The agreement between Fatah and Hamas may not last very long. The last agreement, in 2007, failed and led to increased violence between the two groups—and finally to Hamas’s coup in Gaza. Hamas and Fatah militants have been killing each other for decades and reconciliation seems more a ploy for public consumption than a serious goal.
But the deal will have extremely harmful effects that deserve attention. To understand them one must remember the tripartite division of roles in Palestinian politics. Fatah is a political party and movement, whose chairman is Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian government is the Palestinian Authority or PA, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The PLO is the organization that negotiates with Israel as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," so recognized by the United Nations. The PLO is headed by … Mahmoud Abbas.
The agreement that has been announced is solely between Fatah and Hamas, and President Abbas has lately been saying that it will have no impact on the government run by the PA or the negotiations handled by the PLO. This cannot be right, and herein lie several great problems.
For one thing, this party-to-party agreement has already caused the end of the current PA government, and seems to require the departure of Prime Minister Fayyad. Fatah officials hate Fayyad because he has been the guarantor of fiscal probity. Few donors will trust Fatah to avoid old habits and escape corruption if Fayyad is gone. Hamas officials hate Fayyad because he is the real leader of the PA security forces, which have been trained by the United States in recent years. Those forces have established a working relationship with Israel's own, and together they have fought to stop terrorism in the West Bank. With Fayyad gone, PA financial agencies and PA security forces lose the man who has insisted on principled and effective work.
How is it possible that, in the context of this new agreement, President Abbas and the new prime minister will order PA security forces to continue to attack Hamas terrorists? How likely is it that cooperation with Israeli counterterrorist efforts will be maintained at the same level? It seems inevitable that the PA forces will step back, as their political masters order them to avoid creating confrontations. As the American effort to train PA forces is based on the assumption that they will fight terrorist groups like Hamas, our training program may come to an end. And far more important, of course, terrorist groups may reclaim lost ground in the West Bank.
The other change worth noting is that Hamas has never been part of the PLO, but has always seen conquering it as part of the long-term Hamas plan to take over. The new agreement appears to call for reconfiguring the PLO over the next year, permitting Hamas to enter the PLO and run in PLO elections. This is a grave development. How can negotiations be conducted between Israel and a PLO that contains a viciously anti-Semitic terrorist group dedicated to its destruction?
It is in this context that Israeli complaints that Abbas has chosen peace with Hamas over peace with Israel must be understood. Some argue that these are steps toward the ultimate moderation of Hamas, and its substitution of politics for terror. There is no evidence for this view. The argument that the IRA did the same thing is wrong in so many ways: to take only two, the IRA was not religiously motivated as Hamas is, and in any event gave up terror only when it had been conclusively defeated by the British Army.
This agreement between Hamas and Fatah may break down in months. Nevertheless it does great damage to any hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace, for now and in future years.
Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.