Despite reports this week that Hamas and Fatah are renewing talks about possible reconciliation, there are still huge obstacles to the creation of a unity government that will bring Gaza and the West Bank back under a single Palestinian Authority. But as long as that is a possibility, the Obama administration needs well-thought-out contingency plans for a development that would pose major international and domestic political challenges.
U.S. conditions for talking to Hamas are well known and are unlikely to change. They include recognition of Israel’s right to exist, adherence to prior agreements and a renunciation of violence — not easy steps for a group steeped in terrorism and hatred of the Jewish state. Yet Hamas, too, is feeling the backwash from the protests sweeping across the Arab world, and popular pressure for reunification is rising.
A weak Fatah leadership has good reason to fear Hamas, but it may also see a unity government as a necessary precursor to its rumored goal of bypassing negotiations with Israel by seeking United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood this fall. This week a PA official said it might be willing to forsake U.S. aid if it meant reunification.
While the obstacles to unification are many, it is critical that the Obama administration be prepared to answer some difficult questions. Under what conditions, exactly, might Washington begin treating Hamas as a legitimate partner in any new peace process? Since talk is cheap in the Middle East, what proof would it require that Hamas has, in fact, genuinely given up its goal of destroying Israel?
Given its long and bloody history and the extremism of its leaders, we hope the threshold for embracing Hamas would remain very high.
The administration also needs to anticipate how reunification might affect relations with an Israeli government with good reasons to be skeptical about any Hamas claims it has transformed itself into a legitimate political entity.
And how would Washington respond to pressure from allies across the region and in Europe that might be a bit too eager to accept at face value Hamas claims that it has renounced its bloody affinity for killing Jews?
Hard questions, all. The Bush administration failed to anticipate the Hamas victory in 2006 Palestinian elections, thus providing the terror group with a huge political boost; we hope the current administration will be better prepared for the next developments in the unending Middle East drama.