Last week's agreement between Fatah and Hamas to form a unity government in the Palestinian Authority (PA) came as a shock to many Middle East observers -- including those who have long advocated their political reconciliation. The two factions have been at each other's throats for years and the last agreement proved to be of limited durability, culminating in Hamas's coup in Gaza in 2007. Although there have been several attempts to form a unity government and break the Palestinian political stalemate, those efforts have failed. Why it succeeded now reveals much about how the PA views the peace process and should have far-reaching implications for U.S. policy.
Many have long argued that a unity government would make it easier to negotiate a Palestinian-Israeli peace. It was assumed that this would paper over the fact that both Palestinian politics and governance are divided between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the Fatah or PA-ruled West Bank. The problem with this logic is the assumption that peace remains elusive because the PA is not sharing power with Hamas. On the contrary, there can be no Israeli peace with a PA that includes Hamas because it is a terrorist group committed to Israel's destruction. Those who argue that Palestinian unity is the key to negotiating peace base their case on political expediency with the naïve notion that Hamas will either reform or moderate itself as a part of the Palestinian government. However, the "Palestinian National Accord" agreed to in Cairo last week does not require Hamas to recognize Israel or renounce terrorism -- in fact it did not require any compromises from the terrorist group at all. Given the longstanding animosity between Fatah and Hamas, it begs the question: why is it in Fatah's interest to form a unity government now?
There are several reasons a unity government would appeal to both Fatah and Hamas and much of it has to do with the magic month of September 2011. On the internal Palestinian political dimension, the decision clears the way for long overdue parliamentary and presidential elections. Mahmoud Abbas's presidential mandate expired in 2009 and earlier this year the PA announced plans for elections in September. Without an agreement between the two factions, previous calls for elections have fallen flat, a casualty of the apparent irreconcilable differences between Fatah and Hamas.
But the larger, external issue revolves around the PA's international campaign for gaining recognition as a state by attempting to pass a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution and requesting admission into the General Assembly as a member state. The UNGA convenes in September and both Fatah and Hamas have likely calculated that it will be easier to plead their case to the UNGA if they can demonstrate that recognition of their statehood would encompass both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Of course, should this effort at the UN succeed, any agreement between the two factions would probably unravel since their differences are ideological and insurmountable over the long haul. This temporary marriage of convenience is about elections and gaining statehood -- without negotiating with Israel.
It is in this light one should view PA President Mahmoud Abbas's comments last Thursday where he proclaimed that Hamas's inclusion in the government would not undermine peace efforts. "Politics are for the PLO, which means [it's] for me, and the government will work according to my policy," he said. Yet it is Abbas of the PLO, PA, and Fatah -- not Hamas -- who has made an art form out of walking away from negotiations with Israel. What this new agreement means is that Abbas has made the determination that the path to statehood requires no compromise from Fatah either, let alone Hamas. In fact, it does not even require negotiations with Israel.
The formation of a Palestinian unity government should necessitate a review of American assistance to the PA. Since 1994, total U.S. assistance to the PA has topped $3.5 billion, with an average of about $400 million per year going to the PA while headed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, much of it aimed at improving governance and security in preparation for eventual statehood. If Hamas is in the government, why should the U.S. foot the bill for helping to create a new terrorist state? American taxpayer dollars that have previously helped pay for the training of Palestinian security services should be withdrawn as well. After all, the training and funds were designed to prevent terrorism and contain Hamas. And how would Abbas be able to order the crackdown on Hamas operatives in the West Bank if they are his partners?
Fatah's decision to embrace Hamas, abandon negotiations, and pursue an international recognition of statehood represents a major setback for Palestinian-Israeli peace. The Obama administration -- like the Bush administration before him -- should publicly disavow any Palestinian government that includes Hamas and should make clear to Abbas that the only path to a Palestinian state is through a negotiated settlement with Israel.