To understand the new unity agreement between the two Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, it helps to recall the story of the village beggar and his cake.
It happened once that the village beggar asked the rabbi for a ruble to buy some food. An hour later the rabbi saw the beggar in the market, eating a slice of cake. Incensed, the rabbi rushed to rebuke him: “When I give you a ruble you should eat a meal, not cake!”
“Excuse me,” the beggar replied. “Yesterday I had no money, so I couldn’t eat cake. Today I have money, but I shouldn’t eat cake. Tell me, rabbi, when can I eat cake?”
That roughly describes Mahmoud Abbas’s Hamas problem. Ever since his Fatah party lost control of Gaza in a violent Hamas coup in 2007, the Palestinian Authority chief has been told by Israeli and Western critics that he isn’t a viable negotiating partner because he represents only half of a divided people. Whenever he’s nearly convinced Hamas to let him speak for Gaza, he’s been told he can’t be a viable partner if he’s tied to terrorists who don’t recognize Israel. How can he ever be a viable partner?
His solution has been a series of alternating negotiations, now with Israel, now with Hamas, cajoling each one toward some middle ground where they might coexist. In theory this means getting Hamas to agree to peaceful coexistence with Israel while getting Israel to grant concessions that make peace appealing to Hamas.
In practice, he’s been chasing his tail, getting nowhere. He’s forged a string of pacts with Hamas, each one touted as the big breakthrough, each one promptly collapsing over Hamas vows never to recognize Israel. The latest deal was signed in Qatar on February 6, followed the next day by the usual Hamas demurral. But this one might work.
Abbas’s efforts to win concessions from Israel have aroused deep Israeli suspicion — not surprising, considering his eagerness to partner with terrorists dedicated to Israel’s destruction.
Cynics might say Israel is stalling to avoid any concessions. In fact, former prime minister Ehud Olmert offered extensive concessions in 2008. Hamas wasn’t in the picture. Abbas didn’t make a counter-offer, partly because Olmert was facing indictment and it wasn’t clear who would replace him. Equally important, Abbas and his aides were struggling to draft a position on refugees. The Palestine Papers, internal negotiators’ memos leaked to Al Jazeera in 2011, show a Palestinian team groping for a formula that could reasonably address Israel’s needs without infuriating the Palestinian diaspora.
For all the uncertainties, though, one problem wasn’t worrying Abbas that fall: Hamas.
Hamas was on the ropes. A year after expelling Fatah from Gaza, it was economically suffocated and internationally isolated. A wave of rocket attacks on Israel in February 2008 had led to heavy Israeli air and ground reprisals. In April, the organization’s Damascus-based secretary general, Khaled Meshaal, sent a message to Washington through Jimmy Carter that Hamas would accept a Palestinian state “within the 1967 borders” and a long-term truce with Israel, “but without recognizing Israel.” Meshaal repeated the message publicly in Arabic at a Damascus press conference.