Donald Macintyre: New realism pervades Hamas-Fatah negotiations

Israelis are willing to negotiate with a coalition including Hamas if it brings peace
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The Independent Online

Given that it is less than four years since the brief but savage civil war between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza, it may not be that surprising that only now do the two factions appear on the brink of reconciliation. It is not the first attempt, and it is still possible it will founder as the others did. But the signs are that this time the negotiators on both sides, along with the Egyptian mediators, are more serious than they were before.

The "Arab Spring" has helped. With Hosni Mubarak and his intelligence henchman Omar Suleiman out of the picture, the Egyptian authorities almost certainly felt less constrained about brokering a deal that the US, at least as much as Israel, didn't want. Hamas's exiled leader Khaled Meshaal may well have worried about being forced to make an uncomfortable choice between his host President Bashar al-Assad and those Syrians seeking to overthrow him. Indeed it was Hamas who were the first to signify to Egyptian mediators their willingness to repair damage caused by previous breakdowns.

And it is symbolic that young Palestinian activists in Gaza conducting their own micro-spring – with some courage given that the mid-March demonstration they organised was suppressed by Hamas police – were agitating for just such a reunification, one undoubtedly sought by a very large swathe of the Palestinian public.

The question of how the West reacts is not just academic, given Ramallah's intention to seek a UN declaration endorsing a Palestinian state broadly on 1967 borders later this year.

True, much needs to be clarified, not least for the many players who were excluded from a process which was kept unusually secret until Wednesday. These include Washington and several prominent figures in Fatah, along with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Who will be in the interim government? Will Hamas continue to be responsible for security in Gaza, and Fatah in the West Bank? What, if any, will be Hamas's role in the PLO, which actually negotiates with Israel, when there are negotiations? And will, as some Western diplomats fear, the premiership be wrested from Mr Fayyad, who has his enemies in Fatah as well as Hamas, but has done more than any single Palestinian politician to prepare for statehood?

Unconcerned with these niceties, some senior US legislators are already vying with each other to denounce any rapprochement with Hamas. For some of Israel's "friends" in Washington the split was a good reason for scepticism about an Israeli/Palestinian peace deal, and the attempt to heal it an even better one. It may be that President Obama will be pushed – possibly against his own instincts – more easily into opposing the Palestinian UN move if the deal goes ahead. That will be the hope of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he prepares to travel to Washington to address Congress and, it seems, to use such a deal as a reason for ending any hope of negotiations.

European leaders are so far avoiding such immediate denunciations, perhaps conscious of how swiftly they were forced by Washington into boycotting Hamas after it won free elections in 2006.

Problematic as it is, Hamas is not going to go away, which is one reason why polls have shown a majority of Israelis willing to negotiate with a coalition including Hamas if it leads to a lasting peace. And why, despite obstacles, the prospects of such a peace may in the long run be greater with a Palestinian polity which is not at war with itself.

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