The Israeli-Palestinian conflict underwent another evolution this week when the Fatah-backed Palestinian National Authority, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, the radical Islamic movement that rules the Gaza Strip, announced they would put aside their differences to make common cause for an independent Palestinian state. Whether the two groups can really end years of mutual enmity and distrust remains to be seen, but the mere fact that they are talking about cooperating again could spell trouble for U.S. diplomacy in the region.
Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have been at each other's throats since 2006, when Hamas won a disputed election in Gaza which the Palestinian Authority refused to recognize. The following year Hamas militants forcibly ejected their rivals from Gaza and took control of the territory; then in 2008, Israel briefly invaded and occupied the strip to prevent militants there from launching rockets across the border at its citizens.
Unlike the Palestinian authority, which accepts the principle of a two-state solution in which Arabs and Israelis live side by side in peace, Hamas has never recognized the legitimacy of Israel and is sworn to its destruction. Israel calls it a terrorist organization and refuses to negotiate with its leaders, while at the same time insisting that any deal it reaches with the Palestinian Authority also be binding on Hamas.
That would be a sufficient recipe for diplomatic disaster even if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hadn't also threatened to break off negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, too, if renewed its ties with Hamas.
Now that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has done just that, the peace process the U.S. and its European allies have been pursuing looks dead in the water. That's especially galling considering that the Hamas-Palestinian Authority rapprochement was facilitated by Egypt, which the U.S. had been counting on to help broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal. In the wake of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's departure from the scene under pressure from pro-democracy demonstrators earlier this year, the country's military transition government apparently decided maintaining credibility among its own citizenry required it to take a tougher line against Israel.
There's no doubt the "Arab spring" that has brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets this year is altering the calculations of governments across the region — including in the West Bank and Gaza, where Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have good reason to worry that the demand for democracy sweeping neighboring countries could soon be directed against them as well. The show of unity they are now trying to present may be aimed as much at forestalling unrest among their own people as at ratcheting up the pressure on Israel.
Still, their very public efforts to make up have vastly complicated the problem of formulating U.S. policy in the region. The U.S. and its allies consider Hamas a terrorist organization, but they may be forced to deal with it if its alliance with the Palestinian Authority sticks. Worse, the U.S. could be forced to use its Security Council veto to block United Nations recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state endorsed by both groups.
Such a move could take place as early as this year, and the U.S. needs to be prepared for it. The fallout from vetoing Palestinian statehood could poison U.S. relations with the Arab world just when its people are looking to us to support their struggle for social justice through democratic reform, and the damage could last for years. Hamas knows that, and it is eager to exploit any opportunity to discredit American influence in the region. It will never be a champion of democracy or justice — it is the antithesis of what the protesters across the Middle East and North Africa have been fighting for — but as long it keeps up the charade of friendship with its erstwhile enemies in the Palestinian Authority, it will be a big headache for U.S. policymakers.