The Palestinians zealously celebrated last week's unity deal between Hamas and Fatah. Young men in both the West Bank and Gaza cruised around in their cars, honking and flashing the victory sign out of their windows. There was dancing, singing, and firecrackers. Indeed, the civil war between the two most powerful Palestinian factions appears to have ended.
But the deal should nonetheless concern Washington. This deal with Hamas – which recently criticized America for killing Osama bin Laden – signals that Fatah no longer believes U.S. recognition and support are essential to their national aspirations.
For five years, Palestinian diplomats have been quietly and successfully lobbying Latin American, Muslim, and European nations to recognize an initiative for a unilateral declaration of independence. The Palestinians envision that state occupying the West Bank and Gaza territories outside Israel's pre-1967 borders. The plan is to declare that state at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2011, where some 140 states will (presumably) recognize it.
Until last week it appeared that the Palestinian Authority, led by Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, was eager to secure U.S. approval for this bold initiative. It also appeared that President Barack Obama supported the plan, in spite of half-hearted statements to the contrary by State Department officials. Beginning in the spring of 2010, Obama found numerous opportunities to upbraid the Israelis for building in the disputed territories that Palestinians sought to claim for their future state. He even upgraded the Palestinians' diplomatic mission, apparently in anticipation of the move.
Yet, the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is a blow to U.S. policy, and makes it more difficult for Washington to support a Palestinian state. Washington rightly regards Hamas as a terrorist organization, and has banned official recognition of the group for its decades-long involvement in attacks against Israeli civilians. This effectively prevents Washington from endorsing any government that involves Hamas, and further sets back decades of Palestinian efforts to rehabilitate their global image.
In 1988, then-PLO leader Yassir Arafat recognized U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which acknowledged Israel's sovereignty and its right to exist. This opened the doors for the Oslo Process, in which the Palestinians assembled the bureaucratic building blocks for their national project. A decade later, in 1998, the Palestinians amended the PLO charter, erasing all calls for the destruction of Israel. This put the Palestinians one step closer to statehood.
When Arafat chose war with Israel over President Bill Clinton's far-reaching peace deal in 2000, statehood seemed a distant dream. But after Arafat died in 2004, the Palestinians again appeared eager to restore their image. Fatah leader Abbas, alongside Palestinian prime minister Salaam Fayyad, began rebuilding the institutions the war had destroyed. Abbas and Fayyad looked even more worthy of U.S. support after Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Fatah in a brief but brutal civil war in 2007.
The resulting split with Hamas made it easy for the West to cast Fatah as peaceful and pragmatic. Though Fatah maintained its own terror apparatus (the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades) and continued to incite hatred for Israel via their official media, the U.S.-Palestinian relationship thrived. Washington stood up a Palestinian military force in the West Bank and the U.S. contributed more taxpayer funds to the Palestinian Authority than ever – some $600 million – even as Americans were climbing out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Now, the Obama administration has little choice but to cut ties with the new Palestinian interim government. The State Department lists Hamas as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, barring all formal diplomatic engagement with it. The Treasury Department also lists Hamas as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity, banning direct U.S. aid all institutions in which Hamas is involved.
Abbas knows this. So, his decision to embrace Hamas was a deliberate choice to run around Israel and the United States. Rather than slog through thorny issues with Israel under American-led negotiations, he will unite the West Bank and Gaza under a symbolic umbrella government of technocrats, then pursue a unilateral declaration of independence, followed by an international legal campaign to "reclaim" land that was never in history a self-governed Palestinian polity.
Abbas likely feels that he has little to lose. For all of Obama's talk of settlement cessation, he has not been able to deliver any of the disputed lands that Palestinians claim for their own. Meanwhile, Obama has not been able to bring about his stated desired outcome in a host of neighboring countries: Libya, Iraq, and Egypt are obvious examples. Hamas appears to be on the ropes, with its sponsor Syria in crisis. In addition, Hamas doesn't want Fatah to declare a state without its inclusion. This was at least part of the calculus behind Abbas's decision to reconcile with Hamas.
Abbas, however, appears to have made three critical miscalculations:
First, Fatah's partnership with Hamas simply cannot last. Apart from their enmity toward Israel, the two factions agree on almost nothing. Even at the heralded unity conference, Abbas and the Syria-based Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, refused to sign their names to the deal; proxies signed for them. The two factions also continue to arrest and obstruct loyalists from opposing parties.
This brings us to the second point. Israel has been defending the West Bank from Hamas advances since the civil war in 2007. With Hamas now a political partner to Fatah, Israel's leadership could refuse to come to Fatah's defense. Thus, Israel's military, intelligence, financial, and civic support to the West Bank may soon dry up. At the very least, the Palestinians should brace for a significant drop in support.
Finally, even if the U.N. recognizes a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, a lack of U.S. support will create political and financial challenges that may smother the state in its cradle. Already, 29 senators have asked Obama to turn off the spigot of aid to the Palestinians. And even in the Obama era, with the United States showing less assertiveness on the world stage, the Palestinians need America and its robust foreign policy assistance.
Though Fatah and Hamas may have temporarily reconciled themselves to one another, the Palestinians will eventually need to reconcile themselves to Washington. As long as Hamas is in the picture, it won't be easy.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former intelligence analyst at the U.S. Treasury, is vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave Macmillan 2008).