Domestic Palestinian politics has always been affected, sometimes positively but mostly negatively, by external factors. Israel is the most notable of the factors but inter-Arab and regional politics play a part. The internal crisis that has led to the severe division in the Palestinian polity that we witness today is not an exception to this rule.
The unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, together with the failure of the political process and the intensification of settlement activity in the West Bank, dramatically affected the balance of power against the peace camp in Palestine. The peace camp had gambled on a bilateral peace process, the absence of which played into the hands of Hamas and contributed to the Islamist movement’s victory in parliamentary elections in 2006.
In parallel, the regional polarization between an American-supported axis of Arab regimes on the one hand and Iranian-supported governments and non-state actors, including Hamas, on the other, helped consolidate the internal Palestinian split.
Intensive Egyptian efforts to reconcile the rival Palestinian factions, Fateh and Hamas, have so far been outweighed by these negative factors. These now also include the attitude and behavior of the right-wing Israeli government and the recent change in the position of the American administration vis-a-vis a settlement construction freeze in occupied territory and the agenda for negotiations. All the time, Arab competition for influence over the various Palestinian groups has undermined Egypt’s efforts.
Another obvious and prominent example of the relation between domestic Palestinian politics and external factors was the Goldstone report controversy. American-Israeli pressure influenced the behavior of the Palestinian leadership and led to a deferral of a vote in the UN on the report. This invited vicious attacks by domestic and regional opposition and was used publicly by Hamas as an excuse to avoid signing the final Egyptian reconciliation draft. It also reflected negatively on the balance of power within Palestinian public opinion against the Palestinian Authority and enabled Hamas to escape its obligations under its dialogue with Fateh.
As much as internal Palestinian political fragmentation is an outcome of Israeli positions and behaviors, it also serves Israeli interests. By that token, any possible success in reconciliation efforts, e.g., the resumption of a unity government, goes against Israeli interests.
Israel doesn’t want Palestinian unity, because that would shift the political balance of power more in favor of the Palestinians. Maintaining a divided Palestinian arena also enables the right-wing Israeli government to escape its obligations under previous agreements such as the roadmap. Furthermore, Israel has successfully blamed Palestinian divisions for the failure of the peace process.
Palestinian unity on the basis of international legality would put the Israeli government in a corner and unmask Israel’s real position, which is inconsistent with international legality and the international terms of reference for a peace process.
The Palestinian people need the constructive role of the international community and the influential powers in order to help restore unity, including by influencing Israeli behavior and positions. At the and of the day, peace and stability will require progress in the peace process that is dependant, among other factors, on the restoration of Palestinian unity.