(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Still reeling from Israel’s normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Palestinian leaders have fallen back on their hoariest, least convincing talking point: national reunification. Fatah and Hamas, the dominant parties in the West Bank and Gaza, respectively, say they have agreed to hold a general election, the first in 15 years. This, they say, will allow them to form a united front in opposition to Israel.
There is virtually no chance any of it will actually happen. This latest proposal will almost certainly fade away, just like all previous promises. There was talk of national unity in 2011, and a Fatah-Hamas pact in 2014 to form a combined government—and that’s to name just two failures. There haven’t been legislative elections since Hamas’ 2006 upset win, and Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas has ruled as president of the Palestinian Authority since his four-year term expired in 2009.
Neither Fatah nor Hamas has demonstrated any real interest in healing the fractured Palestinian body politic. Over the past decade, each has become well-entrenched in their own fiefdom, where it rules and consumes resources without effective opposition.
In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority receives tens of millions of dollars in annual aid from the international community. (This, even after President Donald Trump ended American aid to Palestinians last year.) Although the PA stopped all dealings with Israel in protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans for annexation of large swathes of the West Bank, it can still lay claim to the taxes Israel collects on Palestinian imports and exports. With annexation off the table at least through 2024, the PA will find a way to resume dialogue and once again get the tax revenues.
Meanwhile, at Israel’s behest, Qatar regularly deliver bundles of cash to Gaza to meet payrolls and keep the economy afloat there.
Both sets of leaders can live with the current arrangements, despite the hardships they impose on the Palestinian population. If the Palestinian parties keep talking up the idea of national reconciliation, it is because, no matter how cynical and unconvincing, these performances are useful. The Palestinian public and their supporters around the world want unity, and promises of unity relieves some of the pressure on both parties. They also help to satisfy donors and the international community. For Fatah and Hamas, these promises are a substitute for having no governing policy at all.
Obviously, national reconciliation is essential to Palestinian interests. But it’s not possible to fit the square peg of Fatah’s secular-nationalist goal of a two-state agreement with Israel into the round hole of Hamas’ Islamist rhetoric of armed struggle until complete victory. There is a long history of bad blood — and actual bloodshed — between them. Pretty much the only thing the two sides agree on is that they are all Palestinians.
There have been repeated efforts in recent years to secure a limited national reconciliation to address the humanitarian and political crisis in Gaza. These were pushed mainly by Egypt, which regards Gaza as a ticking bomb attached to its northeast and the source of considerable instability in Sinai. But even with lots of regional and international buy-in, it couldn’t be achieved.
Hamas agreed to relinquish control of the border crossings and government ministries to the PA, but would not discuss disarming its militia. Fatah leader and Palestinian President Abbas feared he was walking into a trap where he would have all the responsibility for the population, but none of the power and not enough money, leaving Hamas in a position akin to that of Hezbollah in Lebanon, with its own army, as well as foreign and defense policies. Abbas was also loath to let Hamas operate freely in the West Bank.
A bold national leader might have been willing to take these risks in order to extend his authority and reunify his people, but Abbas let the fractured status quo continue rather than try to outwit and outmaneuver his rivals.
And what of elections? After years of misrule, neither Fatah nor Hamas can be confident of a strong mandate. It is hard to imagine either will risk the embarrassment of a poor showing on its own turf, even allowing for the prospect of gaining some ground on the other side.
Conveniently, there is no shortage of others to blame when desultory efforts at national reconciliation falter and elections fail to materialize. The two sides can blame each other, of course. And both can and will finger Israel.
If a national vote is unlikely, it is just possible to imaging a limited election in the West Bank, conducted by the PA. Such an exercise would be useful, even if Hamas won’t reciprocate in Gaza and Israel won’t allow East Jerusalem to participate. It would at least show that Palestinian elections are possible and that one side, at least, is interested in gaining popular credibility, even in a limited area. It means risking the possibility of a Hamas win, but the Palestinian national crisis is so dire that there’s no rational substitute for letting the chips fall where they may.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.