The real challenge of Palestinian unity

Will the west recognise Wednesday’s Fatah-Hamas union?

After four years of internal schism, the Palestinians have agreed on forming a united government backed by the rival factions Hamas and Fatah.

The implementation of the deal that will be ceremonially signed in Cairo on Wednesday poses a number of challenges, the biggest of which will have to be faced by western decision-makers: will the west recognise the new government, or will the new government again be subjected to sanctions and boycotts? As of yet, the decision is still pending.

The Egyptian-brokered unity deal that is backed by 13 Palestinian factions in effect ends the split of the Palestinian Territory into two competing parts. Following Palestinian elections in 2006 and a violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas in 2007, Palestinians have been governed by two distinct governments from Gaza and Ramallah.

Whereas the Palestinian Authority under President Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah was internationally recognised and bolstered with western aid, the Hamas-run Gaza was targeted with a comprehensive blockade. As economic stagnation spread in Gaza, significant progress was attained in state-building efforts instituted in the West Bank.

At the same time, the intra-Palestinian split severely weakened the Palestinian negotiating position vis-à-vis Israel. After all, the Palestinian president in effect represented only one half of two bitterly divided entities.

Newly regained Palestinian unity has once more changed the parameters of Middle East peacemaking. For the first time in years, Palestinians will be represented by a single government. This will strengthen their bargaining power and enable the Palestinian leadership to follow through on the plan to obtain statehood through a vote in the UN General Assembly in September from a position of much more influence.

Good news for democracy

Although the composition of the transitional government will not be finalised for a few more weeks, the government's main task has already been defined: the government will be charged with rebuilding war-torn Gaza and will focus on the preparation of presidential and parliamentary elections within the coming year. Given tht the political mandates of President Abbas and both governments in Ramallah and Gaza have long expired, this is good news for democracy in Palestine.

On the ground, the agreement largely maintains the status quo. The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in Ramallah will, for the time being, be left in charge of the West Bank, while security in Gaza will remain under the control of Hamas.

While a "higher security council" will work on integrating armed forces into a "professional security service", this approach reflects the realities of two movements that have deeply entrenched themselves in both parts of Palestine.

Notably missing from the new government's portfolio are negotiations with Israel. In view of the fact that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, also holds office as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Movement (PLO), the factions have agreed that bilateral contacts will continue to be managed by Abbas.

At the same time, Hamas officials were quoted as saying that the Islamist group would implement an unofficial truce with Israel and cease firing missiles.

Despite widespread Palestinian enthusiasm surrounding the agreement, many challenges of implementation persist. Will elections take place as scheduled? Will the agreement be honoured by internal oppositional forces? Will political prisoners be released? Will Ramallah-paid civil servants in Gaza return to their offices? Many questions remain.

Back to boycott?

This also holds true for the question of who will lead the transitional government. In all likelihood, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad will not be allowed to extend his premiership. Yet, given that the premier will ultimately be chosen by Abbas, Fayyad might eventually stay in office until elections take place.

Abbas himself has already declared that he will not again run for office.

While these are important matters, a key challenge will have to be tackled by western decision-makers. After all, the establishment of a Palestinian government of national unity is hardly without precedent.

In 2006, following Hamas's victory in elections to the Palestinian Legislative Assembly, the international community reacted to a Palestinian unity government that included Hamas with a comprehensive boycott.

In view of Hamas's violent history of terror attacks, the Middle East Quartet presented it with three conditions for political engagement: Hamas was called upon to recognise Israel's right to exist, to forswear violence and to recognise previous agreements reached between the Palestinians and Israel. The movement's refusal resulted in four years of political boycott.

Wriggle room

Though these policies have failed to oust Hamas from power in Gaza, they have made progress in diplomatic efforts elusive. Diplomacy that sidelines important veto-players such as Hamas might appear easier to launch, but is certainly more difficult to conclude, given that any agreement will need to be embraced by the people on the ground.

Today, the west risks repeating the mistakes of 2006. On Sunday, the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, ruled out any contact between a Hamas-backed government and Israel, declaring that the Palestinians "cannot have peace with both Israel and Hamas". At the same time, Tel Aviv announced its decision to withhold financial transfers to the Palestinian Authority if it does not receive prior guarantees that the funds will not reach Hamas.

In Washington, a confrontation between Congress and the White House is unfolding. While prominent lawmakers have called for a renewed financial boycott, the Obama administration has opted for a more cautious approach. Calling on the new government but not on Hamas as a movement to fulfil the Quartet conditions, the White House has created some leeway for future engagement. This room for manoeuvre should be used.

The stance taken in Washington and European capitals will have far-reaching repercussions. A renewed financial boycott of the Palestinian Authority would jeopardise any prospects for a jumpstart of final-status negotiations.

This, last but not least, is in view of the fact that a relaunched boycott would probably result in a prolonged deadlock that will prove difficult to break. Also, a new round of sanctions would endanger any progress in institution-building attained under Prime Minister Fayyad.

Just last month, the World Bank declared that the Palestinian Authority "will be well positioned to establish a state at any time in the near future", acknowledging the ambitious two-year plan of state-building so far implemented by Fayyad. Given the Palestinian Authority's dependency on western support, these achievements are now at stake.

In many ways, finding the right response to the Fatah-Hamas agreement might well prove to be the true challenge posed by Palestinian unity.

Michael Bröning is director of the East Jerusalem office of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a political foundation affiliated with Germany's Social Democratic Party. He is the author of "The Politics of Change in Palestine: State-Building and Non-Violent Resistance" (Pluto Press, March 2011).

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.