A Palestinian reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah was spurred on by the winds of change blowing through the region, says Middle East expert Riccardo Bocco.
The accord that will be signed on Wednesday in Cairo by representatives of Fatah and Hamas provides for the formation of a caretaker government and paves the way for presidential and legislative elections within a year.
Switzerland has expressed its satisfaction at the agreement and acknowledged “the central role” taken by Egypt in the negotiations.
The accord “should advance the process of democratisation and respect for human rights over the whole territory”, according to a foreign ministry statement. But reaching a permanent ceasefire on the ground is still an outstanding priority.
To gauge the likely repercussions of this new Palestinian accord on the peace process, swissinfo.ch talked to Riccardo Bocco, a Middle East expert at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
swissinfo.ch: What is your reading of this accord, which has come as a surprise to many observers?
Riccardo Bocco: The negotiations that were going on had been stalled until the beginning of 2011. The events of the Arab Spring have just sped things up, pushing Hamas and Fatah to get together.
What has happened in Egypt has alarmed not just the Israelis, who were always able to count on the support of [ousted president Hosni] Mubarak, but the Palestinians too. There have been several demonstrations by young Palestinians which indirectly called into question the legitimacy of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and of Fatah as the people’s representatives on the West Bank.
What is now happening in Syria, on the other hand, raises worries for Hamas, seeing that support from Damascus could start to waver.
That said, we should keep in mind the stated ambition of [Fatah leader] Mahmoud Abbas to declare a Palestinian state at the United Nations meeting scheduled for September. For Abbas, it is that much harder to come forward with a credible proposal knowing that the PNA only controls the West Bank.
swissinfo.ch: Could this accord be the beginning of a new era for the Palestinians?
R.B.: The accord is due to be ratified by Abbas and Khaled Meshaal of Hamas in the next week. I would prefer to be cautious, because a lot could happen between now and then.
In the past we have seen agreements almost complete or ready to be signed and which were then cancelled. Not just because of internal dissensions, but also because of outside interference, mainly from Israel and the CIA. It’s no secret that after the accords of 2007, the United States armed a Fatah force of 500 men who entered Gaza with the objective of eliminating Hamas.
swissinfo.ch: Judging by the declarations of Israeli Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, who called on the PNA to choose between peace with Hamas or peace with Israel, the agreement is destined to fail before it is even implemented.
R.B.: We really need to wait and see what the precise contents of the agreement are. It will be interesting to see what position Hamas takes: will it renounce violence and agree to recognise the state of Israel? From a purely strategic point of view, Hamas may be ready to make concessions, as long as there is some reciprocity - they too want to be recognised.
Netanyahu has of course no interest in a united Fatah and Hamas. He has no real desire to make peace. He would be happy with a form of economic peace which would not involve the creation of a Palestinian state. As long as there are internal divisions among the Palestinians, Israel can point to the fact that there are no negotiation partners representative of the whole Palestinian people.
I am not trying to defend Hamas here, but we are looking at two kinds of terrorism: Hamas kills Israeli civilians, and Israel carries on its own state terrorism targeting the Palestinian civilian population. Getting out of this dilemma will require political will which only the United States can provide.
swissinfo.ch: In what way are the protest movements in the Arab world likely to influence the Middle East peace process?
R.B.: If the processes of change presently going on, particularly in Egypt, yield positive results - for example with the adoption of political pluralism - this will continue to give an impulse to processes of democratisation in other countries.
Israel will find itself in difficulty once it is no longer able to claim that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. At that point, one might begin to wonder about the kind of "democracy" that really exists in Israel, a country which discriminates against its Palestinian minority and which occupies another state using processes of colonisation.
swissinfo.ch: Switzerland is one of the few western countries to engage in dialogue with Hamas. Could its mediation role now increase in importance?
R.B.: To the best of my knowledge, there was no direct Swiss involvement in this latest Cairo agreement. I don’t know what role Swiss diplomacy will have in future, but I feel proud of what it has accomplished so far.
When there was that boycott of Hamas in 2006, Switzerland was one of the few to engage in dialogue with the new administration. The Swiss government’s position is an intelligent one. To boycott Hamas, as the Americans and Israelis did, just sends a message to al-Qaida and other extremist groups that following the path of democracy to achieve power gets you nowhere. And what was the result? Many of them have just kept up the armed struggle.
Palestine: a people divided
Two factions have been disputing control of the Palestinian territories: Fatah and Hamas.
Fatah is the secular political movement founded in 1959 by Yasser Arafat. Until 2006 it was the main Palestinian organisation. The party, which controls the West Bank, is led by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). For Israel, this is the only reliable partner in the peace process.
Hamas is an Islamic-inspired movement founded in 1987 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Regarded as a terrorist organisation by many western governments, it refuses among other things to recognise the state of Israel. At the last elections (2006), found to be free and fair by observers, it won most of the seats in the PNA legislature. It then took control of the Gaza Strip.
The tensions between Hamas and Fatah which emerged after Arafat’s death intensified after the electoral victory of the Islamist party.
Apart from both claiming power, the two parties disagree on preconditions for opening a dialogue with Israel.end of infobox
Israel: Israeli leaders rejected the Palestinian unity deal saying it could destroy prospects for peace. It ruled out negotiations with any Palestinian government that includes the Islamic militant group.
United States: The Obama administration has reacted coolly to the Hamas-Fatah announcement. It insists that any future Palestinian government must renounce violence, respect past peace agreements and recognise Israel's right to exist.
European Union: top European diplomat Catherine Ashton greeted the unity deal with caution, stressing the need to promote peace. She said the EU would study the details of the agreement.
UN: Middle East envoy Robert Serry expressed “great interest” in the accord and hope for a “reconciliation that favours peace”.
(Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee), swissinfo.ch