While Palestinians celebrated the reconciliation agreement signed between Fatah and Hamas, the reactions in Washington and Israel were reminiscent of the biblical "weeping and gnashing of teeth."
American political commentators were dumbfounded by the news of the pact, terming it "a dark day", "a setback for peace," or "a serious complication." Members of Congress, meanwhile, were uniform in their threats to withhold aid if the Palestinian Authority goes forward with the unity arrangement.
Israeli government reactions were predictably harsh in their criticism of the Palestinian move. Those on the far right, who never supported the "peace process" in the first place and who had threatened to abandon the Netanyahu government if he signed any agreement with the Palestinians, saw the Fatah/Hamas pact as justification to call for an immediate end to the peace negotiations. I detected more joy than anger in their overly-heated pronouncements. Prime Minister Netanyahu had undoubtedly the most disingenuous line of the day, asking of PA President Mahmoud Abbas "does he want peace with Hamas or peace with Israel?"— as if to suggest that "peace with Israel" was actually in the offing but for Abbas' "disappointing" decision.
Putting aside all these displays of faux anger and misplaced regret, the Palestinians are right to celebrate. Reconciliation and national unity are not only good, in and of themselves, they are necessary if there is to be a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.
In the first place, the Palestinian people desperately want this unity in order to put their political house in order. They know that they have no viable future living in two captive Bantustans. In the face of continued existential challenges, the public has been demoralized by their squabbling fractured leadership. Increasingly frustrated with their divided leaders' failure or inability to bring an end to occupation, there has been a growing sense that unity would provide a solution. In a world that was out of control, healing their internal division was the one thing they felt they could control. Unity, of course, is not magical and will not, by itself, produce independence. But the public's instinct was nevertheless right in understanding that unity, on the right terms, would be essential for independence.
It is also important to understand the degree to which the leaderships of both the PA and Hamas were facing challenges to their legitimacy. During the past seven years, Hamas had made a mess of their rump "statelet" in Gaza. Their indiscriminate rocket fire and deplorable use of suicide bombers, which they bizarrely termed "resistance", had only served to damage the Palestinian movement and image. At the same time, this behavior and the insecurity it created among Israelis had empowered Israeli hardliners enabling them to impose cruel collective punishment that brought increased suffering to the entire Gaza Strip.
Hamas, reduced to badly managing an impoverished population, was facing growing dissatisfaction with both their ideology and their governance. Polls now show that this once popular Islamic movement had a significantly diminished support-base.
The Palestinian Authority, thanks to Israeli ill-will and intransigence has fared no better. They had made a strategic decision to pursue a non-violent path to liberation by cooperating with the US and negotiating with Israel. Their reward: they became financially dependent on the US and Israel; they were repeatedly humiliated by aggressive and acquisitive Israeli settlement expansion; and they continued to be subjected to Israel's efforts to impose its will on their every move. As a result, the Palestinian public had become increasingly cynical, despairing of the possibility of peace.
And so in the face of a new breakdown in negotiations, Israel's refusal to deliver on a promised release of prisoners, and the announcement of yet another expansion of settlements, Palestinians turned instead to heal their divided polity.
From what we know of the terms of the Fatah/Hamas pact, it provides for the establishment of a national unity government of technocrats. This government will serve for several months preparing for national elections. The agreement also empowers President Abbas to continue negotiations and endorses his leadership in seeking a two-state solution that provides for peace between Israel and an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in East Jerusalem.
While Israel has flat out rejected the reconciliation, the success of this effort to establish unity will depend on the US response. Up until now, the Administration has not formally rejected the agreement and has been somewhat circumspect in their comments. It would be a fatal error if, without finding out the exact terms of the reconciliation pact, the US were to have rejected it out of hand and punish the PA. Likewise, it would be an enormous error if the US were to force President Abbas to turn his back on the pact. This has happened before. At this point, such a move would not be accepted by the Palestinian public and would severely compromise the PA leadership.
If, as senior Palestinian spokesmen affirm, the terms of the agreement comply with the well-known Quartet conditions, the US would be well-advised to be supportive of the effort and insist that Israel continue negotiations with a now-strengthened Abbas.