On Wednesday, representatives of Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian factions, announced in Cairo that they had suddenly reached a reconciliation agreement. The emerging deal, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian unity government to pave the way for elections within a year, has a lot to do with the Palestinians' drive to gain the U.N. General Assembly's backing this September for the establishment of an independent state.
But the world should not cheer this bargain. Although the agreement may solve some of the short-term problems of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's statehood drive, it will create larger problems that promise to doom the plan to irrelevancy -- and make a historic peace agreement with Israel far less likely.
Abbas's plan suffers from a fundamental misconception -- that the General Assembly has any authority to decide about the existence of new states. In fact, the assembly only has the power to make a non-binding recommendation to the world community that a Palestinian state should be established; Abbas would then have to actually declare a state and, by doing so, set the stage for gaining formal recognition by the major powers of the world.
What are the outlines of the new Palestinian state Abbas is hoping the international community will endorse? By all accounts, Abbas would like a U.N. resolution to delimit the borders of his new Palestinian state; in this context, he will seek control not only of the entire West Bank but the Gaza Strip as well. However, since Hamas's violent takeover in 2007, Abbas has been powerless in Gaza -- a fact that has complicated international recognition of Abbas's authority. Presumably, Abbas hopes to address that problem by merging Hamas with his Ramallah-based government.
But Abbas's reconciliation with Hamas contains more risks than it does advantages. Hamas is designated as an international terrorist organization not only by Israel, but also by Canada, the European Union, and the United States. Moreover, it serves as a proxy force for Iran, which provides Hamas with funding, training, and weapons. So even though the Palestinians can always depend on the Non-Aligned Movement bloc for 120 or 130 General Assembly votes, these facts will imperil the Palestinians' ability to gain the backing of major Western powers, including the EU countries.
Since coming to power in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Hamas has steadfastly refused to accept the conditions of the Quartet -- the Middle East contact group that includes the United States, the U.N., the EU, and Russia -- for becoming part of the diplomatic process: renouncing violence, recognizing Israel's right to exist, and accepting past agreements. Mahmoud al-Zahar, the senior Hamas leader who participated in the Hamas-Fatah talks, clarified after the agreement was reached: "Our program does not include negotiations with Israel or recognizing it." As recently as April 17, Hamas's military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, reminded its supporters on its website: "We are going on the path of jihad." Hamas's intractability will no doubt jeopardize European diplomatic support for the Palestinian statehood drive, as well as financial assistance for any Palestinian government in which Hamas plays a role.
These concerns come on top of other serious European reservations. For example, the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, also known as Oslo II, clearly established: "Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the Permanent Status negotiations." The EU signed Oslo II as a witness. If the EU supports the Palestinian initiative at the U.N., it will be violating a core commitment of the peace process, which is that the territories' fate should be determined only by direct negotiations between the parties.
The problems with including Hamas don't stop there. Abbas's hope is that a General Assembly resolution will reference the pre-1967 boundaries, which have assumed almost holy status among Palestinians. (Never mind that these were only armistice lines from the 1948 war, and were not regarded as final political borders.) In Jerusalem, the pre-1967 line will put the entire Old City, with its holy sites, like the Western Wall, under Palestinian control. Israelis will not agree to such a division of their capital in any case, but will European governments risk putting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre under a regime even partly controlled by Hamas? They know that many members of Gaza's small Christian community have been seeking refuge abroad in order to flee Hamas rule.
The last time Abbas co-governed with Hamas was after the Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006, which Hamas won. By June 2007, their power-sharing arrangements broke down and Hamas overthrew Abbas's forces in the Gaza Strip. Israel is concerned that, in the aftermath of their new agreement, Hamas will try to exploit Abbas's weakness and take over the West Bank as well. If, under the agreement, the Palestinian Authority releases Hamas operatives from its prisons in the West Bank and at the same time calls off security sweeps against Hamas, the terrorist group's power in the field will undoubtedly rise. And what will happen to the Palestinian security forces that were trained by the United States and Jordan and have been acclaimed in the West in recent years?
Abbas needs to choose his priority: working with Hamas, or working with Israel. Faced with the departure of his old regional ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas's parent organization, Abbas appears to be recalculating his interests. He must also make a final decision about how to proceed in dealing with his differences with Israel -- through unilateral action that seeks to mobilize support at the United Nations, or by sitting down and negotiating with Israel, as past agreements require.
The pathway to peace is open. But by reaching out to Hamas, Abbas has plainly moved even further away from it.