Unity deal meant to delay an Arab spring in Palestine

Palestine is ripe for a revolution. How do we know that? Because the two rival governments that have so spectacularly failed that hypothetical country are finally ending their four-year-old breach and getting back together. Or at least that’s what they say they’re doing

Palestine is ripe for a revolution. How do we know that? Because the two rival governments that have so spectacularly failed that hypothetical country are finally ending their four-year-old breach and getting back together.

Or at least that’s what they say they’re doing.

The reconciliation took place in Cairo on Wednesday, when Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (which controls the West Bank), and Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas (which controls the Gaza Strip), signed an agreement to form an interim government to rule both parts of the would-be country.

“We forever turn the black page of division,” said Abbas in his opening remarks.

The two men went further than that. They agreed that no member either of Hamas or of Fatah (the movement that is Mahmoud Abbas’s political base) could be part of the interim government.

That government would pave the way for free elections next year in both parts of the disjointed proto-state that would really restore Palestinian national unity. Or so the deal says.

But Fatah and Hamas still hate each other, and they haven’t actually made a single compromise on the key areas where they disagree, like the question of whether to make peace with Israel.

Most observers still doubt that the gulf between the two sides can ever be bridged. So why would they even bother to sign such a “unity” accord?

Because they are both running scared.

They have seen what happened to other oppressive and/or corrupt regimes in the Arab world as the “Arab spring” has unfolded, and they are afraid that a comparable revolution could drive them from power too.

Fatah, after all, is very corrupt and quite authoritarian, while Hamas is less corrupt but extremely repressive and economically incompetent to boot.

There have already been large popular demonstrations in the Palestinian territories, although they have not been widely reported.

The protesters’ main demand is “national unity”, but there is good reason to suspect that many of them actually have a broader agenda.

Like the Syrian demonstrators demanding the repeal of the 48-year-old “state of emergency” in that country, when what they really want is the end of the regime, many of the Palestinian protesters are using “national unity” as a popular call when what they really want is the end of both Fatah and Hamas.

So Fatah and Hamas are giving them what they say they want, in order to avoid having to give them what they really want. But it is a shotgun marriage at best, and most unlikely to last.

The real question is whether the Palestinians will ignore all this window-dressing, and rise up like their Egyptian neighbours to rid themselves of the arbitrary and corrupt governments that now rule them.

The answer is probably no, because the felt need for “unity” in the face of the Israelis usually cripples Palestinian attempts to address the failings of their own institutions.

Indeed, the biggest short-term consequence of the “Arab spring” for the Palestinians may be another Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, or even a full-scale re-occupation of that territory, because the new Egyptian government plans to reopen its border with Gaza very soon.

Before Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was deposed, Cairo fully cooperated with Israel in enforcing a tight blockade of the Gaza Strip. Once the border with Egypt is re-opened, Israel fears, the extremists who regularly fire rockets into Israel from the territory will have access to an endless flow of weapons.

Trying to shut that border down again would immediately embroil Israel in a conflict not only with Hamas but with newly democratic Egypt. That would certainly not be to Israel’s long-term advantage, but that doesn’t mean they won’t do it.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book, Crawling from the Wreckage, was published in Canada recently by Random House.