On February 22, the agreement between Hamas and Fatah to form an interim unity government which will lead the Palestinians to elections in the forthcoming months caught many by surprise. The Qatari mediation played a major role in an effort to return to the status quo ante in Palestine prior to the 2006 elections. The various players in the region viewed this development with cautious optimism. This agreement is a positive and, given the bitter rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, an important development. Yet major questions arise in this regard. Is such a solution viable? Could the forthcoming elections lead to a well-accepted government? What is the Israeli policy going to be? This brief analysis provides insights about the goals and expectations of every party involved one way or another in the Palestinian problem, the Gordian knot of modern times.
Abu Mazen feels that the time has come for the Palestinians to unite against the Israeli aggression. Yet he risks many things by agreeing to collaborate with the winner of the last and only free elections five years ago. Abu Mazen feels that in the meantime the momentum of Hamas has been weakened and that now is the time to collaborate and actually make gains at the expense of the Palestinian Islamist movement. His belief results from the impact that the Arab spring has had in Hamas’s political modus operandi. Abu Mazen feels that Hamas’s endeavor to moderate its dependence on Damascus by approaching Cairo and Ankara is a clear sign of Hamas’s political moderation in a wider context. Additionally he is convinced that the Palestinian public opinion in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has changed in favor of his movement. He also thinks that discord amongst the Palestinians benefits only Israel and that the time has come for the Palestinians to face Israel united.
In the last year Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s leader, has been active and influential, attempting to strengthen his power base outside and inside Palestine. By approaching Turkey and Egypt and by keeping a low profile of his dependence on Assad’s support, Meshaal has successfully promoted the profile of an extremist leader who has become more moderated and realistically attempts to gain more support by employing diplomacy in a wider Islamic framework. He collaborates with governments which, superficially or not, have an Islamic agenda. His Islamic diplomacy has not alienated him from Assad with whom Meshaal shares many common strategic interests. Besides in the last 20 years Assad has been his more trustworthy ally and it would be risky on Meshaal’s part to rely exclusively on governments with unstable agendas with regard to the Palestinians. His recent decision to move Hamas’s political offices from Damascus to Qatar and Egypt does not necessarily mean that he will refuse the Syrian patronage in the short term. If he does so, then his power base will be severely shaken and Israel will have achieved a strategic victory in this respect. By promoting successfully the profile of the moderate leader Meshaal has got brownie points amongst fellow Arabs in countries who formerly mistrusted him. The Palestinian meeting and accord occurred in Doha and this is a mere fact of the change of mind, or at least policy, that some Anti-Syria Arab countries manifest toward Hamas.
The key question, however, is whether Hamas has strengthened its power base in the West Bank or not. Gaza remains the stronghold of Hamas and it should be noted that the Israeli blockade of Gaza has retained, if not strengthened, the Gazans’s support to Hamas. As far as the West Bank is concerned in the past five years there has been a silent political struggle between Hamas and Fatah over the control of the West Bank. Hence if future elections take place the West Bank is going to define the winner. Yet nothing suggests that Hamas’s popularity has suffered a setback. Israel has also systematically intervened in this power struggle game, favoring Fatah. Meshaal has invested much on increasing Hamas’s influence in the region and the fact that he has consented to hold elections under Abu Mazen’s interim government highlights Meshaal’s confidence that he will the elections in the West Bank.
On its part Israel views the recent Palestinian agreement with concern. The Israelis feel uneasy with the fact that Hamas, that has not recognized Israel’s right as a sovereign state, is going to collaborate with Fatah. Undoubtedly in the past five years Israel has been quite content to see the Palestinian discord. Tel Aviv knows that any future interim government with the participation of Hamas is going to be a threat toward Israel and the Israelis do not expect Hamas to change its policy towards Tel Aviv. They are concerned that Hamas is going to win a landslide victory in the future elections in the West Bank. Such a scenario would be a nightmare for Tel Aviv. That is why Israel is expected to sabotage the ongoing Fatah-Hamas rapprochement in order to prevent the Palestinians from holding elections anytime soon.
As for the major regional powers, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey keep a close eye on these developments. Tehran supports the prospect of holding elections soon. It is probably at the expense of Hamas to have a prolonged stay of Abu Mazen as head of the interim government. By contrast Cairo and Riyadh also support the prospect of elections but it pays more attention to the significance of the interim government under Abu Mazen. The Saudis believe that Abu Mazen is going to make gains in terms of popularity as prime minister of the interim government and will be able to influence the public opinion in favor of Fatah. That is why Riyadh is going to support Abu Mazen by promoting the prospect of prolonging the duration of the interim government and giving key ministerial posts to the Fatah party. On its part, Turkey is expected to have an important role in this process because it is the only regional country that supports both Hamas and Fatah. Yet Ankara’s influence in the Palestinian issue cannot be compared, at least for now, with that of the Arabs and the Iranians.
Another key question is whether the Doha Agreement is going to last. Given the differences amongst the Palestinians and that Israel is against the prospect of elections, both Hamas and Fatah have a long way to go before reaching the ballots. It is certain that the election will not be held in May as originally planned. In the next few months there are going to be many negotiations as well as ups and downs with regard to the time of the elections, the structure of the future interim government and the ministries that Hamas and Fatah are going to control.
As a whole the Doha agreement is a positive development for the Palestinians. After five years of a protracted discord, Hamas and Fatah seem to be willing to heal their wounds and collaborate for the sake of the Palestinian people. Whether they succeed or not in this process it is uncertain. But after five years of bitter division both Hamas and Fatah do not have any other choice but to collaborate. The way ahead is long and painful. The Doha agreement shows the Palestinians the only way to secure unity and collaboration. Both parties must be ready to make concessions for the sake of the Palestinians. Given that there is going to be a long time gap between the formation of the interim government and the elections, it would be pointless to assess the result of the future elections. Such a prediction would not be based on developments which would unfold in the meantime and would influence the public opinion ahead of the elections. What is certain is that if Hamas and Fatah manage to form an interim government and pave the way for the elections, then they will be also able to manage the elections results. The mistakes committed in the last elections cannot be repeated.