Hamas and Fatah, rival political factions in the Palestinian territories, turned heads this week by agreeing to form an interim unity government under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But skeptics say the deal could fizzle like many previous attempts at reconciliation. Kojo explores the external pressure to make this work and the many challenges that still lie ahead.

Guests

  • Hussein Ibish Senior Research Fellow, American Task Force on Palestine
  • Robert Blecher Director, Arab-Israeli Project, International Crisis Group

Transcript

  • 13:06:45

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast with a new director, how the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is evolving, but first, five years after a brief factional war separated the West Bank and the Gaza Strip politically, a deal announced yesterday brings them a step closer to reconciliation.

  • 13:07:28

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn an agreement brokered by the Emir of Qatar and signed in Doha, the two rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, agreed to set up a unity government and prepare for general elections. The deal follows a reconciliation agreement last May that stalled over disputes about leadership. This week, both sides agreed that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would head the interim government.

  • 13:07:56

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIOptimists say the agreement could reunify the two Palestinian territories that split after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, but skeptics warn that many a prior deal has fizzled and this one could, too. Joining us in studio to discuss this is Hussein Ibish, senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. Hussein Ibish, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:08:23

    MR. HUSSEIN IBISHIt's a pleasure, Kojo, thank you.

  • 13:08:25

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Ramallah is Robert Blecher, director of the Arab-Israeli Project at the International Crisis Group. Robert Blecher, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:36

    MR. ROBERT BLECHERIt's good to be with you.

  • 13:08:36

    NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, what do you think a unity government would mean for Palestinians? Call us at 800-433-8850. Send email to us at kojoshow@wamu.org. Send us a tweet at kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Hussein, I'll start with you. Hamas and Fatah, which operate separate governments in the Gaza Strip and West Bank respectively, have agreed to form a single government for both territories. Mahmoud Abbas will be president and prime minister until elections can be held. Why is that significant?

  • 13:09:13

    IBISHWell, if it takes place, if it's actually enacted, it would change the entire Palestinian political landscape, but it would depend entirely on the terms. I mean, first, we don't know if it actually will be enacted because as you noted in your introduction, there have been many agreements to agree and many announcements of elections that have been scheduled and unity governments that were supposed to be formed that never were and there are real reasons for that.

  • 13:09:41

    IBISHThere are huge disagreements that look, at least in theory, almost unbridgeable between Fatah and Hamas. They differ on almost everything and they are rivals for national leadership. And the other thing, of course, is that we don't know the terms under which this would take place. The idea, for example, of President Abbas also serving as prime minister is difficult to reconcile with Palestinian basic law.

  • 13:10:08

    IBISHThere's nothing specifically that prohibits it, but, you know, it's hard to imagine a prime minister reporting to himself as president and there are already people in Hamas who are objecting to it on those grounds and on many other grounds as well.

  • 13:10:26

    NNAMDIRobert Blecher, you are in Ramallah, as we mentioned, in the West Bank, about six miles north of Jerusalem. It's the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority. How are people there reacting to news of this agreement?

  • 13:10:41

    BLECHERWell, most people are reacting along the lines that Hussein laid out. I think that there's a pleasant surprise because people were not expecting the news that came out yesterday to come out. In fact, even the respective factions that are led by Abbas and Meshal, as you said, there was only very minor consultation so a lot of people have been surprised.

  • 13:11:07

    BLECHERSo beyond the surprise, there is a lot of hesitation and skepticism that this actually could be implemented because as we just heard, there have been many false starts. Last night on television here, there was a montage showing all of the smiling faces of the leaders as they walked out of meeting after meeting over the last five years, smiling and holding hands and those have all fallen apart so there's a suspicion that this one will, too.

  • 13:11:36

    BLECHERI think that the one factor that gives some people a little bit more optimism about this one than past agreements is that the two leaders, Mahmoud Abbas and Khaled Meshal, seem to have found each for their own reason a reason to move forward in partnership with the other leader.

  • 13:11:59

    BLECHERThat for Khaled Meshal, he sees himself at the head of the Hamas movement and he wants to see Hamas integrate into (unintelligible) and he in fact would ultimately like Hamas and him at the head of Hamas to assume the leadership of that organization. And I think for Mahmoud Abbas, I think he would like to shore up his internal front as he moves forward and contemplates elections and either taking another stab at a new round of a new political process to achieve an agreement or even possibly departing the political scene.

  • 13:12:32

    BLECHERSo I think both these people have personal incentives in moving forward. I think the question is whether the terms can be negotiated properly and whether they can bring their movements along with them.

  • 13:12:44

    NNAMDIHussein Ibish, any idea about the reaction in Gaza since the Hamas leader who signed this agreement, Khaled Meshal, lives in exile? I'm wondering how people in Gaza feel about his making this deal for a unity government.

  • 13:12:56

    IBISHWell, there have already been some pretty angry comments by Hamas leaders in Gaza and I agree completely with what Robert was saying just now. The first thing I'd like to note is that another reason for taking this more seriously, I don't know if optimism is the right word, but expecting this to be more than just the Kabuki show of the past is that the Emir of Qatar has brokered this and that implies that there is real regional heft and indeed money behind it and so you would think that there is some significance.

  • 13:13:30

    IBISHThe fact that they've moved their talks to Cairo also suggests that they want the Egyptians to buy into the process as well so, you know, it looks like rather than just being sort of backed by a single party, it looks like a regional move. Now, the particular crisis that Hamas has, I mean, definitely there is a kind of a conundrum facing the PLO and President Abbas as well, which is much less severe than that facing the leadership in exile of Hamas and specifically Khalid Meshal and the politburo.

  • 13:14:08

    IBISHThey have an identity crisis. They have a branding crisis. For the past decade, they've been associated with two separate trends in the Middle East that are parallel and never sat that well together. They are a core Muslim Brotherhood Party, a Sunni Islamist group. They were also very much part at the same time, and uniquely, of the Iranian Alliance, which includes Syria and Hezbollah in Iran and it is essentially a Shiite alliance.

  • 13:14:38

    IBISHAnd this is a very strange arrangement, but it worked because of money and because of a notion that there was an "axis of resistance," in quotes, as opposed to an axis of moderation or accommodation, however you want to put it. Now, this has broken down completely in the context of the Arab uprisings. The whole region is splitting along sectarian lines and it's no longer possible for Hamas, a Sunni Islamist organization, to remain in Syria when the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria is a core part of the group that's trying to overthrow Al-Assad and no longer possible for them to have the same degree of relationship that they have with Iran.

  • 13:15:16

    IBISHWhat's really interesting is that while Meshal has been doing this outreach to Jordan, to Qatar, to Egypt and to the other Arab Sunni States, Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of Hamas in Gaza who represents the internal leadership in Gaza, which I think is not as comfortable with this arrangement as the external leadership, went to Iran, I think, to see if he could shore up any kind of support.

  • 13:15:43

    IBISHSo you really might be seeing a fairly dramatic split within the movement. It depends on how much resources the internal leadership can muster and how much will they have to try to resist this. But there's no doubt that for the past year and particularly now, they feel that the external leadership is protecting its own interests and running up a large political bill on the credit card at the expense of the internal leadership, which doesn't have the crisis of needing new patrons, needing a new headquarters, having to have left Damascus.

  • 13:16:16

    IBISHThey're sitting pretty in Gaza. They have all the guns, they're in control. They don't face the same kind of crisis so there is a really bitter, I think, divide in that movement right now.

  • 13:16:25

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking about the agreement reached between the two factions of the Palestinian movement, Fatah and Hamas, and whether or not that agreement is likely to stick. In our Washington studios, Hussein Ibish, senior research fellow with the American Task Force on Palestine and joining us by phone from Ramallah is Robert Blecher. He's director of the Arab-Israeli Project of the International Crisis Group.

  • 13:16:53

    NNAMDIYou can call us, 800-433-8850. Do you think the West is going to support a Palestinian government that includes Hamas? 800-433-8850. Robert, you heard Hussein refer to the fact that this agreement was brokered by the Emir of Qatar. How have pressure from neighboring countries and the changes brought on by the Arab Spring shifted the political calculations for both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in your view?

  • 13:17:22

    BLECHERWell, I think the Arab Spring has been enormously important. I think we can divide up this most recent period of reconciliation maybe in two parts. The first is what happened back last spring. I think, as you said, there was an agreement that was signed at the end of April, beginning of May and that was the direct result of the changes in the region.

  • 13:17:50

    BLECHERThat for Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, they felt that the regional ground was shifting beneath their feet, that their allies all around them, Egypt, Jordan, were shifting and that they could no longer count on the same kind of regional support as they formerly had been able to. Meanwhile, Hamas, while initially feeling boosted, all of a sudden had to confront the fact that its host in Damascus was under an enormous amount of pressure.

  • 13:18:18

    BLECHERAnd so, as Hussein said, they felt like they needed to shore up other bases of support because it wasn't clear how long they were going to be able to stay. And in fact, it was just a couple of days ago that the last of the Hamas leadership actually did leave Damascus. So I think with both parties feeling the (word?) they felt like they had to move forward.

  • 13:18:38

    BLECHERI think that the most recent burst over the last couple of weeks comes from the fact that, on the one hand, you have the competition within Hamas that Hussein was talking about, in that I think Hamas, as a whole, sees itself as more in the Muslim Brotherhood camp than the Iranian camp, but there are different voices within the movement about how it should be interacting with the Brotherhood.

  • 13:19:07

    BLECHEROne voice, the regional voice, the Khaled Meshal voice, says we need to be part of this Muslim Brotherhood, which is a regional movement and Khaled Meshal has his ear very acutely tuned in to the regional dynamics. The folks on the ground in Gaza see that there is a green wave rising, rising all around them and they feel, given the fact that the region is shifting to our benefit, why would we make any concessions at this point when if we just wait, it will all come to us in good time.

  • 13:19:43

    BLECHERYes, things are difficult on the ground for us, yes, we've had to increase taxes locally and that's putting people under pressure and causing them pain, but the difficulties they feel are survivable so it's a different kind of orientation. And I think, just to finish the story, for Mahmoud Abbas, the most recent push, you know, part of it is his own personal considerations, as I said earlier. But part of it really does have to do with both the carrots and the sticks that's blocked by Doha. The carrot is the money, which you mentioned. And there's been a lot of fear about who is going to fund the Palestinian Authority if they form a reconciled government and their Western sources of support dry up.

  • 13:20:29

    BLECHERAnd there sits the carrot. The stick is that Qatar has come to play a very important role, especially in the post Arab Spring moment. It's a very small kingdom. It has an awful lot of oil money and it needs that money to broker deals. And it has been in touch with the Muslim Brotherhood all over the region. And right now given the weight that Qatar has been able to amass for itself you don't really want to get on the wrong side. So when you put all of that together I think that's why you have the developments that are going on now.

  • 13:21:06

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will talk about how the West is likely to react to this deal if this deal is consolidated. You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:23:24

    NNAMDIBack to our conversation about the new deal reached between Hamas and Fatah in the Middle East. We're talking with Robert Blecher. He is Director of the Arab-Israeli Project with the International Crisis Group and Hussein Ibish, Senior Research Fellow with the American Task Force on Palestine. I'll start by going to the phones. Here is Galeal (sp?) in Chicago, Ill. Galeal, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi Galeal, can you hear me?

  • 13:23:53

    GALEALI can hear you now, yes sir. How are you, Kojo?

  • 13:23:55

    NNAMDII'm well. Go ahead, Galeal.

  • 13:23:57

    GALEALI'm calling thankful -- to let it be known I'm thankful of this alliance and I think it bodes well for that region. And with the Palestinians being on the brunt of severe abuse and outright indignation, I'm hopeful that this can continue onward. My only concern and trepidation that I have, Kojo, is that I know that America -- the government of America doesn't like this. And typically and historically, they have been one to interfere and throw the rock and hide their hand.

  • 13:24:31

    GALEALSo I'm hoping and praying that they will let this budding relationship bode well for that region so that we can get some clarity and some peace allowing it to reign supreme over there. But I'm not hopeful of America -- and I'm not optimistic of America leaving it be.

  • 13:24:46

    NNAMDIGaleal, thank you very much. Hussein Ibish, not surprisingly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the agreement saying if Abbas chooses to join up with Hamas he's abandoning the path to peace. But the real question is one Galeal raised in some respects, how the West will react and whether it will pull the $1 billion in aid it gives to the Palestinian Authority each year. Will a government that includes Hamas be a deal breaker for the U.S.?

  • 13:25:13

    IBISHIt depends, I think, entirely on the terms. So we don't know under whose terms this is going to be. And I think, obviously, it's true that the United States would be much more comfortable dealing just with Fatah and the PLO and the PA and particularly with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad whose future is thrown into some doubt now.

  • 13:25:37

    IBISHOn the other hand, it depends on the conditions. If you had the emergence of a government that has Hamas imprimatur, but it doesn't have Hamas members in it, or a government that maybe has some people affiliated with Hamas in it, but that exceeds to the Quartet demands and these international demands on Hamas that are basically the benchmark for their sort of legitimacy in the eyes of the West, which are to accept the two states...

  • 13:26:06

    NNAMDINon-violence, recognizing his real upholding previous agreements with Israel and the West.

  • 13:26:09

    IBISHThat's it. Exactly. Well, and even I think they could get away with doing what Prime Minister Netanyahu has done, which is I don't think they necessarily even have to recognize Israel, but they have to accept the goal of a two-state solution. That would put them in exactly the same category as Prime Minister Netanyahu who -- Israel has never recognized a Palestinian state, but they accept at least in theory that the goal is a two-state solution.

  • 13:26:31

    IBISHSo if the government did agree to that, the EU has already announced that they would support and continue to fund a new Palestinian government that agreed to those terms. On the other hand, there might be sort of a resignation at this point about the American role and the Western role, especially on the part of President Abbas, in the sense that everything he's tried from his point of view has failed. The U.N. bid was blocked. The negotiations have fallen apart. The settlement freeze was not extended and was never really thorough.

  • 13:27:08

    IBISHAnd so from his point of view he might be looking for Arab options. The difficulty of this gamble is that American and European aid has been consistently delivered, whereas Arab pledges have been inconsistently delivered. So it's a bit of a risk, but, you know, the fact that they're doing this under Qatari auspices means that they might have a new source of income.

  • 13:27:32

    NNAMDIMight be plugged into some money. Robert Belcher, there are some fundamental differences between Fatah and Hamas about what Palestinian society should look like. They have very different views on the use of violence and the role of religion in society. Can they overcome those differences enough to run a government together?

  • 13:27:52

    BLECHERWell, I think your question goes to the philosophy behind a reconciliation agreement. I think that for several years now there have been two different ideas about how Hamas-Fatah should do reconciliation. One idea has been that you start with administrative and institutional issues and measures and you try to build on those. And over time, the two territories, the West Bank and Gaza that have been sundered will be able to grow back together. The political movements will get to know each other once again and they will be able to come with a unifying national agenda.

  • 13:28:34

    BLECHERI think that there's a second idea or second philosophy that looks at that first philosophy and says, come on. There are fundamental differences between these two movements and you just alluded to some of them. What we need to begin with is a new political program. We need to get together to establish common keys of action. And only on that basis will we be able to knit together these two territories. Because if we try to do it with such a wide divergence of ideas, any attempts to undertake small cosmetic institutional reform is going to fail.

  • 13:29:13

    BLECHERSo I think so far, it's been the first idea that has been pursued by talking about forming a government. That is, they're talking about the (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:29:25

    NNAMDII'm afraid I'm going to have to interrupt you, Robert Blecher 'cause we're running out of time. But I'm glad you got to the point where they're talking about forming a government. Because my final question to you, Hussein Ibish, is what should we be looking for next? The plan now is apparently to put together a government of technocrats who are not aligned with either faction to get ready for elections in May.

  • 13:29:44

    IBISHYeah, I mean, several things to look for. First of all, what is the -- first of all, do they form a government or not, 'cause they haven't. So do they do it? If they do, who's in it? You know, is there a role for Salam Fayyad? Is Abbas really going to serve as both president and prime minister? Are Haniyeh or any of the Gaza-based Hamas leaders going to have a formal role or are they just going to give their imprimatur to this?

  • 13:30:10

    IBISHThe more ambitious things beyond forming a government, which was always conceivable within the context of the relationship that exists now, are very risky for the reasons we've talked about but conceivable. The deeper questions are can they possibly organize and hold elections under these circumstances? Hamas has blocked those and Fatah hasn't been that keen on them either in the past.

  • 13:30:32

    IBISHAn even more tricky question is, what is going to be the relationship between the security services? Because the security services are really, you know, totally separate. And particularly given Hamas' ideology and the commitment of its Qassam Brigades, even in the face of talk by its political leaders about nonviolent resistance and peaceful resistance, a lot of them remain committed to armed struggle or at least the rhetoric of armed struggle.

  • 13:31:01

    IBISHSo reconciling the security forces and having them come under some kind of responsibility of people like Abbas who are, you know, has a career based on being opposed to violence is going to be the very trickiest thing. So those are the benchmarks, I think.

  • 13:31:19

    NNAMDIThank you very much for joining us. We've got to take a short break. Hussein Ibish is Senior Research Fellow with the American Task Force on Palestine. Hussein, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:31:28

    IBISHThank you very much, Kojo.

  • 13:31:29

    NNAMDIRobert Blecher is Director of the Arab-Israeli Project and then -- with the International Crisis Group. Robert Blecher, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:31:35

    BLECHERYou're quite welcome.

  • 13:31:37

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, the new Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on how that theater is evolving. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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