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Can the Palestinians Seal the Unity Deal?

The reconciliation agreement signed in Gaza on April 23 between Hamas and Fatah, paving the way for an interim unity government and general elections in six months, is the most significant effort to date to reunify the West Bank and Gaza under a single Palestinian state umbrella.   The deal was struck just three days before a scheduled meeting of the PLO’s Central Council on April 26, where there was to be an announcement of planned elections in the West Bank.  Had the citizens of Gaza been excluded from those elections due to the continuing Fatah-Hamas split, it would have been a further serious blow to the Palestinian movement.

The deal was also struck less than a week before the April 29 deadline, set by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for either a final status deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority or at least an agreement to extend the trilateral negotiations for another six to 12 months.  It is obvious that no peace negotiations could ever be concluded without including both the West Bank and Gaza, despite Israel’s objections.

Under the terms of the agreement, as publicly announced by Gaza Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh, a unity government will be established within five weeks, and a meeting of the PLO executive committee will be convened to give both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad membership in the organization.

If the unity agreement is finalized in the coming days, another beneficial consequence will be the resumption of the European Union Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM), an agreement signed between the European Union and the Palestinian Authority on November 15, 2005, with the approval of the Israeli government.  The agreement allowed EU monitors to assure open access to Gaza through the Rafah Crossing until it was disbanded with the 2007 Gaza-West Bank split.

The Egyptian government facilitated the unity deal by allowing Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzouk, the deputy chairman of Hamas’ political bureau, to cross into Gaza on April 21 to participate in the talks.   Abu Marzouk was in Gaza as a representative of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, who signaled his strong support for the unity deal.  Another key Hamas player in the deal was Nasser al-Shaer, a West Bank Hamas figure who was deputy prime minister in the brief unity government in 2006, and who maintains cordial relations with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

According to Palestinian sources, it is now possible that PA President Abbas will travel to Doha, Qatar, to meet face-to-face with Khaled Mashal to finalize details of the accord.

While the Obama Administration was not caught totally off guard by the April 23 unity deal, the full implementation of the unity agreement in the next five weeks will be a serious blow to Kerry’s ongoing “Mission Impossible” to keep the Israel-Palestinian negotiations going forward.  While Kerry publicly blamed Israel for deep-sixing the talks by refusing to comply with the scheduled release of Palestinian prisoners and by announcing new settlement block construction in the West Bank, the unity agreement adds a new complexity to Kerry’s diplomatic efforts.

This week, Kerry met on April 24 with a delegation of Israeli and Palestinian business leaders, who formed Break the Impasse, a business group formed at the initiative of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.   One of the leaders of the delegation, Palestinian Munib R. Masri, Chairman of the Board of the Palestine Development & Investment Holding Company (PADICO), broke off from the Break the Impasse delegation before they arrived in Washington to fly to Gaza as part of the Fatah delegation to the unity talks.  The group urged Kerry to refrain from denouncing the unity agreement.  BTI is a formidable force in both Israel and Palestine.  Its members, according to the WEF, control 30 percent of the Israeli economy, including some of the country’s most high-tech defense firms.


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