The Dangers of Flirting with Hamas

In trying to play Israel and Hamas off of one another, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might accidentally end up in a unity government with the terrorist group.

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal talk at a February summit in Doga. (Reuters)

JERUSALEM, Israel -- Palestinian leaders this week announced the commencement of a unity agreement between President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction and their primary rivals, the Islamist group Hamas. Most Israelis, unsurprisingly, reacted negatively to the news; Hamas is a terrorist organization with a long record of killing Israeli citizens, and is committed to the destruction of Israel.

Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel does not bode well for productive peace negotiations with any government that includes them. It also presents challenges for the United States, which has designated Hamas as a terrorist group and would be unable to deal with the Palestinian government if they join (not to mention provide funding, which is difficult enough as it is).

No one seems to be taking the announcement very seriously, since this is far from the first time that Hamas and Fatah have announced a unity deal over the past few years, with none of them ever having been implemented.

According to Israeli and Palestinian officials I spoke with this week, this is precisely the point for Abbas; he uses the prospect of unity (which is very popular among Palestinians) as a counterweight to the peace process. Every time negotiations with Israel seems to reach a standstill (undermining Abbas's credibility and popularity), he makes overtures toward Hamas, knowing full well that the agreement will never be actualized.

Palestinian sources tell me that Hamas is worried that it has lost a lot of popularity in Gaza -- due to the effects of Israel's siege of the territory, as well as their inability to follow through on most of their 2005 election promises -- and are thus hesitant to hold elections any time soon.

According to Israeli analyst Ehud Yaari, Hamas is in the process of completing secret internal elections right now, in which veteran figures are being replaced by new faces that are even more radical -- and more unwilling to compromise with Abbas. The Palestinian president is thus able to play both sides, pivoting from one to the other as best suits him in the moment, without having to make any real decisions.

Several diplomats in Tel Aviv expressed concern to me that Abbas might be playing with fire. One of these days, Hamas is going to call Abbas's bluff and actually move forward with the unity agreement -- which would jeopardize U.S. and other international funding, as well as force Abbas to confront his long-standing promise not to run for re-election.

One person who certainly wouldn't mind Abbas getting burned is Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. These days he can barely contain his resentment toward Abbas and Fatah officials, who have essentially derailed his state-building plan with their corruption and obstinance. (He's also expressed exasperation with Abbas's directionless strategy toward the Israelis, particularly his pointless bid to gain UN recognition for Palestinian statehood.) Behind closed doors, he has conveyed his eagerness to run against Abbas in a presidential election.

What would this so-called "reconciliation" agreement look like? According to a former Israeli security official whom I spoke to this week, the latest proposal involves retaining both current governments in Gaza and the West Bank, while creating a new "coordinating committee," headed by Abbas and composed of non-partisan technocrats, to organize elections in six months.

It's unclear whether such a structure, which falls short of incorporating Hamas into the Palestinian Authority, would allow the U.S. to continue to deal with the Palestinian Authority.