The Israeli response to news that Palestinian factions had achieved a unity agreement was predictably irritating. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu derided the agreement in stark terms, saying that the Palestinians had a choice of either "Peace with Israel or peace with Hamas". His spokesperson reduced this bumper sticker rejection of Palestinian unity even further to "reconciliation or peace".
What is, of course, galling is the assumption implicit in the prime minister's framing of the matter, namely, that peace with his government is a real possibility that the Palestinians have now rejected. In reality, the Netanyahu government has shown no interest in moving toward peace -- unless on terms they dictate and the Palestinians accept.
While feigning disappointment at this Palestinian move, Netanyahu must privately be delighted. The pressure he was feeling to deliver some "concessions" to the Palestinians in his upcoming speech to the U.S. Congress has now been relieved. He can now revert to old form, expressing a vague desire for peace while warning that there is now clear evidence that there is no Palestinian partner with whom he can work.
For his part, Netanyahu will now feel free to accelerate tensions with Gaza, raids in the West Bank, home demolitions in Jerusalem and proceed with settlement construction, as he pleases. His allies in Congress will do the rest. They will denounce Palestinian reconciliation and claim that they have no choice but to take steps to suspend U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority.
Nevertheless, what Fateh and Hamas have done in achieving their accord is important and should be supported. But two cautionary notes are in order: 1) They have merely announced an engagement -- the wedding is scheduled down the road and the marriage will be fragile and subject to negative interference from obstructionists who will work hard to break it up; 2) the U.S. can be one of these home-wreckers (as we have been in the past) if the administration puts too much pressure on the Palestinians and/or supports Congress' efforts to deny them needed aid.
Because Palestine remains a captive nation, it is not the master of its fate. Prime Minister Salam Fayyed has done a brilliant job of reorganizing the P.A.'s ministries and security forces and putting the Palestinians' financial house in order. But Gaza remains under a near total blockade; Jerusalem and its environs (once the Palestinian metropol -- its religious, cultural, educational, economic and social hub) have been severed from the rest of the West Bank; and the West Bank, itself, has been separated into little cantons with no access or egress to the outside world. As a result no real or sustainable economy can develop, leaving Palestinians dependent on Israel and foreign aid. To punish a captive people by denying them aid would be cruel and most unhelpful.
Given this dire situation, to suggest that the Palestinians must choose reconciliation or peace, when peace has not been, and is not now, an option, is nothing more than a disingenuous and cruel taunt.
What has been so very clear since the elections of 2006 was that the Palestinian polity had been fractured and was in disarray -- with everyone behaving badly. The U.S. and Israel did not accept the outcome of the election (that the Bush administration had pushed for). Israel took repressive measures (at one point holding in detention, without charge, the majority of the newly elected Hamas legislature, making it impossible for that body to function). Aid was cut and the U.S. began to press the losing side, Fateh, to seek a confrontation. Hamas also behaved foolishly. Instead of assuming the role of a responsible government, and ignoring the many provocations against them, they continued their old violent behavior -- resorting to terror and picking fights they couldn't win. The results were disastrous and for three years now the Palestinians were not only weak and occupied, but increasingly divided with two competing "governments" in two captive territories. This situation was both burdensome and unsustainable.
The Palestinians need this unity and, whether they know it or not, the U.S. and the Israelis need the Palestinians to be unified. Palestinian reconciliation is a precondition to any peace agreement and to stability in that region. Hamas (whose past behavior I deplore and whose politics I reject) is a real part of the Palestinian polity. The Bush administration's approach of working to deepen the internal Palestinian divide only aggravated the situation, creating more bitterness, and threatening to create a permanent rupture -- a situation which would only benefit those who envision a long-term Israeli occupation and domination of a captive Palestinian people.
This effort at reconciliation may now provide Palestinians an opportunity to get their house in order and to move Hamas in a more constructive direction. Those in Israel and in the Congress who are hyperventilating over Hamas' Charter ought to read LIKUD's and/or read some of the choice religious pronouncements coming from Shas' spiritual leader.
What should be of concern is Hamas' behavior, and this reconciliation agreement may yet prove to be the best way to guarantee that Hamas will act responsibly. If the new government of technocrats is allowed to function and to continue on the path laid out by Fayyed, and if Hamas and Fateh can continue to work out a modus operandi in their respective areas, leading to a new election later this year, Palestinians will have put themselves in an even stronger position to claim statehood.
Bottom line: Palestinians shouldn't be asked to choose "reconciliation or peace" especially when the party doing the asking is denying them the chance to have both. Palestinians need both reconciliation and peace. They are working on the former. Now is the time for the U.S. and Israel to make a real contribution to advancing the later.
In the short term, should the U.S. Congress suspend needed aid, it would be important for the Arab states and others to step up and sustain the P.A., allowing the reconciliation plan time to work through elections and an expected U.N. vote in the fall. None of this, of course, will, by itself, result in a state. But a democratic and unified Palestinian Authority will make a stronger moral and legal case for recognition than Palestinians can make today living as they do divided and governed by entities of questionable legitimacy. Can this be why Israel is so hostile to the agreement?
Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.