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International Affairs Editor

New Palestinian unity government faces an uncertain future

Le 07-02-2012

The once-rival Palestinian political factions signed an agreement on Monday in Qatar to form a new unity government that could end years of internal conflict. The deal between the Islamic group Hamas with the Palestinian Authority's governing Fatah party creates a new interim coalition government headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

1. What does this mean? Aren’t Hamas and Fatah at daggers drawn?

Yes and no. They’re still not the best of friends but a number of things have happened since Hamas blasted Fatah out of Gaza in 2007 to bring them closer together.

(i) The intransigence of the Israeli government on settlements and the lack of progress with the US-backed peace process have pushed Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmud Abbas to consider his options. Today, reconciliation with Hamas looks more achievable than any sort of progress with Israel.

(ii) In April last year, an agreement was reached on reconciliation and the formation of an interim government of technocrats and independents who would oversee parliamentary and presidential elections.

(iii) The Arab Spring has forced something of a rethink. The Palestinians don’t want to be out of synch.

(iv) But the fact that it has taken until now to reach agreement on who should head the interim government shows that they may still be just papering over the cracks.

2. What does this tell us about Hamas? Is it becoming more moderate?

Too early to say. To judge by the early rhetoric, not much has changed. Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza has welcomed the agreement, as has Hamas chief Khaled Mashraal, and Mahmud Abbas. They all say they’re serious about the deal. But Hamas has yet to change its position on recognition of Israel, the use of violence and acceptance of past agreements reached between Israel and the Palestinians.

3. What has Israel’s reaction been?

Negative. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Mahmud Abbas had chosen to abandon the way of peace by reaching a deal with Hamas. Others, though, may be less dismissive.

4. And the international community?

Cautious. Many recognise that reaching an accord with Israel will be well nigh on impossible if there is no Palestinian unity so, in that sense, this is a step forward. But the world will want to know the price Abbas has paid for unity - is he abandoning peaceful struggle for the more violent ways of Hamas?

5. What if Hamas really is changing?

It’s too early to say, but the conflict in Syria is certainly forcing Hamas to shift its position. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has left Damascus and is understood to be critical of the Syrian government’s assault on its own people. There is a sectarian element to this: Hamas is a Sunni Islamic movement while the Syrian government is predominantly based on the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. This is uncomfortable for Hamas at a time of growing antagonism between Sunnis and Shiites - and between Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Iran. If the Assad government collapses and the Iranian link is ruptured, Hamas will want to be sure it is on the winning side.

6. What about those elections?

If they do take place, they probably won’t happen before May, as was originally planned last year. A lot of organisation will be needed and not a little confidence building. At this stage, Hamas would have to be the favourites to win with all the implications that will have for the peace process.