Fatah-Hamas pact called new chance for peace
By Joel Greenberg,
JERUSALEM — The reconciliation pact signed last week by the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas was denounced by Israel and has left Washington weighing its response, but Palestinian mediators who helped broker the deal say it opens new opportunities for a resumption of peace talks.
The accord, which provides for the formation of a transitional government of technocrats to prepare for elections in a year, also sets a goal that Fatah and Hamas say they share: a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with a capital in Jerusalem, next to Israel.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has sought to reassure the United States and Israel that he will continue to handle diplomacy as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and that any future government set up under the accord will follow his policies. In remarks when the reconciliation deal was signed, he reiterated his renunciation of violence.
But critical details of the accord remain to be hammered out. One of the thorniest will be the platform of the new Palestinian government, whose appointees are to be agreed between Fatah, headed by Abbas, and Hamas, a militant Islamist group considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States.
The positions Hamas takes as part of the shared government are likely to determine whether the new Palestinian administration will continue to receive U.S. and other foreign aid, and whether it will be accepted as a partner for diplomacy and peace talks.
Under conditions set by the United States and other members of the Middle East mediation group known as the Quartet, Hamas must recognize Israel, accept previous agreements with it and renounce violence if it is to be a partner to negotiations.
Although Hamas has not met those conditions, Munib al-Masri, a prominent businessman and one of the mediators of the unity pact, said in an interview that the group “came a long way” in aligning its positions with those of Fatah.
Masri and other independent mediators said the two factions have agreed to coordinate diplomacy and the confrontation with Israel, reining in further use of violence.
“This is very important and provides a fantastic opportunity for real peace with all Palestinians, not just some of them,” said Mustafa Barghouti, an independent politician and activist who helped mediate the accord.
The outlines of the new consensus were reflected in public remarks when the pact, brokered by Egypt, was signed in Cairo.
Khaled Mashal, the Damascus-based leader of Hamas, took a step away from his group’s charter, which envisions an Islamic state in the entire area of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and talked of a Palestinian state in the territories bordering Israel.
He said Hamas and Fatah had agreed to work toward the goal of “an independent and completely sovereign Palestinian state on the lands of the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jerusalem as its capital, without a single settler, without giving up a single inch, and without giving up the right of return” of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel.
Hamas leaders have a history of sending mixed messages, and Mahmoud al-Zahar, a leader of the group in Gaza, reiterated recently that it would never recognize Israel, so it was unclear whether Mashal’s remarks reflected acceptance of a two-state solution that would end the conflict.
Still, several mediators who met with Hamas leaders in Damascus said the group had agreed to a joint platform with Fatah that envisions a Palestinian state next to Israel, not in its place. The mediators spoke in separate interviews, commenting on statements at the signing ceremony and drawing on their discussions with Hamas leaders.
Furthermore, they said, Mashal’s statement that the Palestinians were ready to give “an additional chance” for peace and that they were committed to “one leadership” and “one authority” under the umbrella of the PLO meant that Hamas acknowledged Abbas’s role as negotiator on behalf of all factions.
Mahdi Abdul Hadi, a political analyst who was part of the mediation effort, said Hamas had effectively “legitimized the negotiation process for a two-state solution.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took a different view. “What is being discussed today,” he said after the accord was signed, “is to create a Palestinian state in order to improve the positions from which Hamas wants to drive Israel to the sea.”
Referring to the use of violence, Mashal said Fatah and Hamas had agreed to jointly guide diplomacy and “resistance” against Israel. Mediators said that meant any armed action would have to be cleared with Fatah, and since Abbas has emphatically opposed such attacks, they were effectively ruled out.
Hamas is “ready to continue the cease-fire in Gaza and for abstention from violence, given that they will not be attacked,” Barghouti said.
Hamas has halted suicide bombings in Israel in recent years and curbed rocket fire from the Gaza Strip since a devastating offensive by Israel in 2009, but the attacks have not ceased. Last month an Israeli teenager was killed by an antitank missile fired by Hamas militants at a school bus.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said Mashal’s language suggested that Hamas reserved the right to continue armed attacks, this time in coordination with Fatah. If Hamas “would move toward reconciliation and peace, that would be a different matter,” he said, “but there is no evidence whatsoever that this is the case.’’
Masri disagreed. The Hamas-Fatah agreement to forge a common political program is “the best opportunity for peace,” he said, because a deal could now be negotiated with a united Palestinian leadership.
Hamas, he added, is “in the tent.”