The revolutionary upsurge in the Arab world has caused no little stress in Washington, but until Wednesday (27 April), it was reassuring in at least one way: Palestine hardly figured among the protesters’ list of complaints. For many Western journalists in Tahrir Square, this was a sign of a newfound Egyptian political ‘maturity’, as if it were immature for Egyptians to be concerned about a blockade of their Arab neighbours that was partly facilitated by their own government. True, the question of Palestine was not entirely absent – Egyptians made plain their displeasure with the blockade, and with the sale of natural gas to Israel at a discount by Hussein Salem, one of Mubarak’s cronies who has since fled the country – but it was not prominent, either.
Washington and Tel Aviv also found it reassuring that the revolutionary wave did not reach the shores of Palestine. In both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, small demonstrations in support of the protests in Egypt were broken up by security forces, without much difficulty. Mahmoud Abbas and his associates in the Palestinian Authority didn’t want to see the overthrow of Mubarak, a close ally; Hamas wanted regime change in Cairo, but couldn’t say so openly in case Mubarak survived: Egypt controls the border at the Rafah crossing. The Palestinians have no shortage of grievances but grievances do not make a revolution, and the Arab Spring appeared to be passing them by.
On 15 March, however, things began to change, with the emergence of a citzens’ movement opposed to the rift between Fatah and Hamas, which has come to dominate Palestinian political life, so much so that resisting the occupation has at times seemed like an afterthought. For the last four years, Hamas and Fatah have appeared content to police their separate fiefdoms, and outside parties – the US and Israel above all, but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia – were only too happy to encourage their divisions. But on Wednesday in Cairo, the leaders of both factions, under significant popular pressure, signed a unity agreement, ending four years of strife and civil war. Israel, not surprisingly, is unhappy. Binyamin Netanyahu has attacked the PA for choosing peace with Hamas over peace with Israel; Shimon Peres described the accord as ‘a grave mistake’, and warned that the upcoming Palestinian elections could lead to a ‘terror organisation ruling both Gaza and Judea and Samaria and the triumph of Hamas’ policies’ – not to mention the dangerous spread of Iranian influence.
The Cairo agreement is not a revolution; it is a settlement between ruling parties keen to hold onto power in their respective realms of influence. Fatah and Hamas will set up an interim government, before elections are held in roughly eight months. Implementing the agreement will not be easy, as both parties seem to understand, which is why they haven’t tried to set up a unified security force. This should avert potential clashes in the short term but could lead to problems further down the line: there couldn’t be separate Fatah and Hamas security forces in an independent Palestinian state. Nevertheless, the agreement is a major step, as there’s no hope of a struggle for independence, much less a state, without national unity.
Both Fatah and Hamas know that the popular mood is running against them. Palestinians are frustrated by the lack of progress towards statehood, a result not only of Israeli intransigence but also of factional strife; and there is a widespread perception that both leaderships are less interested in pursuing independence than in preserving their own power. The regional balance of forces, moreover, has shifted in favour of Palestinian unity: Egypt, which brokered the accord, is no longer trying to undermine Hamas, as it did when Omar Suleiman was intelligence chief; under its new, plainspoken foreign minister, Nabil al-Arabi, Egypt’s transitional government has moved to open the Rafah crossing and to restore full diplomatic relations with Iran. Hamas’s allies in Egypt, the Muslim Brothers, are no longer banned, and they will help to shape Egyptian policy on Israel-Palestine. Hamas, for its part, is said to be anxious about the unrest in Syria, its home-in-exile, and may be looking for a new base of operations in the Arab world.
The agreement is arguably one of the first diplomatic fruits of the Egyptian revolution. But Barack Obama also deserves some of the credit. Abbas has been humiliated by Obama, and he is clearly angry. As he told Newsweek, ‘It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder, and he removed the ladder and said to me: “Jump.” Three times, he did it.’ The Obama administration also urged Abbas to oppose a draft UN Security Council resolution demanding that Israel ‘immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory’. ‘It’s better for you and for us and for our relations,’ Obama told Abbas by phone, before enumerating the sanctions Palestinians would suffer if the vote went ahead, and warning that Congress might not approve $475 million in aid. In fact, there was little the PA could do to advance Palestinian interests that wouldn’t have put US aid at risk: soon after the unity agreement was announced, Washington chimed in with Tel Aviv’s denunciations of Hamas as a ‘terrorist organisation’, and three members of Congress, led by the House foreign affairs chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, threatened to cut off aid.
But Obama may have done Abbas a favour: by revealing in the starkest terms the unconditional nature of US support for Israel – and how slender the rewards are for being America’s man in Ramallah – he has forced Abbas to do something that, for once, may win him some Palestinian goodwill. And he may just be able to sell the agreement – in other words, the inclusion of a party that has not renounced violence or recognised Israel – to the EU, which has become increasingly exasperated with Obama’s timidity on Palestine. The unity agreement may turn out to be a bluff, Abbas’s way of reminding his patrons that he has other options, and that they can’t simply ignore Palestinian interests. But perhaps Abbas and the old men in Fatah are at last rediscovering the virtues of self-reliance.