The Future of the Palestinian Unity Government

Here it comes, the dull ache we’ve all been waiting for: Hamas and Fatah have agreed on ministers to run the Palestinian Unity Government.

Called the Mecca agreement, it’s the plan to get Hamas and Fatah working together. All that’s left is for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to approve the government. I hope I’m wrong with this prediction, but I can’t see the unity government as being anything other than a Band-Aid that will get dirty over time and fall off, leaving the same old wound exposed again.

Two weeks ago, when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to Israel, she held a briefing for a handful of reporters including myself. In that conversation, Rice kept saying the U.S. would not pass judgment on the new government until it is actually formed.

But, unspoken words bubbled up between the lines. The U.S. and the rest of the world were hoping that somehow in the period between agreeing on the unity government and actually forming it, Hamas would get flexible in its refusal to meet the three benchmarks laid out by the international community. By now, you’ve heard them. The Palestinian government must:

1) Recognize Israel
2) Recognize past agreements
3) Renounce Violence.

If the government meets these conditions, the U.S. and EU will start sending aid back into the territories, and the parties can start negotiating for a Palestinian state.

Hoping this will happen is against probability. Hamas cannot get flexible. Their constituency voted them into power with a charter that calls for the destruction of Israel. Albeit, their rise to power did not come so much from a popular revolution, somuch as from their opponent’s (Fatah) terrific mismanagement of the campaign. But, Hamas still got the votes by saying they would do away with their Jewish neighbors, which precludes Hamas from recognizing Israel’s legitimacy. The other benchmarks really fall under that umbrella, despite Hamas giving some weak language toward “respecting” past agreements.

There was a window during which Hamas could have used the unity government as a tool to put proxies in central positions to do their bidding with the outside world, while remaining hell bent on Israel’s destruction. But months ago, leaders Mahmoud Zahar and Khaled Meshall came out and publicly refused to accept a government that recognizes Israel. That’s easy for Meshall to say. He’s exiled in Damascus and eats a nice meal every night. Zahar lives in Gaza and witnesses each day the resulting economic strangulation.

Aside from the Taybeh brewery and news outlets, there just isn’t much besides aid that brings money into the Palestinian economy. The laborers who used to cross into Israel to work largely lost their jobs during the second intifada and were replaced by migrant labor from the Far East. The aid blockade stopped government paychecks that go to one third of the breadwinners in the Palestinian territories. However, all retail business is dependent on those government paychecks. Now, 80 percent of the 1.4 million people in the Gaza strip are receiving food aid from the world food program. Four out of five Palestinians live below the poverty line, and 34 percent of Palestinians suffer from “food insecurity,” which defined by the WFP means living on less than $1.60 per day. Defined by me, it means sending your kids to school hungry and giving them a lousy meal of hummus and bread at night.

The current state of affairs can be maintained until somebody gives. If you were born in the Gaza strip, you’ve been miserable for decades. What are a few more years? Food and medical aid will show up. No one will live well, but no one will starve. The strategy of Hamas is to bargain with the misery of its supporters and wait for the resolve of the international community to break down. It’s working. Russia has already broken step with the quartet of Middle East negotiators (The U.S., EU, UN and Russia) and said the aid blockade should end in light of the agreement for a unity government. Russia doesn’t contribute money. The U.S. and EU do, and if the Palestinian government doesn’t meet their conditions, sympathy is the only factor compelling the West to send money.

Unable to meet the benchmarks and break the aid blockade, the agreement for a unity government was able to accomplish only one goal: In the short term, it stopped Palestinians from killing each other. However, when the ache begins to throb, anticipate a return to Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence. The mechanism for factional fighting was built into the Palestinian government back when Yasser Arafat ran the show. The Fatah party was in charge, and therefore anyone who got a government job was a Fatah loyalist or a good friend of a Fatah loyalist. Now all the police officers who don’t get a paycheck are Fatah. The reason they don’t get paid is the radical stance of Hamas, which has its own “executive force” of about 6,000 strong, increasing to 12,000 — and they are better armed than the police.

There is little trust between rival forces in the field. Israeli intelligence says Hamas is stockpiling weapons, either for a clash with Israel or for another round of fighting with Fatah. A security expert at Al Quods University says, “The Mecca agreement may look good, but on the ground it’s not doable.”

I had a meeting today with the head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency, Yuval Diskin. He said the wounds caused by this latest round of violence run deep, “Blood revenge will continue long after the Unity government is formed.”

Secretary Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert say they wish to maintain an open channel of communication with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, despite the fact that he now speaks for a government which includes Hamas. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, an Abbas Loyalist and Fatah member thinks the Palestinian President can bargain with clout because he is the head of the PLO, which is still the umbrella organization over the Palestinian Government: "All the agreements signed since Oslo were with the PLO not the Palestinian Government.”

Erekat says Abbas “was given the mandate by Hamas to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people.” With Abbas and Fatah operating in the minority Diskin disagrees with Erekat: “Hamas will not let him move forward on any agreement with Israel.”

You hear Rice and other leaders refer to the “Political Horizon.” No one can expect to make any real progress in the short term. They can try to start shaping up the long-term goals like how to divide East Jerusalem, the Holy sites, and what to do with Palestinian refugees. Then they can sit and wait for something to give before taking the first step toward any of those goals.

Mike Tobin is a foreign correspondent for FOX News Channel based in Jerusalem. You can read his bio here.

Michael Tobin joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 2001 and currently serves as a Chicago-based correspondent.