Reconciliation: encouragement or hindrance to peace?

By Harry Hagopian
8 May 2011

The Prime Minister of Israel, Benyamin Netanyahu, believes that the unity pact between the two Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas was “a tremendous blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism”.

So not only does he decide to punish the Palestinian Authority by withholding two-thirds of its annual revenues, he also busily hammers home this point to our Western leaders in the UK first, and then in France and the USA.

What urged him to come out with this latest staggering piece of political prescience is of course the fact that the Ramallah-based Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority and chief of Fatah, and the Damascus-based supremo of Hamas, Khaled Mash’al, “resolved” to bury the hatchet with a remarkably pithy agreement after four years of bloody feuds.

While I have often advocated that Palestinians are weaker when divided than when working together, I must admit that I too have my misgivings. I fear that the ideological gap between those two main factions is far too wide to bridge with a handshake - or even a hug - in the face of the existential realities facing Palestinians today. After all, one only has to consider the diametrically dissimilar stances adopted by both sides to the killing of al-Qaida’s icon by the Devgru Seal Team Six unit.

However, this pact enjoys overwhelming Palestinian grassroots support and is only a ‘technocratic’ deal anyway that should lead to fair and free presidential and legislative elections. So what we are doing here at best is to reel time back to 2006, when Hamas won the legislative elections and then formed a short-lived coalition with Fatah, but was eventually barred from holding power largely because it did not fit into Israeli and Western designs for democracy.

Moreover, much as I do not easily subscribe to Hamas theology, I subscribe even less easily to Likud ideology. In fact, Netanyahu’s statements are not only a desperate attempt at punching holes into this unity pact, but more so at forestalling the possible adoption by the UN General Assembly in September of a motion recognising Palestinian statehood.

So while any such Resolution will be non-binding and might not garner wide Western support, Netanyahu is still trying to emasculate any outcome that would remotely challenge his clever ploys at prevarication.

But the Israeli Prime Minister remains dwarfed by the real significance of the Arab Spring. He is still a tactician at best with precious little strategic foresight. With Israel economically prosperous, he seems oblivious to the fact that the world surrounding him is ebbing away from autocracy (when his assertions might have made some sense) toward an openness that hails for a leader with vision rather than a diminutive man who is both eloquent and brilliant in the artifice of spin, but who has resisted any attempt to espouse either vision or courage throughout his many rodomontades with political power. In fact, he has consistently refused to meet history halfway, let alone grasp it by the scruff of the neck.

Later in May 2011, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches initiates a series of events when Israeli and Palestinian activists will highlight the several Israeli settlements built illegally upon occupied land as much as the separation wall that snakes through Palestinian land. They will also focus upon the restrictions on access by Palestinian Muslims and Christians to their places of worship in Jerusalem, the demolition of Palestinian homes for the sake of expanding settlements and the denial of the most inherent human rights for a people under 44 years of occupation.

I would argue tenaciously that Israel should enjoy every security in any future settlement. Besides, I would also admit that Palestinian history is chequered with gaffes and mis-steps that have constantly thwarted their attempts at sovereignty or independence. Their bloody adventures in Jordan and Lebanon, as much as their own internecine feuds, have at times made them their own worst enemies.

However, in pressing for the UN to recognise their statehood - even minus a peace treaty with Israel - the Palestinians appear finally to have discovered a strategy that has checkmated the Israeli government.

Contrast Netanyahu’s stellar parvanimity with a region whose citizens are painstakingly struggling for personal dignity, justice and freedom. With Hosni Mubarak no longer in power, the Palestinian Authority has lost its chief sponsor. For Hamas, an Egyptian government that is more in tune with public opinion, when coupled with a more assertive Muslim Brotherhood that represents Hamas’ parent organisation after all, augurs well for better bilateral relations too.

Besides, the embattled Syrian regime that had offered safe haven to the Hamas leadership for a decade now expects overt signs of loyalty and support. So tilting toward the more significant Egyptian option could prove the safer bet for both parties.

Accepting the Cairo-brokered deal might turn out to be a first step that not only weakens any Gaza-based Salafi jihadist groups such as Tawhid and Jihad (alleged killers of Vittorio Arrigoni), but also enfeebles an Iran that has used Mubarak’s regime as a foil and whose regional weight will deflate with the rise of a credible Arab counter-model.

In the mid-1980s, members of the Israeli government sought to weaken the PLO by strengthening Islamists who then went on to form Hamas. Yet leading Israeli security officials now acknowledge that this was a grave error.

So as Israelis prepare this month (May 2011) to celebrate their independence, and as Palestinians lament their corresponding Nakbah, or refugee catastrophe, will the Israeli Prime Minister strive to stymie those irenic efforts once more by fuelling confrontation rather than fostering reconciliation?

Also, will we in the West - in the USA most essentially, but also within the EU - aid and abet such ill-judged and expansionist designs? Or will we look at the message of those Middle East and North Africa uprisings and spurn at long last the politics which primarily run against our own interests?

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net

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