OPINIONS

Sat 17 Feb 2024 7:57 pm - Jerusalem Time

A reformed PLO that includes Hamas is the only hope

BY MITCHELL PLITNICK

A reformed PLO that includes Hamas and other Palestinian factions will revive for many Palestinians the idea that the PLO still supports the right to resist. While this outcome remains a long shot, it is the only way forward with a positive future.

Recent reports suggest that Hamas and Fatah are working with mediation from several Arab states on a deal that would allow for a technocratic “government” for Palestine, that Hamas would accept the principle of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, and that it would join a “revitalized” Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). 

This is an old refrain, one that has been heard many times before. And, just as with all of those other times, there are serious obstacles that would need to be overcome for such an arrangement to materialize. Immense skepticism is warranted. Indeed, even more than that, these plans are wrapped up in a wider effort by the United States, along with Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the Palestinian Authority (PA), to formulate Biden’s unachievable pipe dream of ending the Gaza conflict, freeing all the hostages, creating a Palestinian state and reaching a comprehensive agreement that includes normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

That is just another of Biden’s delusions. The idea that such a monumental agreement could be forged without Israel’s acquiescence or even its involvement is absurd. More than that, Israel could easily destroy the entire arrangement simply by moving forward, as it has already begun to, with its plan to bring down its military might on Rafah. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it abundantly clear that he has no intention — indeed, no incentive — to veer from that murderous course. 

 

But the talks could still matter. Different aspects of the negotiations are being dealt with along different tracks, and one of those is the effort by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to forge a deal between Hamas and Fatah for a revamped Palestine Liberation Organization and a technocratic Palestinian Authority, which would pave the way for a government of all parties. 

This is, of course, a familiar and worn-out refrain, as repeated efforts at unity governments have failed completely. But at this moment, with the massive devastation Israel is bringing to Gaza and its crackdown in the West Bank, there is every reason for these two major Palestinian factions to find a way to finally come together. 

That Qatar and Saudi Arabia are said to be mediating the process holds some promise. The Saudis are likely to hew to a U.S.-Israeli line on any “day after” agreement for Gaza that forbids the involvement of Hamas. But the fact that they’re working with Qatar on this implies that they recognize the reality that any plan that attempts to freeze out Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other armed factions — as the U.S. and Israel are certain to insist — is going to fail before it ever gets started. 

If that kind of pragmatism exists on the Saudis’ part, there could be hope for this mediation. 

The key factor for Hamas and Fatah is their helplessness on their own. 

“No one can govern Gaza without Hamas, and Hamas can’t govern without the legitimate Palestinian government,” one Fatah official told Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab. “Therefore, this is a badly needed marriage that neither side can reject.”

Put another way, on the so-called “day after,” Hamas will still be embedded in Gazan society, and its network, built over nearly two decades of administering the Strip, will be key to reassembling Gazan society. While the Fatah official’s choice of terms — the “legitimate” Palestinian government — reflects their own political view, Hamas will need Fatah and its relationships with major Arab states and its cache with the West to rebuild. Qatar won’t be able to support Gaza’s administration by itself as it had before October 7.

The Israeli-American hurdle

This doesn’t represent as huge a departure for Hamas as it might seem. Seven years ago, Hamas formally accepted the idea of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. The agreement was never recognized or in any way addressed by Israel or the United States. 

The argument against that new Hamas charter was that the same charter still laid claim to all of historic Palestine and still called for the right of return to all of the places from which Palestinians had been expelled in 1947-49. Of course, those same people didn’t seem to mind that David Ben-Gurion had the exact same attitude regarding a nascent Jewish state being a first step to securing all of Greater Israel, eventually, accommodating a mass influx of Jews from all over the world. 

More recently, the original Likud charter from 1977 plainly states, “between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.” While the charter has been revised to give Likud political leaders a bit more wiggle room, that principle was never revoked. In January, Likud leader and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explicitly stated that he would tolerate no Palestinian control of Gaza, and has been equally explicit about all of the area of historic Palestine, saying that his “insistence is what has prevented — over the years — the establishment of a Palestinian state that would have constituted an existential danger to Israel.” 

“As long as I am prime minister,” Netanyahu said, “I will continue to strongly insist on this.”

None of this has ever prompted an objection from any United States president. The double standard between Israel and the Palestinians is as familiar as a sunrise. Yet, if Arab states are serious, they will accept a formulation where Hamas and other, more militant, groups maintain their own individual ideologies just as political parties do all over the world without that necessarily being the government’s stance. 

The recent failure of CIA Chief Bill Burns’ mission to Cairo showed that Israel has no interest in ending its genocide campaign in Gaza. Despite the fact that Israeli operations in Gaza have probably led to the deaths of dozens of their hostages and the fact that negotiations have freed well over 100 of them, Netanyahu has made it clear that he will only settle for the kind of operation — a dangerous rescue mission carried out under the cover of yet another massacre — that he pulled off last Sunday.

That attitude is sure to extend to an outright refusal to deal with any Palestinian government that includes any element of Hamas. 

It’s an open question whether the Qatari-Saudi work with the Palestinian factions can succeed when the broader American plan fails, as it certainly will. But if it does bear fruit, we must then see if the Saudis will be willing to stand by a Palestinian unity government in the face of American rejectionism. Much will depend on the calculus at the time for the Saudis. If they feel acquiescing to the Americans will get them the defense pact and nuclear support they want from Washington, they will drop the Palestinians like a hot potato. 

If, on the other hand, they believe that, by standing by the Palestinians, they can wrangle some kind of long-term Palestinian independence or at least enough of it to allow them to take credit for a major victory, and still be able to exchange normalization with Israel for the goodies they want from the U.S., they will be all in. 

That’s actually quite possible because if a resolution acceptable to the Palestinian people is arrived at, despite the kicking and screaming from the U.S. and Israel, an American president, from either party, will still have the same political incentives to broker normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel. And Israel, if Palestinian freedom is a fait accompli, will have every reason to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia.

What makes this attempt at Palestinian unity different?

The exiled former prominent Fatah leader, Muhammad Dahlan, detailed a good deal of this in an interview with the New York Times. Dahlan remains well-connected to people in Hamas and to many within the Fatah party, including those who support Abbas and those who oppose him. 

Dahlan echoed the sentiment that the Arab states are trying to find a way for the end of the Gaza slaughter to begin an inexorable path to ending the constant confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians, which they define as a two-state solution. Crucially, and in stark contrast to the Biden administration’s approach, the Saudi-Qatari effort, as he described it, has focused on brokering agreements among Palestinian factions rather than dictating to them what the outcome should be. 

Dahlan also dismissed Israeli objections, a strong indication that these discussions are taking place within a framework of understanding that Israel and the U.S. will reject what will come out of them. That consciousness bodes well because any success in bringing the factions back together will depend on defying the United States and Israel.  

A chance at unity

The immediate imperative for Fatah and especially for Hamas is to stop the slaughter in Gaza, and the fact is, this “day after” plan, even if it is successful, is not going to do that. On the contrary, it will only deepen Israel’s sense that all Palestinians are an implacable enemy, a view which we can rest assured the Biden White House will echo like a faithful choir.

But it would dramatically shift the political landscape for the Palestinians. The initial new PA would be a technocratic government. A revamped PLO that includes all the major Palestinian factions will be welcomed, even if only quietly, by much of Europe, the entire Arab and Muslim world, and the United Nations. 

Pragmatically, a PLO with Hamas in it is exactly what is needed. It will revive for many Palestinians the idea that the PLO, even if it mainly pursues diplomatic resolutions, still supports the right to resist, a stance many see as empty rhetoric on the rare occasions that Abbas and his allies mention it at all. That will give it a lot more legitimacy. And it will mean the Palestinian polity more broadly can begin to move away from a hopeless choice between a feckless and corrupt Fatah and an authoritarian and Islamist Hamas. Those parties will continue to be a significant part of Palestinian politics, but there will be room for more options, both from within Fatah and Hamas and from outside them.  

The fact that this realignment and reform of the PLO won’t help stop Israel’s onslaught only changes things if you believe that anything can stop that onslaught, short of massive, impactful external pressure, which does not appear to be forthcoming, although there have been a few hopeful signs. There is no evidence to suggest that Israel is going to stop until Netanyahu is either forced from office or believes he has secured his position by completing his genocidal program. The only alternative to those possibilities is Americans making enough trouble for Biden and the Democrats for them to at least temporarily shut off the flow of arms. 

But Israel’s barbaric behavior has already angered millions around the world, many of whom either used to support Israel or had not paid much attention to it. That makes this moment particularly opportune for a unified Palestinian leadership to finally coalesce and start to channel the considerable popular support it has all around the world, including even in the United States. 

Some may argue that the two-state format this unity plan features remains a fantasy. I would agree. But moving toward something more realistic will require a major paradigm shift, and that, in turn, will require a Palestinian leadership that includes all aspects of Palestinian society. This plan can provide that. It is, again, not likely to succeed because of the serious obstacles in its path, not the least of which is the enmity between Fatah and Hamas. If one were betting on the outcome, a positive one would carry very long odds. But in this moment of hopelessness, long shots coming through are what is required. And it never hurts to hope.

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A reformed PLO that includes Hamas is the only hope

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