The regional Islamist circumstances are changing

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The notion of integrating Hamas, and with it the Gaza Strip, into a Palestinian unity government reflects the primary trend that has thus far defined the Arab revolutionary wave: Arab Islamist movements are entering government. In this sense, Hamas’ victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections was very much a harbinger of things to come elsewhere in the Arab world. Nor, by the same token, is it a coincidence that the ruling Egyptian military government that facilitated last May’s Palestinian reconciliation agreement and is currently hosting Fateh-Hamas talks on new elections next May is also ushering Egypt’s own Muslim Brotherhood into elections and government.

This broad Arab Islamist backdrop to Fateh-Hamas contacts should not be lost on Israel and its supporters. It means that, seen as part of a greater, region-wide scheme, the integration of Hamas into the fabric of overall Palestinian government and even security may be inevitable. Certainly, it seems more likely this time around than in 2006. Then again, because the Palestinian reality is so different from the rest of the Arab world, it still may not happen.

This presents us with two basic scenarios, not only for Palestinian governance but for Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The first possibility, following on the precedents observed thus far on the Palestinian scene, is that the reconciliation process will again break down: there will be no technocrat government, or if there is there will be no elections, or their outcome will be disputed or they will quickly lead to new strife, as in 2007. Meanwhile, there will be no peace process, not only because Palestinians are busy with their own problems but because the anti-process status quo will prevail.

There is little need to elaborate on this scenario, which posits an ongoing reality of two Palestinian entities. The only real question is whether, where, and to what extent large-scale violence will return.

A second possibility is that, precisely because the Arab world has changed so radically, we will now witness successful reconciliation, at least to the point of creating a technocrat government and holding new elections. Here, too, there will be no change in the peace process deadlock at least until well after elections next May, as the electoral platforms of both Fateh and Hamas will feature their successes in defying Israel and the will of the American-led Quartet: Fateh in appealing to the United Nations for recognition and Gaza-based Hamas in surviving and improving its relations with much of the Arab world under cover of the "Arab spring".

Let us assume that Palestinian reconciliation elections produce some sort of renewed unity government. Where would this leave the peace process?

I would argue that in a hypothetical best case (for Israel’s long-term wellbeing and for peace), this process would strengthen the prospect of Israel confronting a Palestinian polity that seeks international recognition for the 1967 borders with land swaps and a capital in East Jerusalem, while maintaining security and setting aside the refugee and holy places issues. Not only does Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas justify the election move with Hamas in terms of proving to the United Nations that the government of Palestine controls all its territory (meaning Gaza) in a unified manner and therefore qualifies for state recognition. But Hamas’ extreme positions regarding Israel could hardly sustain negotiations over anything more.

In other words, it may be possible to imagine a joint Fateh-Hamas government that controls the Gaza Strip and roughly 40 percent of the West Bank offering to discuss the 1967 borders with Israel, with some form of enhanced UN recognition and broad international support. For this to happen, Fateh would probably have to gain the upper hand in Palestinian elections. On the other hand, Israel should be aware that the Quartet and others in the international community that have hitherto rejected any form of contact with Hamas may–as they increasingly confront an Arab world in which political Islam plays an active role–feel obliged to soften their approach.

This would–again, in the best case–bring us back to the concept of a "win-win" proposition that I have been advocating in these virtual pages for around a year: Israel and the Palestinians accept a post-Oslo territorial two-state solution that confirms Israel’s status as a Jewish state and provides security guarantees but does not, for the moment, seek to end the entire conflict. Confronted by Hamas’ involvement in Palestinian governance, Israel might find it easier to acquiesce in an approach that recognizes that the "pre-1967" aspects of the conflict cannot, for the moment, be resolved. So, too, might Hamas–if it could see its way, perhaps with Egyptian help, to modifying its existential rejection of Israel.

And the worst (and, sadly, more likely) case for a post-reconciliation, post-election, unity-government scenario? Hamas remains as extreme as ever and the Netanyahu government as determined as before to push its hard-line settlements agenda. Consequently, the prospect of violence grows exponentially, and with it, confrontation between Israel and the forces of Islam emerging around it.

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Yossi Alpher is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Barak. He is featured on Media Monitors Network (MMN) with the courtesy of Bitter Lemons.

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