Israeli pundits skeptical unity will last, especially with pressure from U.S. and Jordan.
Hamas and the Palestinian Authority may announce this week that they have overcome differences that delayed implementation last May of a new unity government, but Israeli analysts doubt the rapprochement will last.
“They might promulgate some documents, but I don’t believe it will bridge over the wide gaps between Gaza and Ramallah,” said Mordechai Kedar, an Arab specialist and research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “Their differences are so deep culturally, religiously and nationally that I don’t really see how these two organizations can get into one bed.”
The Hamas-Palestinian Authority plan is to form a government of non-political technocrats to prevent a withdrawal of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, according to Yossi Alpher, a Middle East analyst and co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian website BitterLemons.org.
“It is premature to see it as a major break [with the status quo], although Israel will be intent on punishing the Palestinians by withholding taxes they collect for them,” he said.
But both Washington and Jerusalem reportedly made it plain to the Palestinian Authority this week that it cannot both reconcile with Hamas and expect to achieve peace with Israel.
On Sunday, U.S. Envoy William Burns met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and is said to have warned that a unity government with Hamas would have serious and unavoidable consequences.
On Monday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II visited Abbas in the West Bank to tell him that he supported him and not Hamas.
Reuters quoted a Jordanian spokesman as saying that the visit “comes in the context of Jordan’s support for the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people to achieve Palestinian national rights and an independent state.”
The U.S. is said to have enlisted the king’s help in making it clear to Abbas that his future is not with Hamas. Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said Tuesday that Jordan has no intention of establishing relations with Hamas and that a future visit to Jordan by Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal would be a “quick one.”
Alpher said he is “not at all certain they will go through” with the power-sharing government that is supposed to be hammered out this week in Cairo by Abbas and Mashaal. In doing so, they hope to put behind them the bitter split that developed in 2007 after Hamas used force to seize control of Gaza, leaving Abbas’ government in control of the West Bank alone.
But Alpher said Abbas might believe he has no choice but to move in this direction because of “pressure from the Egyptians and others in the Arab world.”
“If you look at the overall so-called Arab Spring, you see political Islam moving into the governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and maybe Syria,” he said. “The Egyptians are the ones sponsoring these talks, and they are the same military rulers who are allowing the Muslim Brotherhood [an Islamic group] to move into the political sphere in Egypt.”
Kedar agreed that Abbas might believe he “has nothing to lose” by forging ahead with a unity government.
“Appealing to the Palestinian street is more important than the American street,” Kedar said.
Alpher pointed out that with the U.S. presidential election campaign in full swing, “it does not look likely that anyone will pressure Israel to any great extent.”
In the event there are new Palestinian elections in six months and Hamas becomes part of the government without fulfilling the requirements of the Quartet — recognition of Israel, an end to all violence and a commitment to abide by previous Palestinian agreements — the West will stop all aid, Alpher noted.
“In that sense, it is quite a gamble Abbas is taking.”
Should the West withdraw Palestinian aid, Alpher said Arab states led by the Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates have promised funds. But he added that “they have a poor record of following through; they can’t be depended upon.”
Although the unity government is supposed to set the stage for new Palestinian elections, don’t bet on them taking place anytime soon, according to Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
“There have been no elections in a long time and there is a real question of legitimacy” regarding the current leaders of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, Steinberg said. “The question is whether this unity agreement is to forestall elections. New elections would hurt both of them.”
He explained that Hamas “has lost a lot of its popularity” in the Gaza Strip and that there have been “huge fights in Fatah, which may disintegrate.” Fatah, the largest party in the Palestine Liberation Organization, supported Abbas when he was elected president in 2005.
One of the main reasons the unity government was not implemented in May was because Fatah wanted to tap Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad to head the unity government. Hamas refused to accept him, blaming Fayyad for the crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank.
Although in recent days Fayyad has expressed a willingness to step aside for the sake of a unity government, Steinberg said without him the Palestinians would lose American and European aid.
“So, I would expect to see an effort to keep him in,” he said. “His threat to resign might actually increase his power, and Abbas doesn’t want him to resign.”
Kedar pointed out that although the plan is for a unity government to be run by technocrats, “don’t forget that these are not organizations without an ideology. So while they can have some engineers do a job without the interference of ideology — running such things as sewers, water and electricity — when it comes to questions of how to negotiate with Israel, what their attitude towards the United States and the United Nations should be, how to push forward a declaration of independence and the borders of the new state, I highly doubt both sides can come to a real agreement. And these are the issues that will divide the sides.”
Asked why Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are pushing ahead with a unity government when Western aid may be jeopardized, Kedar replied: “The people on the street do not like division and want unity. They want to see an agenda that can represent them as a nation — as a people — despite their differences. They would like to see Abbas and Mashaal pull the Palestinian wagon in one direction because they know they pay a very high price for division.”
Kedar pointed out that Iran stopped funding Hamas several months ago because Hamas “is more concerned about jobs, infrastructure, the economy and economic development, and state-building and jihad don’t go together.”
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