Earlier this week, Palestinian President Abbas finalized a deal with his Hamas rivals to form a unity government in the occupied territories. Bernard Avishai reads the agreement as a sign of how much ground Hamas has lost:
Tuesday’s reunification agreement suggests one of two things. The first is that Abbas—who is seventy-nine and concerned about his legacy after Kerry’s unsuccessful nine-month initiative to broker peace—has decided to get out in front of the mounting anger in the Palestinian street about the failure of the talks and adopt something like Hamas’s harder line. The second is that Abbas simply has beaten Hamas at its own game, forcing it to recognize his authority and to accept his nonviolent, internationalist strategy. Both conclusions may be true to some degree, though most Israelis impulsively jump to the first. Which is truer?
“Abbas has not knocked out Hamas, but he is winning on points—he has the opportunity to extend the umbrella of nonviolence to Gaza,” Mohammad Mustafa, the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for the economy, told me in Ramallah. A central player in both the old and new Palestinian governments, Mustafa, a former World Bank official, is also the head of the billion-dollar Palestine Investment Fund. “This is an agreement for real,” he went on. “Hamas’s situation has changed. The biggest factor is regional—especially Egypt. Hamas lost their alliance with Syria some time ago. But they had alternatives. Morsi”—Mohamed Morsi, the deposed Egyptian President—“made them feel comfortable. Tunisia, Turkey was a big ally, Iran was coming their way. Now there aren’t really many friends for Hamas.” He added that the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had “convinced Hamas that they really lost.”
But Efraim Inbar considers it a coup for the Gaza-based militants:
Despite the current “unity” discourse, the Palestinians remain as divided as before. The only true test for “unity” of a political entity is monopoly over the use of force.
As long as the military branch of Hamas remains independent, there is no unity; just evidence of the “Somalization” of Palestinian politics. Islamic Jihad also remains fiercely independent in Gaza, as well as other jihadist organizations. In fact, under the current accord, instead of the PA regaining lost Gaza, Hamas is gaining better access to the West Bank. …
In fact, it is hard to believe that Hamas will give up control over the Gaza Strip. The de facto statehood which Hamas enjoys is good business, as it allows for the extraction of taxes and fees. In addition, it serves the extremist Hamas ideology that demands building Islamist political structures and keeping alive the military and theological struggle against the unacceptable Jewish state. Hamas has made it clear that it has not mellowed one bit on this issue. It also hopes to get a better foothold in the West Bank to fortify its role in Palestinian society. Hamas seeks to emulate the road taken by Hizballah in gaining political hegemony in Lebanon while maintaining a military force independent of the central government.
But Sheera Frenkel reports that the US may have been holding back-channel talks with Hamas for months, indicating that the group has made more concessions to peace in private than it would dare to do in public:
“Our administration needed to hear from them that this unity government would move toward democratic elections, and toward a more peaceful resolution with the entire region,” said one U.S. official familiar with the talks. He spoke on condition of anonymity, as the U.S, government’s official stance is that it has not, and will not, talk to Hamas until certain preconditions are met. “It was important to have that line of communication,” the U.S. official said.
State Department deputy spokesman Marie Harf denied the talks. “These assertions are completely untrue,” Harf told BuzzFeed. “There is no such back channel. Our position on Hamas has not changed.”