By Arab News
The news that the two main Palestinian movements, Fatah and Hamas, have agreed to work together in a government of national unity ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in both the West Bank and Gaza is cause for celebration in these uncertain times. Ever since the two turned on each other five years ago, running competing administrations in the two territories, there has been no chance of a settlement with Israel. That may not have always been blindingly apparent. Under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the US tried vainly to mediate a peace deal between the Fatah government of Mahmoud Abbas and the Israelis. But even if Israel has been accommodating, no workable deal would have emerged. There was no way that the Palestinians in the West Bank would have accepted a settlement that left Israel free to starve and brutalize their compatriots in Gaza.
If peace is to happen, there has to be Palestinian unity and it is what the Palestinian people have demanded in protests in both the West Bank and Gaza. Without it Israel will continue to run circles around the Palestinians. The sickening reality is that since 2006, in putting their rivalry ahead of national liberation, the two groups have been willing pawns in Israel’s game of divide and rule.
Now there is a chance to end that. But no one should imagine that anything is going to happen immediately. There will be no sudden, fresh efforts by Obama administration or the international Quartet to relaunch negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The various crises in the region — in Libya, Syria, Yemen — are the main preoccupation at present and will continue to be for a while. Efforts to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table will also have to wait, not only until a new Egyptian government is in place after elections, probably in September, but until after a new Palestinian government is elected — and under Wednesday’s deal, that is not going to happen before December.
That may seem a long time away, but the rest of the Arab world’s problems are not going to be sorted out overnight and, until they are, there is going to be little impetus to drive a settlement deal.
As for the Israeli government’s threat that President Abbas cannot have peace with both Hamas and itself, it is bluster. Hamas has changed; it has woken up to the reality that a one-state solution is not going to happen. It is prepared to live with Israel — and the two are already talking to each other behind the scenes. Given that reality, once Palestinian elections are held and a new government is formed, it will be impossible for the Israelis to justify not speaking to a government that includes Hamas.
There is still a long way to go, however, before that point. It is not yet clear if Hamas will be given a free run to operate and campaign in the West Bank or Fatah in Gaza. But there is every reason to believe if there are problems, those responsible will be punished by the Palestinian electorate. They want peace between their leaders. They know that without it, there is no chance of the bigger peace deal with the Israelis.