The unity deal signed between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo in May is not just an internal issue for the Palestinian leadership; Israel too should have a stake in ensuring its success.
As a long-time friend of Israel, I believe that this process of reconciliation, far from being a threat to Israel, represents a real chance to advance a viable settlement with the Palestinians and thus realise the original dream of Zionism – a Jewish homeland where Jews can live in peace and security alongside their Arab neighbours.
Palestinian factionalism and the peace process
It has long been argued that Israel lacks a real ‘partner for peace’ – a genuine representative of the Palestinian people willing to pursue peace at the negotiating table. There is no doubt that Palestinian factionalism was a huge stumbling block in any peace talks. “How can we make peace with one half of the Palestinian leadership while fighting the other half?” Israelis asked. And while the Palestinian leadership remained locked in its bitter division between Fatah and Hamas, its people had no credible, united presence at the negotiating table.
Now that the parties have agreed to reconcile, however, the situation is still at an impasse: nothing has changed about Israelis’ deep scepticism towards Hamas. So long as Hamas refuses to renounce violence and recognise Israel’s right to exist, most Israelis will never accept its involvement in negotiations. Consequently, this argument runs, no real progress can be made towards a two-state solution while Hamas is on the scene.
We can’t choose our enemies
Overcoming this impasse will mean thinking carefully about Israel’s position towards Hamas. How much longer can we tell the Palestinians who we are prepared to negotiate with? After all, the very nature of peace-making demands dealing with those you are fundamentally opposed to. We make peace with our enemies, not our friends.
This is not just a matter of principle; there is a practical point here too. Dealing only with those deemed to be ‘moderates’ is a strategy destined to fail. For decades Israel refused to have any dealings with Fatah and the PLO, based on exactly the same reasoning it now uses to isolate Hamas. But the point came where this position was no longer tenable. Unless you talk to the leaders who are the authentic representatives of the Palestinian people – difficult as this may be – no agreement will have any credibility. Without credibility, no peace can be sustainable.
Doing nothing is the real danger
The wave of popular protest sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East has underscored the universal desire of all people to live in freedom and dignity. Palestinians, just like their neighbours in the Arab world, yearn for basic rights and freedoms. With Fatah and Hamas so far failing to make any concrete progress on their most recent unity agreement, there is a real risk of an ‘Arab Spring’-style uprising among Palestinians – harmful both for peace talks and for Israel’s security – if their leadership fails to deliver on its promises.
In these conditions, Israel’s current position may become untenable: the need for meaningful dialogue to achieve a viable settlement is now more urgent, not less. If Israel’s leaders fail to seize this opportunity for sincere and forthright peace talks with a unified Palestinian leadership, there is a risk that events on the ground could overshadow negotiations at the political level, if and when those resume.
A real chance for peace
Fatah and Hamas may have different ideological roots and be bitter rivals, but their leaders have recognised that there can be no peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unless they are prepared to put aside their differences and work together. Israel now has a similar opportunity to free itself from the deadlock that entrenched past positions inevitably create.
The Palestinian unity agreement has the potential to bring something new: an authentic Palestinian representative at the negotiating table. Unfortunately, though, this moment may be fleeting: there are already clear signs that the reconciliation process has stalled, and the agreement itself is in danger of disintegrating.
I believe it is in Israel’s interests to give every encouragement to supporting this reconciliation process. However much it may go against their instincts, I urge Israel’s leaders to seize this opportunity and work with their friends in the international community to help bring a truly unified Palestinian leadership one step closer to reality. It is Israel’s future – as a democratic, Jewish and secure state – that is at stake.