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Palestinians wave flags and chant slogans during a rally calling for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. (Bernat Armangue/AP)
Palestinians wave flags and chant slogans during a rally calling for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Michael Bell

Palestinian 'unity' breakthrough isn't the real deal Add to ...

The reconciliation deal between the secular forces backing Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and the Islamist Hamas movement appears to suggest that Palestinian unity has been achieved at the price of Mr. Abbas's well-established moderation and his peace efforts with Israel.

It also appears to suggest that Palestinian security co-operation with Israel may end and that, as Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Western nations, the possible end of their considerable assistance to Palestine. It could jeopardize efforts to ensure broad recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations General Assembly this fall.

Hence, the announcement of the parties' intention to form a unity government seems more than noteworthy. Why such a dramatic decision now, and to what end?

Both sides need the legitimacy generated by the moral imperative behind the Arab Spring, particularly after its success in Egypt. The message is, it's no longer sufficient to let events take their course - one must seize the initiative and take risks to restore dignity. Palestinian leaders decided they could no longer sustain the status quo and remain relevant in the eyes of those they governed.

Under this rubric lie many factors. Palestinian moderates are convinced Israel doesn't want any peace deal, and they've no confidence the Americans will act assertively to bring negotiators into a meaningful process. Mr. Abbas doesn't want to be seen as a patsy for the status quo; he must at least be seen to satisfy the street's yearning for unity.

Hamas, facing the same need for legitimacy and confronting deep unpopularity in Gaza, made the concessions necessary to achieve a deal. It gets an opening of the border with Egypt, releasing Gazans from the Israeli juggernaut. It gets both a psychological lift from near total isolation as well as a freer flow of goods and services and quite possibly weapons. And it becomes less dependent on the shaky Assad regime in Damascus, where it's headquartered. Most of all, Hamas moved because the Egyptians wished it. Hamas badly needs a relatively benign Egypt, underwritten by the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than the hostility proffered by the Mubarak government. Hamas needs to end its isolation.

While concern about entente between Iran and Egypt represents the triumph of fear over logic, there's no doubt that the governance elite in Cairo wants change. It wants a strong leadership role throughout the region. Step 1: Gaza and Hamas, thereby promoting the image of Egypt as the Arab superpower. In the short term, the new Egypt benefits from keeping the Israelis off balance and the Americans at bay.

Does a hard dose of realism undercut pretensions to unity? Yes, because the Palestinian elites have irreconcilable agendas. Moderates want reasonable accommodation with Israel; Hamas's ideological determinism forces rejection of any achievable option, despite what its members might whisper into the ears of Western sympathizers. Fundamentally different views are already emerging as to what the agreement involves: for Mr. Abbas, Gaza reconstruction and elections within a year; for Hamas, no peace with Israel beyond an interim ceasefire.

This "unity" breakthrough is almost certainly a chimera, a tactic to meet immediate needs of moderates and Islamists alike. Strategic positions remain unchanged, with the battle to be settled at another time and a place other than the negotiating table in Cairo.

Michael Bell, the Paul Martin (Sr.) Senior Scholar on International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor, is a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

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