Arab-Israeli conflict Fatah Hamas Israel Mahmoud Abbas

On the Hamas-Fatah pact, which “experts” should we believe?

JJ Goldberg reported, via Israel’s Channel 10, that Prime Minister Netanyahu “has instructed his cabinet ministers to stick to a single message regarding the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement [announced last week and signed today in Cairo]…The message: “there is no possible positive component in the reconciliation agreement.” That’s right: Cabinet ministers are forbidden even to speculate on any conceivable upside.”

Apparently Netanyahu’s attempts to demolish government-sanctioned hope didn’t work. Haaretz reported that:

An internal, confidential Foreign Ministry report advises that the creation of a Fatah-Hamas unity government in the Palestinian Authority would offer Israel a strategic opportunity. The views expressed in the paper are clearly counter to those expressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu…

“The Palestinian move is not only a security threat but also a strategic opportunity to create genuine change in the Palestinian context,” the report states. “Such change may serve the long-term interests of Israel…”

And here is another expert who harbors hope, via Bloomberg:

“Participation in the Palestinian government and the holding of elections will also create more serious pressure on Hamas to work for quiet in the Gaza Strip, which in turn can help advance the diplomatic process,” Shlomo Brom, head of the program on Israel-Palestinian relations at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, said in a paper he circulated by e-mail on the agreement.

They might be wrong. Efraim Halevy, the former Mossad chief who for years has been urging talks with Hamas, might also be wrong. But the same thing is true of the naysayers who are predicting disastrous consequences from this accord. It is a mistake to accept on faith any assertions of any so-called experts on the Middle East, including Israeli officials. If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the only certainty in the Middle East is uncertainty.

None of the Middle East experts anticipated the sudden reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas. Even Mahmoud Abbas was surprised. None of the experts –including reportedly, the Mossad– anticipated the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. None of them –including pollsters and Hamas leaders –predicted the Hamas victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006.

So why accept all the confident assertions that nothing positive could possibly develop from this agreement? There is, of course, a very strong case to be made for pessimism. Shimon Peres might have been right when he called the Hamas-Fatah agreement “a fatal mistake…Signing this agreement that will result in elections in another year is liable to allow a terrorist group to control [not only] Gaza [but also] Judea and Samaria… Hamas is not changing its spots…It is not ceasing to be a terrorist group that serves Iran and smuggles weapons.”

Makes sense. But he can’t be certain. No one, except perhaps for the leaders of Hamas, can be certain of what they are going to do and how they are going to act, and I am not sure that they know.

If I were coerced into betting, I would probably bet on more gloom and bloodshed. I would bet, for example, that the relatively successful, joint security apparatus established by the Palestinian Authority and Israel will collapse.

But it makes no sense to bet on anything yet.

Jeroen Gunning claims that there is “a constituency within Hamas which considers compromise on one core goal (liberating all of Palestine) acceptable, if this means Hamas is in a better position to fulfil its other core goals of making Palestinian society more Islamic, increasing social justice and eradicating corruption.”

Isn’t there at least a slim chance that he is right?

Isn’t there at least a chance that, under the auspices of new and obviously ambitious Egyptian interlocuters, the new Palestinian unity government will find a way to free Gilad Shalit? Or that Hamas-Fatah will surprise the world by tamping down on terrorists and rocketeers? Or that, if Palestinian elections do take place, Abbas, Salaam Fayyad and Fatah will win? Or that –before or after the elections–, for the sake of its own political survival, Hamas will decide to give Abbas the leeway to enter into serious negotiations with Israel, in either a bilateral or multilateral framework? Or that Hamas will agree to accept the results of a referendum on any agreement Abbas reaches with Israel?

Of course the odds against anything good resulting from a Palestinian unity government are very big. But so were the odds against toppling Mubarak, or, for that matter, creating the Jewish state. Shouldn’t the Hamas-Fatah accord at least be given a chance, a careful and cautious test? And if the answer is no, then what is the alternative?

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