There are repeated efforts to forge a unity agreement of some sort between Hamas and Fatah, leading to a new "unity government" for the Palestinian Authority. Such a coalition was briefly in force in 2007 after the Saudi-sponsored Mecca Agreement. It quickly broke down into violence and led to the Hamas coup in Gaza. What would it mean today?
One immediate effect of such an agreement would be a new PA cabinet in which Salam Fayyad would no longer be prime minister. Fayyad’s presence has meant, first, transparency and a struggle against corruption. His departure almost guarantees that the integrity of the PA’s books and finances will decline. But Fayyad as prime minister not only oversees the books; he also oversees the security forces. What were once thirteen armed gangs reporting to Yasser Arafat is an increasingly professional sector, keeping order in the West Bank and working well with the Israeli army and police against terror. With Fayyad gone, it is predictable that the PA services, including the American-trained police, will tend to become more corrupt and more political, serving the interests of Fatah or of certain Fatah leaders.
At a deeper level, a unity agreement would bring Hamas into the PLO and thereby compromise the PA’s and PLO’s commitment to fight terrorism and seek a Palestinian state without violence. Since the death of Arafat in 2004, the PA and PLO have abandoned terrorism and spoken out against it. But consider two recent statements [courtesy of Palestinian Media Watch], made days apart in December. First, PA president and PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas, talking about negotiations with Hamas:
we established some foundations for an agreement. Among these foundations - first, Hamas concurs with us on the following points: the first point is that the calm and the ceasefire are [in place] not only in Gaza, but also in the West Bank - that’s one. Two - the resistance must be non-violent -popular. There will be no military resistance, honestly. And we agreed on this. The third point [was] that the permanent solution is on the ’67 borders. Hamas agreed to this, too. The fourth point - that we would go to elections in May of next year.
Second, the statement by the Hamas "prime minister" Ismail Haniyah on the 24th anniversary of the founding of Hamas:
We say today, explicitly, so it cannot be explained otherwise, that the armed resistance and the armed struggle are the path and the strategic choice for liberating the Palestinian land, from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river, and for the expulsion of the invaders and usurpers [Israel] from the blessed land of Palestine. The Hamas movement will lead Intifada after Intifada until we liberate Palestine - all of Palestine, Allah willing. Allah Akbar and praise Allah. We say with transparency and in a clear manner, that Palestinian reconciliation - and all sides must know this - cannot come at the expense of [our] principles, at the expense of the resistance. These principles are absolute and cannot be disputed: Palestine - all of Palestine - is from the sea to the river. We won’t relinquish one inch of the land of Palestine. The involvement of Hamas at any stage with the interim objective of liberation of [only] Gaza, the West Bank, or Jerusalem, does not replace its strategic view concerning Palestine and the land of Palestine."
So, the most one can say is that Hamas is willing to stop committing acts of terror for a while when that seems tactically smart, but ultimately the goal is a violent destruction of the State of Israel. How could there possibly be a peace negotiation if half of the PA government is committed to the Haniyah view?
In the past, it was sometimes possible to argue that Hamas participation in the PA did not give it a role in the PLO--and it is the PLO with which Israel is in principle negotiating. But now Hamas is on the verge of joining the PLO as well, and according to the United Nations and the Arab League the PLO is the "sole legitimate voice of the Palestinian people." So what happens when that voice is calling for Israel’s destruction? And when Hamas joins the PLO, how can the United States possibly allow the PLO to maintain its representative office in Washington?
Perhaps these negotiations between Hamas and Fatah will never bear fruit. Perhaps both sides merely wish to appear to favor "unity" while in fact neither wants it. Perhaps the elections planned for May will never take place--a reasonable bet, considering that there have been no elections for six years. Perhaps a new cabinet will be formed in Ramallah and soon collapse, as happened last time. But peace negotiations cannot occur until we know the answer--until we know the identity and intentions of those who may be governing the West Bank and may sit across the table should talks resume. So Secretary of Defense Panetta’s now famous demand "just get to the damn table" looks especially foolish today, when people who want "Palestine - all of Palestine -from the sea to the river" and say they "will lead Intifada after Intifada until we liberate Palestine - all of Palestine" may be part of both the PA government and of the PLO.