The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is hard enough to follow. So when the fighting turned inward four years ago and Palestinian factions began fighting each other, some people tuned out altogether. There seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel though. Next week, the Islamic Hamas group and the more moderate party of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas will be signing a reconciliation agreement in Cairo. The Daily Beast offers this primer on the latest development in this never-ending struggle.
Hamas and Fatah have been negotiating off and on for almost four years. The rivalry between them has grown so bitter, that Abbas stopped traveling to Gaza altogether. But the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and the fear that protests might spread to the Palestinian territories gave the sides a push. Though Abbas and Hamas both won office through elections (presidential and parliamentary), their terms had run out long ago. For Hamas, the prospect of a revolution in Syria also appeared to be a factor. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the group’s main patron in the Arab world. And the increasing chaos in Gaza played a role as well. When a group far more extreme than Hamas murdered an Italian peace activist earlier this month, even Hamas recoiled.
What does it mean?
The deal would change little in the short term. Abbas will continue running the West Bank, maintaining security cooperation with Israel and plotting his drive for Palestinian statehood via the United Nations later this year. Hamas will retain control of the Gaza Strip and keep its militias under arms. A new cabinet composed of technocrats will coordinate between the two territories until elections are held within a year. What about rocket attacks against Israel? Yet to be determined.
Who stands to gain from the deal?
Abbas is the clear winner. Without conceding anything concrete, he has erased the loss of Gaza from his legacy and achieved what a large majority of Palestinian had told pollsters they want—national unity. Since peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are stalled anyway, Abbas does not anticipate any substantive debate with Hamas. If they do get underway, he can now legitimately claim to represent Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza. In the meantime, he might even get Hamas’ backing for his UN gambit in September, when he plans to ask the General Assembly to confer statehood on the Palestinians.
Who are the losers?
Hamas is taking a hit. Its popularity has plummeted since grabbing power in 2007. If elections were held today, the group would get just 30 percent of the vote in the West Bank and less in the Gaza Strip, according to pollsters. The decline in Gaza says something about Palestinian social attitudes: Many don’t like the conservative lifestyle Hamas imposed on Gaza. And a majority believe the rocket attacks on Israel only increase Gaza’s isolation, making life harder for Palestinians.
Netanyahu is also on the losing end. He can no longer claim that the split between the West Bank and Gaza casts doubt over Abbas’ legitimacy as a peace partner. And his strident opposition to reconciliation does not seem to be shared by Washington. “The Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas,” he said in response to the deal. “There is no possibility for peace with both.”
Abbas has vowed not to run for reelection. At 76, he wants to spend more time with his grandchildren and write his memoirs (he told me in an interview last week that he already has a 70-volume rough draft). Since Abbas is more moderate than any of his potential heirs, the coming year might represent the last best chance for a negotiated agreement. Unfortunately, other circumstances make the coming 12 months less than ideal. Obama has already launched his reelection campaign, a bad time for risky foreign policy initiatives. And Netanyahu, perhaps the most rigid leader Israel has had in a decade, continues to command a stable majority in parliament.
Dan Ephron has been Newsweek's Jerusalem bureau chief since January, 2010. Previously, he served as a national security correspondent and deputy bureau chief for the magazine in Washington. His stories have also appeared in the Boston Globe, The New Republic and Esquire.