“What I’m willing to give the Palestinians is not exactly a state with full authority, rather a state minus. This is why the Palestinians do not agree.”
Despite its bold assertion on Palestinian unity, this recent statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Israeli cabinet members did nothing to deter Palestinian political groups from coming to an agreement on their own terms.
On January 18, Hamas and Fatah, the governing parties of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank respectively, put aside their long-lasting disputes and agreed to form a new Palestinian National Council, with the established purpose of creating a unified government. Also included in the National Council was the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a Shia militant group that traditionally has not taken part in negotiations.
“We have reached agreement under which, within 48 hours, we will call on [Palestinian Authority President and Fatah party member] Mahmoud Abbas to launch consultations on the creation of a government,” stated Azzam al-Ahmad, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee and the head of Fatah’s parliamentary faction.
In 2006, Hamas won 44.45% of the Palestinian vote in legislative elections compared to 41.43% by Fatah and solidified a significant majority in the Palestinian parliament. Since then, both political parties have been at odds. Fatah is a secular political movement founded in 1959 by Yasser Arafat, the world-renowned Palestinian activist and recipient of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. The Palestinian political party has controlled the West Bank since 1994, after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, Hamas is an Islamic political group that began as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and that has been branded a terrorist group by the United Nations. The fundamentalist organization entered into armed conflict with Fatah after both parties failed to form a unified government following the 2006 elections. Ultimately, Hamas claimed control over the Gaza Strip, while the Palestinian Authority, led by Fatah, held power in the West Bank. Each side claimed to be the valid representative of the Palestinian people.
Despite their long history of animosity, the two parties were able to reach a deal at moment when the prospect of Palestinian independence appears to be threatened. Newly elected President Donald J. Trump has made his support for Israel quite clear, calling Prime Minister Netanyahu “great for Israel” and a “terrific guy,” while openly advocating for the relocation of the U.S. embassy from its current location in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Many Palestinians view this move as a rebuke to their historical claims over the holy city. President Trump, before taking office, nearly derailed United Nations Resolution 2334, which states that “Israel’s settlements have no legal validity, [and] constitute flagrant violation of international law” according to the United Nation’s official website, by convincing Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi over the phone to postpone the vote on the resolution.
As the international interests of the U.S. and Israel realign, Hamas and Fatah have no wasted no time developing their own ties. In his address following the announcement of the National Unity government, Moussa Abu Marzuok, deputy chairman of Hamas’ political bureau, stated that the unity government “is the most effective tool to promote the contentious issues that formed during the years of division” and that it must find solutions to the conflict, “including the holding of free and democratic elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”
Palestinian political groups have taken advantage of UN Resolution 2334 in order to form a unified front for Palestinian self-determination. According to one senior Fatah official who spoke with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “the conditions are ripe for a new unity government, both in the internal arena and the international one,” and “a unity government is of strategic importance for the Palestinians.”
Perhaps tellingly, Palestinian leadership traveled to Moscow, Russia for the negotiations, a move that hints at a rift between Palestine and the U.S. Traditionally, the United States has hosted peace talks and provided support to the Palestinian Authority over the years. Another indication of U.S.-Palestine tension is that Palestinian representatives reportedly met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and asked for his help to prevent the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem. The new Russian-Palestinian relationship poses difficulties for the United States, which has seen an increasingly aggressive Russia assert its influence in the Middle East, both in Iran and Syria.
Yet it remains unclear whether this new deal between Hamas and Fatah will prove more successful than previous attempts. In 2014, both sides were able to reach a consensus on a reconciliation deal that aimed to form a unity government and hold parliamentary elections. Due to disputes over management of border crossings in the Gaza Strip and election proceedings, the two Palestinian factions failed to deliver on their promise of a new government, prompting doubt that a reconciliation process would ever succeed. The international community will be watching closely to see if this round of negotiations can finally break through.
In a statement to The Jerusalem Post, Mustafa Barghouti, Executive Committee member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and top official in the recent negotiations, appeared optimistic about the possibility of a unity government between Hamas and Fatah. He explained that “the idea of the government would be to start bridging the division between Gaza and the West Bank and prepare for national elections in six months”.
The reconciliation talks come a week after a preliminary meeting in Beirut that laid out the initial proposal for a new Palestinian National Council. According to Mr. Barghouti, “There was one addition to the Beirut meeting, which is that there will be a recourse to the president to act as fast as possible to initiate discussions regarding the formation of a national unity government”.
This new agreement seems to indicate a clear sense of urgency for politicians in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and many hope that a Palestinian National Council will be able to facilitate a two-state solution with Israel. Yet history has shown that stable peace between Israel and Palestine is not only complex, but also unprecedented.