negotiations or a potential peace deal.