In a move that surprised many in Washington, last Wednesday, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement and its Islamist rival Hamas announced that they had reached an agreement to reconcile and end their seven-year rift. American commentators overwhelmingly approached the news from the angle of its impact on the already faltering US-sponsored peace talks. Unsurprisingly, Abbas's move drew furious reactions from American and Israeli officials.
What possibly could Abbas be thinking? According to some analysts, the Palestinian leader's motivation was to put pressure on the US and Israel in order to extract concessions in the negotiations. However, the Americans and the Israelis were hardly the first thing on Abbas's mind. Instead, his eye was on something much closer to home, inside Fatah. Namely, Abbas is concerned with heading off the challenge from former Gaza security chief Muhammad Dahlan. But since the Palestinian arena is subordinate to wider Arab politics, Abbas's maneuver also needs to be viewed against the backdrop of Arab dynamics and the efforts of Arab states to project power onto the Palestinian arena. The central Arab player in this sphere is Egypt, in alliance with Dahlan’s other patron, the United Arab Emirates, with Qatar the principal actor on the other side of the divide. Cairo, which has been squeezing Hamas, also seems unimpressed with Abbas and is looking for an alternative to the 79-year-old Palestinian president.
Against this backdrop, the Palestinian players and their respective Arab backers have been maneuvering for months, leading to the current convergence between Abbas and Hamas. For their part, Egypt and the UAE want to reintroduce Dahlan into Gaza and back into Fatah, and they're helping him build up his ability to reconstitute his influence.
This put Hamas in a quandary. On the one hand, the movement despises Dahlan, whom it ignominiously pushed out of Gaza in 2007. It also recognizes that if Dahlan is reestablished in Gaza with Egyptian and Emirati backing, it will most certainly be at its expense. On the other hand, Hamas is vulnerable and is in a tight spot financially. In addition, its priority is to relieve pressure from Egypt and to reach some understanding to ease tensions with Cairo. It is said that Qatar prodded the Doha-based Khaled Meshaal to consider an accommodation with Dahlan, in order to open the door for Gulf aid money and to improve relations with Egypt. No less important, the Qataris and Hamas likely understood that such a move would raise the pressure on Abbas and increase tensions in Fatah, which they then could exploit.
Beginning in December of last year, Hamas took some steps in Dahlan's direction, allowing the reentry into Gaza of some of his close associates and permitting charities run by his wife to operate. But Hamas was not about to give Dahlan and Abu Dhabi a free hand. More importantly, its modest opening to Dahlan had the desired effect on Abbas, who dispatched a delegation to Gaza in February to try and nip Dahlan's move in the bud. It was at this time that the push that led to the agreement on reconciliation began, as Hamas, especially its Gaza-based leadership, declared that partnering with Dahlan was out of the question, and that instead it was sticking with Abbas. It also clarified that if the Emiratis wanted to pump cash into Gaza, they cannot do it through middlemen – that is to say, Dahlan's people. Instead, they would need to do it under the supervision of a joint committee of the factions and the Legislative Council.
Abbas likewise hindered the transfer of money and salaries to Dahlan loyalists in Gaza. Although the Palestinian Authority's treasury is tight on cash, Abbas was forced to spend a reported one million dollars to sponsor a group wedding in Gaza which he learned was being financed by Dahlan.
Abbas's decision to take on Dahlan has ruined his relations with the UAE and has raised tensions with Sisi's Egypt. In a recent visit to Cairo, Abbas got a dressing down from Sisi, who reportedly told him to set aside reconciliation with Hamas and focus on reconciling with Dahlan and reinstating him in Fatah, which Abbas turned down, to Sisi's ire.
Recognizing that this was a critical fight, Abbas went after Dahlan on another front – the refugee camps in Lebanon. There too, the charity run by Dahlan's wife was spending money, and Dahlan loyalists constitute a serious faction in camps like Ain al-Helweh. But Lebanon is Hezbollah territory, and the Shiite party has no love lost for Dahlan, whom they regard as a tool of the Israelis and their adversaries in the Gulf. In what was a message to Dahlan, a pro-Hezbollah Palestinian group killed the commander of a faction who had escorted Dahlan's wife when she visited the Mieh Mieh camp to bring aid through her charity organization. The pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar summarized the message explicitly: “Dahlan loyalists are not allowed in the camps.”
Hezbollah and the Palestinian factions in the camps had recently reached an agreement, said to be sponsored by Qatar, to not allow the camps to pose a security threat to the Shiite group. Much as Qatar appears to have played a role in the Abbas-Hamas convergence, it could well expand this role in Lebanon, securing an understanding between Abbas, Hamas, and Hezbollah to contain Dahlan. It is quite possible then that Abbas will turn to Doha to counterbalance his turbulent relations with Dahlan's backers. Sure enough, Abbas is reportedly embarking on an Arab tour to garner support for his agreement with Hamas – starting in Qatar.
All of this does not mean that Abbas will soon reestablish himself in Gaza or allow Hamas to strengthen its position in the West Bank. In fact, it’s obvious since the reconciliation deal sidestepped the critical issue of control over the security services that this is not on either party’s radar. The convergence between Abbas and Hamas, however temporary and limited, is more specific in scope: for Abbas, to fend off Cairo and Abu Dhabi’s bid to install Dahlan at his expense; for Hamas, to get some wiggle room with Egypt.
Commentary following the announcement of the reconciliation wondered whether the Israeli government or US Secretary of State John Kerry was responsible for effectively deep-sixing the peace talks. President Obama even chastised leaders on both sides for lacking the will for the tough decisions required to achieve peace. There's a pronounced tendency on the part of US analysts and diplomats for solipsism, analyzing every move by regional players through the lens of their own priorities. What the Abbas-Hamas tactical convergence – and the backdrop of Arab power politics against which it played out – demonstrates is that regional players are concerned with matters of more fundamental importance for them. The reason the peace talks failed is that Arab politics is the priority, not the peace process.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.