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Who's calling whose bluff?

In a noteworthy turn of events, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appeared last week to have successfully outmaneuvered his two main opponents, a much more powerful Israel and the stubborn Palestinian faction Hamas. For the first time ever, Palestinians were not blamed for the failure of nine months of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that were shepherded by US Secretary of State John Kerry. Indeed, there were even hints and leaks and sometimes even outright statements from US and European officials blaming Israel for the collapse of the talks.

In addition, Abbas was able to improve his domestic public opinion rating by giving the impression that he had balked at extending the negotiations after Israel refused to release a group of Palestinians--prisoners that were jailed before the Oslo agreements and who should have been released long ago. Abu Mazen then applied for membership for Palestine in international agencies and embarked on reconciliation talks with Hamas that ended in the signing of an agreement, subsequently forming a unity government on the basis of that agreement.

While the Palestinian public is skeptical about the prospects for this reconciliation agreement, it does support it and wants to give it a chance. Palestinians have been exerting increasing pressure on the factions to reconcile after the 2006 clashes that culminated in Hamas taking over the authority in the Gaza Strip, leaving Abbas’ Fateh to govern in the West Bank.

Two linkages exist between the peace process and the new Palestinian government. The first is that the most recent failure of the peace process left both Palestinian leaderships in a vacuum that demanded filling. It was bound to be filled by one of two things: reconciliation and/or internationalization. Also, one of the weaknesses of the Palestinian posture in these recent negotiations was Abu Mazen’s inability to deliver Gaza, since it remained controlled by rival Hamas.

However, these motives do not explain why this time—unlike all previous attempts—the reconciliation discussions succeeded. The reason lies in the obvious deterioration in the international position of Hamas, which has gradually lost all its allies, starting with Iran which became unenamored, and then Syria where Bashar al-Assad is a problematic ally, and then Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood has fallen from power. Hamas’ explicit involvement in Egyptian internal politics favoring the Muslim Brotherhood brought down the new regime’s wrath upon it. The Egyptian government was thus motivated to “close” the tunnels and borders that were a main source of income for the Hamas government in Gaza. That left Hamas in a position where it has not been able to pay salaries regularly or fully for the last six months, forcing it to change the status quo and finally accept a reconciliation agreement. This deal includes a cabinet that has no Hamas affiliates on it, and one that will only govern for six months before elections are held. The establishment of a date for elections was one of the main reasons that previous agreements fell by the wayside.

The Qatari-Saudi reconciliation deal, according to informed sources, included a promise from Qatar to stop supporting Hamas rejectionist position and to encourage Palestinian reconciliation. Recent leaks go even further to suggest that Qatar, Hamas’ last refuge and host of faction leader Khaled Mashal, not only encouraged the deal, but also cleared it in advance with Washington.
But Hamas was not the only party desperate for reconciliation. The Fateh leadership had growing legitimacy and governance problems. With elections more than three years overdue, a paralyzed parliament, a stop-and-go budget and a marginalized government--symptoms of one-party regime--Fateh was as desperate as Hamas for a change in the status quo.

The formation of the government is the first and the easiest step in the fragile reconciliation process. For it to be completed, Hamas and Fateh (after years of animosity and even bloodshed) must overcome the following challenges. The first is to unify Palestinian government institutions, each of which is currently divided in two, one in Gaza and one in the West Bank. The second is to overcome the challenge of new financial burdens as Gaza institutions rejoin the overarching and already broke Palestinian Authority. The third is reactivating the Legislative Council one month after the unity government is formed. This parliament has a Hamas majority (a hold-over from the 2006 elections) and will need to give a vote of confidence to the unity government, as well as ratify and/or revoke all legislation promulgated solely by the president during these years of division. Finally, there is the holding of general elections in six months, for which neither Fateh nor Hamas feels politically prepared.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was outmaneuvered once again when he stood alone in objecting to the new Palestinian government when almost every other country in the world, from the US to China to Russia, welcomed the government and promised to support it. This brief upper hand is certainly a temporary state for Palestinians, however. On one hand, the breathing room Abbas has gained is not translating into international political will and action of the kind that will deter Israel from its incessant violations of the rights of Palestinians and the continued consolidation of the occupation that is closing forever the window of the two-state solution. On the other hand, the reconciliation deal adds an immense burden and responsibility to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, without giving it any authority there. That state of affairs will divert public frustration and anger from the previous Hamas government to Fateh. Therefore, this out-maneuvering is short-lived and will help the leadership in power to survive, but will do little to help the long-term interests of the Palestinian cause nor the cause of peace.