Palestinian unity efforts hinge on US elections

A Palestine flag waves in front of Israeli soldiers

Palestinians confront Israeli soldiers during a protest against a new settlement outpost in the West Bank town of Asira al-Shamaliya in July.

Haidi Motola ActiveStills

Last month, Fatah announced that its central committee had unanimously approved the Istanbul understandings with its political rival Hamas.

The understandings are meant to pave the way for Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections for Palestinian Authority bodies as well as for the Palestinian National Council, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s currently defunct parliament-in-exile – a potentially significant vote, should it happen.

These are seen as crucial to ensure the 13-year split between the two main Palestinian factions can be overcome and a unified leadership emerge.

Chances are, however, that the Istanbul effort will go the way of the many similar understandings and agreements that have been reached – and breached – over the years.

Much will depend on the outcome of this week’s US presidential elections.

A win for the incumbent Donald Trump could hasten unity attempts, though this is far from certain.

A win for his Democratic challenger Joe Biden would shelve these attempts yet again.

Unity from necessity

Reconciliation or unity efforts have been ongoing for years, to greater or lesser urgency.

There have been five separate agreements, all of which went by the wayside: Mecca (2007), Cairo (2011), Doha (2012), Gaza and Cairo (2014) and Cairo (2017).

There have also been the Sanaa declaration in 2008 and the Cairo accord in 2012.

These have usually been in response to periodic popular pressure on Fatah and Hamas to make up and move on but were never pursued with much vigor by either side.

There have also been periods, such as now, when the issue slips down the order of priorities among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as measured in opinion polls.

In one such poll during September, just 10 percent of respondents said they thought unity was the most pressing problem facing Palestinians.

Perhaps this is understandable for a population under military occupation, watching erstwhile allies abandon them and the world’s sole superpower effectively give Israel a free hand, while also having to deal with a global pandemic.

And yet, while this may have dampened public enthusiasm for unity – on which the above poll finds that more than 40 percent have in any case given up – it has sharpened the political appetite.

Weaker than ever

Both main Palestinian factions find themselves at their weakest ever. Hamas has been hemmed in in Gaza, under constant barrage from the Israeli military and choked off by a hostile Egypt.

Any kind of hinterland it may have enjoyed in the past – whether for arms, finances or political support – has been weakened.

Syria remains convulsed by conflict, Qatar has been chastened by its anti-Muslim Brotherhood Gulf neighbors, and Sudan, once a staunch source of support for the movement’s Islamist politics, has been neutralized after normalizing relations with Israel.

Fatah, meanwhile, is stuck with the tenets of a peace process that the rest of the world has paid only lip service to and the US administration under Trump has simply abandoned.

The US has moved its embassy to Jerusalem and just recently announced that the city can now be described as part of Israel in official US documents.

It has given a stamp of approval to Israeli settlement building and delivered a “peace” plan that offers Palestinians only bantustan-like entities in areas of high Palestinian population density.

Undermining Fatah further, the US has ended all funding to the Palestinian Authority, cut funding to the UN’s Relief and Works Agency, which cares for Palestinian refugees, and closed the PLO’s embassy in Washington.

The PA is almost bankrupt and, with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan deals, it has lost even the pretense of united Arab support behind it.


Under these circumstances, forging Palestinian unity has become one of the only political options open to two leaderships with nowhere else to turn.

That alone is not enough, of course, and plenty of obstacles still mitigate against reconciliation. Hamas will not disarm for PA security forces. There is no money to pay for Gaza’s duplicate civil servants: those hired by Hamas, and those ordered to stay home by the PA.

And without Egyptian agreement, and ultimately Israel’s, there is little hope of seeing any significant easing of a blockade on Gaza that has kept the increasingly impoverished coastal strip on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe for years.

But in the event of a Trump reelection, it is hard to see what else Fatah and Hamas leaders would do to stave off irrelevance among their own.

A Trump win would offer Israel a four-year window to ramp up Israeli settlement activity to unprecedented heights. There would be no incentive for any Israeli government of any stripe to take any other option.

The only possible salvation for a two-state solution with a second term Trump presidency would be a unilateral Israeli decision to end settlements and start removing settlers. But that would be domestic political suicide.

The PA will run out of money, and even if the EU and other donors keep it afloat, it will not only have lost its reason for existing, it will no longer have an excuse to continue. The two-state solution will have been irreversibly replaced by the current one-apartheid-state reality.

Popular pressure to disband the PA and forge a new direction will become irresistible and the current leaderships will only retain any influence by acceding and regrouping, likely in exile. Whether that will be enough to save either faction from obsolescence remains to be seen.

Biden reset

A Biden win, however, will only set the clock ever so slightly back.

Biden is no radical on Palestine. While he is a proponent of the two-state solution, he has repeatedly declared his unyielding support for Israel.

He strongly opposes any attempt at tying US aid to Israel – military or otherwise – to its human rights record in occupied territory or adherence to international law. And while he may return to the paradigm that settlements are an obstacle to peace, he will do nothing concrete to change the dynamic on the ground.

He has already said he has no plans to relocate the US embassy to Israel out of Jerusalem.

He will likely restore funding to the PA and UNRWA and reopen the PLO mission in Washington. He may also engage in a new diplomatic attempt to push the Palestinian and Israeli sides back to negotiations.

He will, in other words, restore the situation to something like what pertained before Trump.

Eager to seize what it will see as a renewed opportunity, the PA leadership in Ramallah will keenly play ball with the new administration.

That will also mean there can be no reconciliation with Hamas, which is designated a foreign terrorist organization in the US, in order not to embarrass Biden early in his presidency.

Thus, where a Trump win on Tuesday will hasten the end of the current Palestinian political impasse, a Biden win will prolong it.

Ultimately, and absent any serious international effort to confront Israel, the end result will be the same. The current reality – different peoples with different rights under different legal systems but one ultimate authority – will prevail until a new generation of Palestinian leaders decide to tackle that reality head on.

Omar Karmi is an independent journalist and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.