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Daniel Nisman Headshot

The Palestinian Reconciliation Bluff

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Coauthored with Ron Gilran

They say a contract between two men is almost as binding as a handshake between them. The implied skepticism of this saying surely crossed the minds of everyone in the press-packed home of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on April 13 when he inked a seemingly-landmark reconciliation agreement with Fatah, Hamas' longtime rival. Even as the surrounding streets of the Shaati refugee camp erupted in jubilation, Hamas politburo member Mousa Abu Marzouk wasted no time in snapping back to Palestinian political reality, stating that "whatever is written in the agreement does not mean a thing, unless there is a true will (to implement it)."

Anyone with a bit of historical reference will have plenty of reasons to downplay these latest hopes for reconciliation. The two most powerful Palestinian factions, Islamist Hamas, secular-nationalist Fatah have been virtually incommunicado since the former took control of the Gaza Strip in a violent coup in 2007, exiling Fatah members and imprisoning many who remained. Two previous attempts to reconcile were signed in Cairo in 2011 and Doha in 2012, and included similar understandings that were reached in Gaza City this week. These include the formation of a technocratic government in several weeks, and the holding of general elections several months later. None of those agreements ever materialized.

But the failure of past agreements alone is not enough to seal the fate of this new accord. In fashion with the rest of the Arab World these days, circumstances change. During the Cairo and Doha talks, both Hamas and Fatah had little incentive to make any compromise. But Hamas is now at its most isolated point since 2007. The Brotherhood-aligned group is feeling the squeeze from the newly-hostile Egyptian government and a Saudi-led campaign to dilute the Muslim Brotherhood's regional influence, coercing Qatar and other foreign financiers to roll back support.

In an increasingly desperate search out of the resulting economic crisis, Hamas' options have been limited to crawling back to Iran for support, provoking a war with Israel to gain international sympathy (or recognition), or reconciling with their rivals in the West Bank. With a hesitant government in Tehran, and the destruction of the last escalation with Israel still fresh in everyone's mind, reconciling with Fatah may prove the least costly way to ease international isolation.

Fatah also has newfound interests in signing a deal. With mounting pessimism toward the Palestinian Authority over corruption, unemployment, the fate of the peace process and an anticipated cold shoulder from Western backers in its aftermath, President Abbas is scrambling to salvage as much domestic support as possible.

For the short term, mending this highly unpopular political and geographical divide allows both Hamas and Fatah to stave off swelling public criticism in the territories under their respective control, as well as a path to curb the rising influence of other political rivals. For Hamas, this means the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad and newly-energized Salafi groups, and for Abbas, the increasingly emboldened former-security-chief-in-exile Mohammed Dahlan.

Once the initial euphoria of the agreement settles, getting down to brass tacks of long-term implementation will prove difficult, if not impossible. The uneasy, yet cautious response from the U.S. State Department on the possibility of Fatah cozying up with a member of the US terrorism list has likely alerted President Abbas and his allies in the Palestinian Authority, who are heavily dependent on foreign aid. It is therefore no coincidence that Israelis and Palestinians alike woke up on Thursday to reassuring statements from Abbas that the agreement "does not contradict the peace process."

Abbas' taming of tempers on reconciliation with Hamas could be interpreted as yet another signal to Israel and the U.S. that the Palestinians have other options in case talks collapse. In this context, the deal with Hamas is Abbas' third move aimed at irking the Israelis since talks reached a deadlock in late March after unilaterally joining 15 U.N. treaties and threatening to dismantle the Palestinian Authority. The common outcome of all three moves was apologetic and explanatory rhetoric, each preceded by a stern frown from Washington.

Hamas also has much at stake. A genuine reconciliation would force Hamas to forgo of its exclusive control over the Gaza Strip, including its arsenal of over 10,000 rockets. It's a priceless bargain chip that no rational entity -- and make no mistake about Hamas's rationality -- would waive. Some argue the move could come as a mere tactical retreat to enable Hamas to expand its influence in the West Bank through a political merger. Speculations aside, and despite the group's adherence to the coveted Brotherhood principle of Sibr (patience), no one could guarantee to Hamas more than what it already has now in Gaza. To be sure, neither the Israelis nor Fatah are eager to let Hamas charities operate freely in Nablus, or for its Qassam Brigades to police the streets of Hebron.

For now, both Hamas and Fatah seem content to reap the short term benefits of a reconciliation agreement, but settling on the final nitty-gritty details is an unavoidable zero-sum game. Both factions ultimately seek to dominate the future Palestinian state in their own way, while failing to come to terms with each other in the two decades since the Oslo accords gave way to partial governance. The compromises that each side must make for an agreement to hold water are considered an existential threat to their territorial control or political ideology.

After more than seven years of deadlock, the leaders of Fatah and Hamas seem comfortably set in their ways, for they have little to lose in the event that this latest attempt at reconciling falters. Each will return to their respective seats in power, enjoying the benefits of economic life support disingenuously provided by their respective foreign backers. Their subjects meanwhile, will continue to be the ones that suffer from this never-ending Palestinian leadership void.