You sit around for ages, the old joke goes, waiting for a bus, and then three come along at the same time.
Something like this seems to be happening right now on the internal Palestinian political front. Until June, Palestinian politics seemed deadlocked, with no prospect of unity, no progress with Israel and no hope for Gaza. Then, two initiatives, both involving Hamas, and the latest promising a breakthrough on reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, came along right after each other.
For all the apparent optimism, however, fundamental obstacles remain, mitigating against a deal.
Hopes are raised
At the end of last year, polls showed widespread pessimism over chances for unity, partly because positions seemed so entrenched. Nothing that happened in the first half of 2017 dispelled this feeling.
In April, Mahmoud Abbas, the PA leader and head of Fatah, seemed to sound the deathknell for those efforts. He reinstated taxes on fuel destined for Gaza, refused to pay Israel for electricity for the impoverished coastal strip, cut funding for medicines and health care there and slashed salaries for former civil servants, who had been paid to stay home after Hamas took control.
Two million Palestinians were left with just a few hours of electricity a day, threatening to bring forward a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe, long predicted.
Then, in June, Hamas suddenly announced a surprise agreement with Muhammad Dahlan, the erstwhile Gaza security chief, sworn enemy of Hamas and longstanding Abbas rival who was sacked from Fatah in 2011 amid corruption charges that were eventually dropped.
And just as suddenly, in September, Hamas announced that it was disbanding its administrative committee, would allow the PA to take on governance duties in Gaza, and would support presidential and parliamentary elections.
This week the PA cabinet held its first meeting in Gaza in three years and prime minister Rami Hamdallah was welcomed by large crowds. Optimism that a potential breakthrough toward unity and reconciliation can be achieved seems higher than it has since the division between Hamas and Fatah descended into violence 10 years ago.
Weakness in common
There is a neat model that explains why buses tend to bunch (as it is apparently known in the transport industry). Politics, sadly, is messier, but several factors account for why intra-Palestinian politics – so stagnant so long – so suddenly entered a phase of hyperactivity.
The weakness of both Hamas and Fatah is a major factor.
In some ways, Hamas was caught in the perfect pincer movement. Heavily outgunned by Israel, three devastating assaults over 10 years took its toll in both lives and spirits. Gaza has been isolated from the world through a decade-old Israeli-Egyptian blockade, the economic consequences of which have been catastrophic.
Hamas then lost its most important sponsor when Gulf countries moved to ostracize Qatar, resulting in the relocation of Hamas leaders hitherto based there and the loss of an all-important source of revenue.
Abbas, meanwhile, has little to show for his decade-long pursuit of a dead-end peace process. Illegal colonies in occupied territory proliferate and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has been happy to assert that settlements “are here to stay forever.”
The PA did achieve a 2012 vote at the UN elevating Palestine to “non-member state” status, though this was a retreat from the original intention to secure full state status in 2011.
With the economy “near stagnation,” the deeply unpopular Abbas has grown increasingly autocratic. He has clamped down on dissent and deployed Palestinian security forces against his own population to stifle resistance to Israel’s occupation.
Both sides needed to escape their respective stalemates, with the humanitarian situation forcing more urgency on Hamas.
Hamas duly took the first step and established its administrative committee. Abbas retaliated with financial pressure, a high stakes gamble that saw him prepared to look like he was making common cause with Israel against Hamas.
On the back of that came the agreement with Dahlan, which changed the dynamics, and clearly took Abbas by surprise. Not only was he now faced with the return of a rival he thought he might have gotten the better of last year at Fatah’s seventh general conference, he was now confronted by a Hamas with potential financial support from the UAE and rapidly warming relations with Egypt.
Cairo’s role is crucial. Fed up with a Sinai insurgency that shows little sign of abating, Egypt is trying to enlist Hamas’ help to ensure that Gaza does not become a haven for Sinai militants or a source of weapons. Hamas has proven amenable – while always rejecting accusations that it has supported Salafist militias which have claimed allegiance to the Islamic State group. Gaza’s Islamist rulers have clamped down on smuggling and began creating a buffer zone along the boundary with Egypt.
Egypt, meanwhile, has promised to ease the closure at Rafah, potentially allowing the crossing there not only to be open regularly but to be used for goods as well as people. That would be a hugely significant move and could finally bring some relief to the beleaguered economy in Gaza.
The UAE, meanwhile, unhappy that Abbas rebuffed Saudi, UAE and Egyptian-backed efforts to bring Dahlan – who resides in Dubai and is close to the country’s leadership – back in from the cold last year, promised to sweeten the deal by building a power station on the Egyptian side of Rafah and paying families compensation for their losses during the Hamas-Fatah fighting in 2007, as a way to heal old wounds.
The Dahlan agreement gave Hamas leverage in unity talks. No longer isolated, it negotiates with a potential fallback option. And by making the first move and disbanding the administrative committee, Hamas has sent the ball firmly into Abbas’ court.
So far, the reaction in Ramallah has not been promising. The convening of a cabinet meeting in Gaza was purely a symbolic step, and while warmly received on Gaza’s streets, it had no substance.
Much more ominously for any successful negotiations, was an interview Abbas gave to an Egyptian TV station in which he insisted that Hamas would have to surrender its weapons and allow West Bank-controlled PA security forces – with all that that entails in terms of security cooperation with Israel – full control over Gaza.
This is anathema to Hamas, which at most would accept an open-ended ceasefire, or hudna, but whose very raison d’etre as a “Palestinian national liberation movement and resistance group” is predicated on the internationally sanctioned right to resist occupation.
Abbas’ condition is dictated by the logic of a peace process that demands not only an end to armed resistance against Israel’s occupation as a precondition for negotiations, but that those under occupation police themselves to that effect.
Abbas is also wary of losing international sponsorship from the West, which considers Hamas a terrorist group. While there may be wriggle room here, depending on what role Hamas might play under any unity agreement, there is little.
Netanyahu has already made his position clear: Israel would accept no “fake reconciliation” and reiterated his demand that all parties to a peace process should first “recognize the State of Israel and, of course, the Jewish state.”
To overcome Israeli objections, Abbas needs Washington on board, and Washington will not accept anything less than that demanded by Israel from a unity agreement. For all the talk in the White House of brokering the “ultimate deal,” nothing the Trump administration has said or done so far has veered significantly or even slightly from Washington’s pro-Israel orthodoxy.
Waiting for the bus
Abbas could decide to prioritize Palestinian needs over conditions imposed from abroad. A unified Palestinian front, for all the despondency opinion polls have revealed around the issue, is still a priority that can bring cheering crowds to the streets of Gaza.
But Abbas, 82, is eyeing what may well be his last attempt at a negotiated settlement. As such, another stalemate looms.
This time, Hamas may just be calculating that it has an out in the form of the agreement with Dahlan and that, having taken the first steps, failure to reconcile will be blamed squarely on Abbas.
It is a gamble: Hamas needs the closure on Gaza to ease. It needs Egypt to ensure this, and, reconciliation failing, it needs Cairo to agree to do so absent the cover of Abbas’ PA. But Cairo has distinct interests that might favor a deal with Hamas.
The advantage of bunching buses is that if the first one is full, a second one, with plenty of space, will be right behind. If Abbas, and behind him Washington, puts up too many conditions, Hamas can hold out for the Dahlan agreement, which posits less.
Omar Karmi is a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.