Palestinian reconciliation stalls over statehood

RAMALLAH, West Bank – The Palestinians' surprise agreement to unite their dueling governments was supposed to have boosted their efforts to unilaterally declare a state.

But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Abbas will head to the United Nations alone next month to submit a statehood bid, his unity deal with the Iranian-backed Hamas stalled – in part because Western leaders weren't eager to see this union happen.

"President Abbas was surprised by the international opposition to the reconciliation with Hamas, so he decided to slow down at least until September," a senior Fatah official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss official policy.

"Now, with all efforts focused on September, we want all voices to be with us," he said. "We are not giving the Americans or anyone else a reason to shun us because of the reconciliation or anything else."

The unity deal was struck in May after Palestinian youth, inspired by the revolts against entrenched Arab autocracies, took to the streets calling for unification of the dueling governments in the West Bank and Gaza.

Unity would let Abbas project to the world that his Palestinian Authority represents not only his West Bank base but also the Gaza Strip, which Hamas violently overran four years ago. Because peace talks with Israel were going nowhere, unity with Gaza, it seemed, could be a key building block of his case for statehood at the United Nations.

But the pact papered over long-standing disputes that had undermined previous reconciliation efforts, such as who would control the Palestinians' powerful security forces, and how to deal with Israel, whose very existence Hamas rejects. Unity talks quickly snagged – most publicly over possible international fallout over the prospective government's makeup.

Abbas insisted on retaining the internationally respected prime minister, Salam Fayyad, thinking that would ease donors' fears that their money would fall into the hands of Hamas, which the West, like Israel, considers a terrorist group. But Hamas resisted, viewing the US-educated prime minister as a tool of the West.

And because Hamas clung to its violent ideology, which inspired the killing of hundreds of Israelis, the international response to the unity deal was cool.

Israel declared immediately that it would have nothing to do with a government backed by Hamas and called on Abbas to rip up the deal. The US and European powers demanded that a unified Palestinian government renounce violence against Israel and recognize the Jewish state.

While Abbas knew he could count on the UN General Assembly, with its pro-Palestinian majority, to support his statehood bid, the endorsement would never be diplomatically significant without the backing of key Western nations with strong ties to Israel.

The reconciliation pact was therefore set aside, Palestinian officials said.

"We want a government that can assure continued international support, including support for September," said Ameen Maqbool, a member of the Fatah delegation to negotiations with Hamas.

"If we form a government with Hamas that Hamas wants, the US and Israel will get the pretext they need to create troubles for us before September, and that would affect our efforts to gain the recognition we want at the UN," Maqbool said.

At a recent meeting in Cairo, the two parties agreed to carry out confidence-building measures like releasing prisoners from the rival movement that each holds.

"Working out these small issues will lead to gradual reconciliation," said Azzam Ahmed, the head of the Fatah delegation to talks with Hamas.

But the skepticism the pact elicited upon its announcement has not faded.

Hani al-Masri, a commentator for the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, said the two parties signed the reconciliation agreement under pressure from ordinary Palestinians but did not really intend to unite.

"Abbas is not ready to share power with Hamas and Hamas is not ready to adjust its political agenda to have such partnership with him," Masri said. "Unless President Abbas abandons the peace process for good, there will be no reconciliation with Hamas, and it's clear he didn't."

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