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Unity government is a contradiction that won’t last

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In the immediate aftermath of the formation June 2 of the Fatah-Hamas “unity” government – consisting of non-political “technocrats” – there have been both predictable and unpredictable reactions.

Predictably, the international community raced to embrace the new government, despite Hamas’ refusal to endorse the 2006 conditions set by the Quartet (the European Union, UN, United States and Russia): recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and accept PLO-Israel agreements. The rationale for the embrace, including by the United States (which most expected would take a wait-and-see approach) is that since none of the new government’s 17 cabinet ministers is a Hamas member and Hamas “merely” supports the government externally, the Quartet conditions on Hamas’ inclusion have not been violated.

Furthermore, PA President Mahmoud Abbas claims the unity government itself accepts the Quartet conditions, although there’s no formal policy statement to that effect. Yet, Hamas, while supporting the government (appointing four ministers), rejects the conditions Abbas says the government has agreed to.

To Israeli and other observers, this is simply an effort to square a circle.

Unpredictably, it was the New York Times, usually critical of Israel, which, in its June 6 editorial “Israeli-Palestinian Collision Course,” said that “some skepticism” expressed by the Israeli administration is warranted: “Many experts say that if there is ever to be an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, admittedly a distant dream at this point, the Palestinians must be united. But the United States has to be careful to somehow distinguish between its support for the new government and an endorsement of Hamas and its violent, hateful behaviour. To have some hope of doing that, the United States and Europe must continue to insist that Mr. Abbas stick to his promises and not allow Hamas to get the upper hand.”

It’s precisely the prospect of Hamas’ getting the upper hand that worries Israeli analysts. In a June 4 Times of Israel article, Ehud Ya’ari warned that instead of being interested in healing the rift with Fatah dating from Hamas’ violent overthrow of Fatah in Gaza in 2007 – as of this writing the groups continue to bicker, even arresting each other’s members – what Hamas really wants is to transplant “the Hezbollah model from Lebanon to Palestine.” 

While Abbas is nominally in charge of Gaza (Hamas’ government there having been dissolved), Hamas has said it will refuse to disband its 20,000-strong armed forces and security personnel or let them come under PA rule. Nor will it stop producing missiles, estimated now at 10,000.

Even if Hamas doesn’t win presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in six months (though well-known Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh already predicts victory for Hamas), it could end up in a position to destabilize the West Bank. Like Hezbollah, Hamas would have political clout as well as an independent military or “resistance” force – just as, in Lebanon, Hezbollah forces are separate from, and far stronger than, the Lebanese army.

No wonder dovish Israeli President Shimon Peres, on his way June 8 with Abbas to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican for a “peace prayer,” warned the Fatah-Hamas partnership is a “contradiction that won’t last.” “One is in favour of terror and one is against terror. That won’t work… You can’t have water and fire in the same glass.”

Several Israel commentators have argued that Israel, once again, lost the PR battle to Abbas by immediately condemning the unity government instead of accepting it and subsequently shifting the focus to Hamas, insisting it reform and comply with Quartet conditions. David Horovitz, founding editor of The Times of Israel, however, asked the following: “Rather than rushing to embrace a Palestinian government in which an unreformed Hamas is a central component, what was to stop the U.S. conditioning its acceptance on a reform of Hamas?”  Good question. n

Paul Michaels is the director of research and media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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