Why Israel Needs Palestinian Unity

Israel and the United States want the Palestinian Authority to run Gaza mainly so they can avoid having to engage Hamas directly. In fact, they should be looking for ways to promote closer ties between Palestinian factions.

At this pivotal moment, with negotiations for a longer-term cease-fire in Gaza under way, a key question for all sides is whether Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah organization can reassert control over the territory, ending both Israel's siege and resistance rocket attacks by Hamas.

The divergence between what Abbas can achieve in Gaza and what Israel and the United States hope he can, however, is profound. The latter appear to view Hamas as a truant in need of adult supervision. They want the Palestinian Authority to run Gaza mainly so they can avoid having to engage Hamas directly. No doubt Israel would also be happy to perpetuate the hollow diplomatic relationship it's developed with Abbas, one which has allowed Israeli control and colonization of the lands occupied in 1967 to continue apace.

This perspective willfully ignores how united Fatah and Hamas are when it comes to the most critical issues in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship: ending the Israeli siege of Gaza; rolling back Israel's colonization of occupied lands; and creating a Palestinian state that can live peacefully alongside Israel, based on equal rights rather than colonial subjugation.

Whatever their other differences, Fatah and Hamas, along with half a dozen other smaller Palestinian political groups, have gradually coalesced around some core principles on relations with Israel. These are embodied in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that offers Israel coexistence and normal relations with all Arab states if it withdraws to its pre-1967 borders (with agreed land swaps), and negotiates an acceptable resolution of the Palestine refugee issue.

Israel would be wise to acknowledge this sharpened Palestinian political consensus. A greater Fatah role in Gaza now will necessarily entail a closer relationship with Hamas, and more unified governance across all Palestinian affairs. Hamas agreed to the current Palestinian "national unity" government - which is largely made up of technocrats - at a moment of weakness, when it desperately needed the PA to help pay salaries of public employees in Gaza. Now its stock among Palestinians has rebounded. Its role in the unity government, and influence over its policies, is sure to rise.

This would appear to run counter to the Israeli and American goal of sidelining Hamas. At the same time, though, healing the rift between Palestinian factions could boost Fatah's fortunes, helping it regain a useful role in Palestinian national life after decades of weakness, incompetence and self-marginalization.

Eventually this might even translate into a reconstituted and revived Palestine Liberation Organization, one that could articulate a unified Palestinian national position vis-a-vis Israel. This is absolutely essential for any meaningful movement towards a permanent peace agreement.

A cynic might wonder if that's why some in Israel and the U.S. Congress oppose any hint of a rapprochement between Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. Yet bringing Fatah into Gaza simply to provide adult supervision over Hamas is an offensive and condescending idea that will not work. A more productive path would be to encourage this greater cooperation between Palestinian factions, in order to establish a single, clear Palestinian position on key issues. Until that exists, any "longterm" ceasefire struck in the next few days is sure to be temporary.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Rami G Khouri at rgskhouri@hotmail.com

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net

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