The impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is the most debated aspect of the “unity” deal between the two principal Palestinian movements, Fatah and Hamas, but it is almost certainly the least significant. So far, U.S. reactions to the unexpected agreement have been predictably negative, with Washington warning against forming a reconciled government with an unreformed Hamas. In so doing, it appears to view this deal through the obsolete prism of a moribund peace process and a frozen conflict between a moderate and militant axis. Instead, it should assess the agreement against the backdrop of a fast-changing Middle East.
Twice before the world has sought to prevent the Islamists from governing — after Hamas won the 2006 legislative elections and, a year later, when it formed a coalition with Fatah. Twice, the world made a mess of things. The balance sheet is unequivocal: Hamas remains entrenched in Gaza, Fatah is no stronger, and, without elections or genuine pluralistic political life, democratic institutions in the Palestinian territories have rusted.
The most persuasive case against unity has been that it would dash prospects for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Even then, this was never a particularly convincing argument. For it was hard to imagine a fractured national movement reaching a peace agreement, let alone implementing and sustaining it. Palestinian reconciliation was more likely a prerequisite than an obstacle to peace.
But now? The peace process is lifeless. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have not met in months. Palestinians, convinced that they will get nothing from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and little from the United States, are focused on getting the U.N. General Assembly to endorse their call for statehood. In this context, Netanyahu’s insistence that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas choose between peace with Israel or peace with Hamas is the emptiest of threats.
What’s most intriguing about the unity deal is the regional environment in which it is taking place. The parties did not suddenly overcome mutual distrust. Rather, both are feeling the aftershocks of the momentous changes sweeping the Middle East.
For Abbas, the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt represents the loss of a key ally and the collapse of the “moderate” axis to which he belonged. A unity deal — popular among Palestinians — could shore up Fatah and the Palestinian president’s domestic and regional standing at a time when their main selling point (negotiated peace with Israel) lies in tatters.
For Hamas, Mubarak’s fall likewise was decisive. An Egyptian government more in tune with public opinion coupled with a more powerful Muslim Brotherhood — Hamas’ parent organization — augurs a far warmer bilateral relationship. Growing unrest in Syria is another factor. The embattled Syrian regime, having offered safe harbor to Hamas’ leadership for a decade, wants to collect the rent — through overt signs of loyalty and support. Hamas has officially backed the regime but tepidly, out of reluctance to alienate its power base of Palestinian refugees and conservative Sunnis in Syria and beyond. Hamas calculates that even without immediate change, the Syrian regime inevitably will be transformed, its brutal crackdown having eroded much of its domestic credibility and regional influence. Tilting toward Cairo, a more important actor in the long run and more legitimate among Hamas’ constituency, was the safer bet. Accepting the Egyptian-brokered deal was a first step.
For political and legal reasons, the Obama administration cannot embrace a unity government. But Washington should at least refrain from reflexively viewing such a body as a setback and seeking to undo it. Instead, it should keep an open mind and ask hard questions about what the deal says about the region.
Beyond discomfort at Cairo’s improved relations with Hamas, is it not in America’s interest to see an influential Egypt critical of Israel yet committed to its peace accord; whose relationship with the United States is strong but not servile, and whose stances are more consistent with domestic and regional opinion? Might this not weaken Iran, which benefited from using Mubarak’s regime as a foil, and whose regional weight will deflate with the rise of a credible Arab countermodel? How would attempts to torpedo the agreement affect relations with this new Egypt — and, more broadly, with a newly assertive Arab public? Is Washington better off if Hamas feels compelled to drift from Tehran and Damascus toward Cairo? If the Muslim Brotherhood plays a more central role in Egypt, how might it influence Hamas? How might U.S. engagement with the Brotherhood affect that influence?
There are many implications to the unity deal. If we persist in viewing the new politics of the Middle East within the paradigm of old, we risk overlooking the most interesting ones.
Robert Malley is Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group and was special assistant to the president for Arab-Israeli affairs from 1998 to 2001.