If you were in Israel over the past week or so you could be forgiven for thinking a war had broken out, rather than a reconciliation agreement. The Israeli government was outraged at the announcement on 23 April of the deal between the Palestinian rival organisations Fatah and Hamas. It formally withdrew from peace negotiations and issued an array of sanctions. Yet, despite its professed anger, Israel will benefit, regardless of whether the Palestinian pact fails or thrives.
The accord will open the way for the formation of a unity government in Palestine; elections are now scheduled for later this year. For the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who is 79, this is a last chance to salvage his legitimacy. He is long past the end date of his elected term, and the most visible legacy of his flagship policy – the peace process – has been an increase in Israeli settlements.
Hamas, the militant Islamist faction governing the Gaza Strip, is in an even weaker position. The Syrian civil war and the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have deprived it of international allies, and inside Gaza weariness with Hamas rule grows. Reconciling with Fatah and joining the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) brings Hamas back into the diplomatic game.
Israel, meanwhile, is in the unusual position of gaining from the agreement regardless of whether the deal unravels or not. If it succeeds, Israel will have a more representative partner to deal with. If it fails, Israel will reap what it can from Palestinian disunity.
If the Israeli government was at all committed to a two-state solution, it would have welcomed the agreement: for years, it has complained that Abbas has not been a credible partner because he represents “less than half of his people”. Moreover, Hamas’s unconditional accession to the PLO signals a quiet acceptance of the PLO’s old commitments, including recognition of Israel’s 1967 borders.
Despite consistently painting the Islamist movement as the devil incarnate, Israel has co-operated with Hamas in the past: for instance, when making prisoner exchanges, and when reaching a ceasefire at the end of 2012 in which Hamas cracked down hard on rival militant groups in Gaza.
For now, Israel is using the agreement as an excuse to shift the full blame for the failure of peace talks on to the Palestinians. Although it has reacted similarly to reconciliation attempts in the past, this time it is spurred on by tensions inside its own governing coalition. The uneasy alliance between the Israeli hard right and centrists gained stability through the abortive peace talks: they gave right-wingers something to rally against without challenging Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu directly, and they legitimised the centre’s participation in the hard-right government. At the same time, centrists agreed to turn a blind eye to construction of settlements in exchange for the right’s support for reforms to limit the special privileges granted to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.
The Hamas-Fatah deal has helped the Israeli government maintain its unity: the centre is now absolved from pressure to push for peace talks, and the right will gain greater support for settlement-building.
Israel would rather see a fractured Palestinian Authority that is just functional enough to manage the occupation on its behalf. It will therefore do everything it can to make the pact fail. It’s up to Fatah and Hamas to prove it wrong.