Dr. Khalil Shikaki 

The agreement signed on 8 February by Fateh, represented by President Mahmud Abbas, and Hamas, represented by the head of its political bureau Khalid Mishal, in Mecca to form a national unity government represents a return in Palestinian political culture to the traditions of dialogue and consensus building that guided most of the history of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). It represents recognition that neither Fateh nor Hamas, when acting alone, can deliver effective governance or enforcement of signed agreements withIsrael. However, as in all previous efforts to moderate Palestinian politics, consensus building produces only limited and gradual, though steady progress. Instead of searching for faults in the text of the agreement, the international community needs to nurture it by fully engaging the national unity government. As the case was with the Palestinian nationalist movement in the 1970s and the 1980s, only such an engagement can create an environment conducive to more moderation.

Instead of demanding an iron-clad guarantee that the national unity government headed by a Hamas prime minister would fully commit itself to agreements signed by the PLO, President Abbas opted for the more ambiguous term of “respecting signed agreements.”  In Mecca, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas changed his hierarchy of priorities. Up until recently he viewed the immediate and complete lifting of financial sanctions and diplomatic boycott as his top priority. Now, however, aborting civil war became his top priority. Moreover, the Saudi role was important: political support of the country closest to the US means that the US reaction could not be very hostile even if it did not like the agreement. Maintaining Saudi-American alliance in the face of terrorism and Iranian threat, he probably calculated, would prevent the US from rejecting the deal outright.

But as importantly, Abbas is not Arafat, the man who turned Palestinian politics in the second half of the 1990 into authoritarianism. He could not rule by dictate. As he did when he was first elected in January 2005, Abbas sought Hamas’s cooperation in arranging a ceasefire with Israel by integrating it into the formal political process, an integration that eventually led to its electoral victory. But it was not the dictates of electoral politics that led to the Mecca Agreement; Hamas already has a 60% majority in the parliament. Instead, it was the recognition of both Fateh and Hamas that the alternative to mutual compromise is continued bloodshed. Consensus building, not electoral politics, will now dominate Palestinian politics. This is a positive development that needs to be encouraged because it is the most effective means of bringing Hamas into the larger Palestinian and international consensus on the need for a two-state solution to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

There are other reasons to view the Mecca Agreement positively. First, it is not a bad deal. Hamas dropped its insistence that the government's "respect" for PLO-Israel agreements and commitments be conditioned by its own definition of what is in Palestinian interest. The Mecca Agreement now "commits" the government to all PLO National Council and Arab Summit resolutions. This includes the National Council’s 19th session, referred to specifically in the Agreement, which explicitly endorses the two-state solution and recognizes the state of Israel. It also includes the Beirut Summit which endorsed the Saudi initiative with its conditional recognition of and normalization of relations with Israel. Second, without a deal, violence would have continued and public polarization increased. Israel would have been dragged into the conflict and Fateh would probably have lost out to Hamas in Gaza even if Abbas remains in control in the West Bank. Public opinion would not have been able to understand why Fateh and Abu Mazin rejected such a deal. Abu Mazin would have been weakened considerably and his ability to negotiate with Israel would have diminished.

Third, the agreement brings Fateh and its allies (like Salam Fayyad) to power in a power-sharing mechanism that does not give Hamas a majority vote. Yes, Hamas can bring the government down by a vote of no confidence, but by initiating such a process, it would be blamed for its outcome, i.e., civil war. Hamas is likely to think twice before voting the unity government out of office if it remains opposed to holding new elections. Control over money will be in the hands of Abu Mazin and Fayyad who enjoys the confidence of the US andIsrael. Fourth, Abu Mazin will emerge much stronger domestically than before. In any area of cabinet responsibility, a disagreement in the government leaves Abu Mazin, the referee, in charge. This will apply most importantly to matters related to control over security services, but can also apply to conflicts related to the functioning of the judiciary, foreign policy, and public finance.

Fifth, Abu Mazin will emerge stronger in negotiations with Israel. While part of a national unity government with him, Hamas will not have a free hand to "frame" any deal he makes with Israel as "treason." Of course, this means he needs to bring Hamas into the consultation process, but this can only mean that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would become more rational.

Ultimately, this is a good deal because only a coalition of Fateh and Hamas has the capacity and willingness to enforce law and order domestically as well as a ceasefire with Israel. Most likely, it will quickly lead to the release of the imprisoned Israeli soldier and to the extension of the ceasefire to the West Bank. Only such a coalition has the capacity to neutralize Islamic Jihad, war lords, and other spoilers. Finally, at the regional level, the deal will reduce Hamas' ties with Iran and strengthen its ties with Saudi Arabia. Without Hamas on board, the ability of the Saudis to confront the threat of Iran and Shiites in Iraq, Lebanon and the Gulf would be reduced.