Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced last week that he plans to meet the head of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, on November 25 to discuss two issues. First, the leaders will discuss the future and challenges facing the Palestinian cause, and second, they will explore the prospects for reconciling the two factions they head and implementing a reconciliation agreement signed in May.
This announcement opened the door to analysis and speculation by journalists and commentators, as well as reactions by politicians. Probably the most dramatic response came at a November 21 meeting of the Israeli inner cabinet, which decided to continue withholding taxes collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority as a form of punishment for the Abbas-Meshaal meeting. Otherwise, there really wasn’t any official negative reaction from other governments or leaders.
Palestinians, on the other hand, as well as regional and international commentators, have been fervently debating what this announcement means. The first subject of the coming meeting (and from Abbas’ point of view the most important topic overall)–the challenges facing the Palestinian people–has not received a great deal of attention. What has stirred the most commentary, in fact, is the possibility of Hamas-Fateh reconciliation.
There is no doubt that there is a lot of public pressure on both these factions to end their differences. There is a consensus among the Palestinian public and political factions, in addition to the wider Arab public, that reconciliation is a priority and a prerequisite for achieving other things. (Indeed, reading the document that was issued by the membership committee of the United Nations Security Council in response to Palestinians’ application for member state status, the Hamas-Fateh divide and Hamas’ control of Gaza were among the main justifications given for the committee’s negative reply.) Another recent development that attracted a great deal of attention was Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s statement urging the factions to reconcile and, at the same time, pressing them to agree on a new prime minister.
The implementation of the reconciliation agreement, which includes achieving a national unity government, should not contradict efforts to resume the peace process with Israel. Indeed, a unified Palestinian political position and the end of Hamas’ control over Gaza would create conditions more conducive to the peace process by endowing the Palestinian leadership with the ability to deliver on future agreements.
In fact, the reconciliation agreement was particularly sensitive to this point, taking care to honor Palestinian obligations and commitments to international legality and signed agreements with Israel. It also made clear that the unity government, an interim cabinet that will govern until elections, is not to include any members of political factions, particularly members of Hamas or Fateh, and will uphold the political platform of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the president. Therefore, the noise Israeli is making about these reconciliation efforts is groundless and can be seen as an additional excuse for avoiding engaging in a serious peace process for a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders.
Finally, despite the optimistic statements that have been coming from some Palestinian politicians–in fact a mixture of speculation and wishful thinking–it is too early to be optimistic about this nascent effort. While Abbas is apparently enthusiastic and serious, Hamas has two reasons not to make haste. First, its leaders appear to feel that Fateh is coming to the reconciliation talks from a position of weakness resulting from the way Israel has been treating it (i.e., neglecting the peace process that Fateh is committed to) and because the practical outcome of Abbas’ UN bid has been negligible. Second, Hamas is in no hurry because developments from the "Arab spring" may give it a boost vis-a-vis Fateh, especially if elections in nearby Egypt do in fact bring the Islamic movement to power there.