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).

Show Hide image

Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories