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Mr. Abbas' mission

Our view: Unity between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority need not be the end of peace talks with Israel — but it will require real statesmanship

February 12, 2012

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Signs of movement toward renewed cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have Israeli officials on edge. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organization committed to its destruction and has shunned negotiations. In the wake of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' efforts last fall to sidestep negotiations with Israel and seek United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state, it is easy to see this as another ominous sign for the prospects for peace. But there is another possibility at work. If Mr. Abbas can capitalize on the regional developments in political Islam sparked by the Arab Spring and exert a moderating influence on Hamas' extremism, he could do much more to realize his goals than he ever could have achieved through his end-run to the UN.

On Monday, Mr. Abbas announced an agreement with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal to form a unity government ahead of elections in the West Bank and Gaza. The two rival factions have been at odds since 2006, when Hamas drove Palestinian Authority officials out of Gaza in a brief war following parliamentary elections that year. Since then, Hamas has consolidated its control over Gaza while Mr. Abbas' authority has been limited to the West Bank.

The prospect of a unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas has been greeted hopefully by many Palestinians who believe their movement for statehood has been weakened by the rupture between the two main Palestinian parties. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has denounced Hamas as an Iranian-backed enemy of peace, is warning Mr. Abbas that if the agreement with Hamas goes forward his group can forget about further cooperation with Israel. Mr. Abbas, he says, can either have peace with Israel or unity with Hamas, but not both.

While there's no question Hamas' hostility to Israel remains unrelenting, it's equally clear that Israel can never make peace with the Palestinians so long as they remain forcibly divided between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. If a unified government led, as expected, by Mr. Abbas were to emerge after the elections, the possibility that Hamas would feel compelled by practical politics to moderate its stance toward Israel is probably at least as great as the chance it would radicalize its factional rival.

The Arab Spring has produced signs of similar moderation of political Islam in Egypt, Tunisia and other states where Islamic groups long banned by the authorities have emerged as the most powerful political movements after the collapse of those regimes. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won the most seats in elections that followed the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak, but the group has refused to adopt the social policies of the more extreme Salafist religious block or, so far, to abrogate Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.

Similarly, in Tunisia thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in January to denounce violence committed by ultraconservative Islamist groups after a long-oppressed moderate Islamic party, Ennahda, swept elections last year and formed a government with two secular parties. Since then Ennahda has repeatedly sought to calm fears it would turn the country into an Islamic state.

Mr. Abbas' best hope to achieve his goal of Palestinian statehood is to seek to exert a similar modifying influence over Hamas. His first goal should be to persuade Hamas to remove the provision from its charter that calls for the destruction of Israel. Doing so would put far more pressure on Israel to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians than his stunt at the UN did last fall. Moreover, Israel faces significant regional uncertainty, particularly in light of increased tensions with Iran and the civil war raging in Syria. Now might be a propitious time for it to forge a lasting peace with the Palestinians, thus strengthening its international standing and quelling a threat at home. To take advantage of the situation, Mr. Abbas would have to exercise the kind of statesmanship that has been sadly lacking among the Palestinians for generations. Could he achieve such a thing? It's too early to say, but it is in the best interests of his people and the entire region that he try.