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A “Palestinian Spring” Will Have to Wait

by Valentine Pasquesoone 

Mahmoud Abbas returned from New York a hero. Greeted by thousands of Palestinians waving flags and photos, the president of the Palestinian Authority promised the euphoric Ramallah crowd, “The Palestinian Spring has just begun.”

Abbas had just spent a week trying to convince the U.N. to recognize the state of Palestine. In Ramallah, Abbas said he carried the “hopes, dreams, ambitions, sufferings and future visions” of the Palestinian people to the General Assembly, and in Palestine at least, people believed him. Abbas’s quest for acceptance in the international community has led to a spike in his popularity at home, at the expense of his rival political party, Hamas. But any gain for Abbas’s Fatah party will likely prove short-lived as Hamas can—and will—undermine Fatah on the world-stage. Abbas’s promise of a “Palestinian Spring” will surely ring hollow as Hamas refuses to join hands with Fatah, even to push for a common goal.

In a country physically and politically divided in two parts—West Bank being controlled by Fatah and Gaza Strip by Hamas—one claim should unify the two groups: the idea, and ideal, of Palestinian statehood. But while Fatah calls for compromise and a two-state solution, Hamas refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

When Abbas took to the podium at the U.N., he could have been perceived as illegitimate, both domestically and internationally. After all, his presidential term ended more than two years ago in January 2009. If Hamas is now questioned—recent polls show that 50% of Gazans want to leave the Strip—no one can deny the fact it was elected with a strong majority.

On his way to the U.N. however, Abbas had the Palestinian people behind him. According to a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 83 percent of the West Bank and Gaza supported Abbas’s request to the U.N. Security Council for statehood. Abbas’s push for U.N. recognition has boosted his popularity—at least temporarily.

“Going to the U.N. seems to benefit Fatah, showing that it can take the initiative, and put Hamas on the defensive” says Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR).

This is something that might cost the Islamist movement politically, but only “in the short term” says Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at Georgetown University.

Democratically elected but now weakened, Hamas’s popularity has dropped by a third since it took control of the Gaza Strip in January 2006. The Gaza administration’s approval ratings now stand at only 34%. At the same time, Fatah’s approval rate has remained “unchanged” according to the PSR director, Khalil Shikaki.

Abbas’s moment in the international limelight is not the only reason for Hamas’s decline. Brown says the Islamist movement “does not seem to have a viable strategy; it seems to block national reconciliation; it seems to be governing in a heavy-handed manner; and it cannot even offer ‘resistance,’ its supposed raison d’être.

In Gaza, the Islamist government is getting “too hegemonic” explains Mouin Rabbani, an Institute for Palestine Studies visiting fellow. “It is imposing its own agenda, showing less and less tolerance to pluralism,” he says. Alain Diekhoff, a researcher at the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherche Internationale (CERI) in Sciences Po, Paris, says, “Compared to the years 2006 or 2007, both Hamas’s popular support and authority are being questioned right now.”

Hamas is in decline and Abbas is having a moment of popular support, but this doesn’t mean Abbas will be able to unify Palestine under Fatah. As Brown puts it, “There is no long-term strategy, so I do not expect the benefit to be very long-lived,” he says. Abbas “offers no viable strategy except diplomacy.”

While Abbas is expected to continue his fight for U.N. statehood, Brown says few Palestinians require any results from the president’s international diplomacy efforts. “It is not that people expect the strategy to have a direct and immediate impact on their lives,” he says.

Certainly, Palestinians supported Abbas last week even as his bid has little chance of success. He stood against the United States, which gave him “an aura of diplomatic resistance,” says Laetitia Seurat, a PhD applicant at CERI. With Abbas’s U.N. performance, Hamas can no longer accuse him as being too compliant with the U.S or Israel. What really matters is how Abbas will pursue action at a domestic level now that he’s gained something of a popular mandate.

Rabbani says Abbas has no choice but to keep pursuing Palestinian statehood, a strategy unlikely to bring about any real change in Palestine given the U.S.’s veto in the Security Council. “He has reached the point of no return. What is sure is that he will be weakened if he doesn’t continue the initiative,” says Rabbani.

Hamas leaders say their rival acted alone on the bid, and that Abbas broke a treaty between the two groups. According to the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, signed in Cairo in April, 2011, “any such initiative requires consultation and consensus” Rabbani recalls.

Hamas is now trying to take advantage of it, claiming that Abbas’ initiative does not voice all the Palestinian views. This claim “could appear as legitimate for other Palestinian factions, also opposed to the membership process,” Seurat says.

Hamas’s refusal to work with Fatah puts a wrench in Abbas’s diplomatic efforts. Shikaki says, “Hamas’s position denies Abbas the ability to demonstrate that the state, when it comes, will include both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”

Recently however, a few figures from the Islamist movement have taken a stand in favor of Abbas’ initiative. For instance, Ahmas Youssed, former adviser of Hamas leader and Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh, “publicly declared in an interview with the “Saout Falistin” radio that his faction was wrong in opposing itself to the bid for U.N. membership,” Seurat says.

Despite a splinter movement inside the Islamist Hamas party, prospects of a unified government seem slim. Until the people of the Gaza Strip kick out Hamas, the group will always be too high an obstacle for Abbas. At the moment, the prospect for elections—the easiest way for Gazans to reject Hamas—are dim. New elections “can only be held if both Hamas and Fatah agree. That does not seem likely right now,” Brown says.

Abbas might have temporarily won fans and influence at the U.N., but there’s not much he can do with it. Diekhoff says Abbas’s “objective was to arrive at the UN with a united front, with a national government.”

It didn’t happen then, and it doesn’t look likely in the future either.

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Valentine Pasquesoone is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Libertinus]

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