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Biden's victory spells doom for Palestinian unity talks

Mahmoud Abbas to shelve Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and slated elections, expecting pressure on the PA to be relieved with Trump's exit
Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, attends by video conference a meeting with deputy Hamas chief Saleh Arouri (on-screen from Beirut) in July (AFP)
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Gaza City, Gaza Strip

A presidential decree necessary to call Palestinian elections will not be issued by Mahmoud Abbas any time soon, the Palestine president has told close associates, with Joe Biden's victory in the US changing the political equation for Fatah.

Fatah and leftist sources close to the Palestinian presidency told Middle East Eye that Abbas currently prefers to postpone reconciliation steps with Hamas, and to wait for Biden's approach to the Palestinian cause to become clear.

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Under pressure from a heavily pro-Israel Trump administration, Abbas's Fatah movement, which dominates the Palestinian Authority, had begun holding reconciliation talks with rival Hamas and promising the first elections in the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip since 2006.

According to a Fatah source familiar with the dialogues with Hamas, Abbas told his close associates: "The dialogue with Hamas will be postponed and let us see Biden's positions."

The source said Abbas was "very happy" as he was updated with Biden's progress as votes were counted in the United States last week. Abbas's relationship with Trump was the worst of any president in the White House since he assumed leadership of the PA in 2005.

In May, Abbas decided to dissolve all agreements with Israel and the United States in response to the former's plan to annex parts of the West Bank, though the relationship had begun to deteriorate previously following Trump's 2017 decision to transfer the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

A Palestinian source also familiar with developments confirmed to MEE that Abbas "will not take any new steps with Hamas, lest they affect the return of the relationship with the new American administration".

Waning optimism

Relations between Fatah and Hamas have been at a nadir since elections sparked clashes in the Gaza Strip and prompted the latter to take control of the coastal enclave.

Yet an atmosphere of optimism spread after a meeting between the factions' secretaries-general in Beirut on 3 September, followed by bilateral talks between Fatah and Hamas that month in Istanbul. Statements from both sides have half-heartedly touted "the flame of reconciliation".

Hamas leaders and observers believe Abbas and Fatah's approach to reconciliation was "tactical," not stemming from "firm convictions," and was made in anger at Trump's policies and the wave of Arab states' normalisation deals with Israel.

Fatah, for its part, has publicly denied any link between the stalling of reconciliation and Biden's victory in the US presidency.

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Instead, it puts the onus on Hamas, and demands formal approval of the "Istanbul Understandings" reached in Turkey, which include holding legislative, presidential and Palestine Liberation Organisation National Council elections in sequence.

In statements to the Palestinian state TV, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, Rawhi Fattouh, said: "The ball is now in Hamas's court, and they must fulfil what we agreed upon.

"Hope remains, and the dialogue has not been interrupted... an hour after the arrival of the letter [from Hamas formally approving the understandings], the president will issue the election decree."

However, he added: "In my estimation, the idea of reconciliation has not matured among some, unfortunately, among the leaders of Hamas, especially in Gaza."

The deputy head of the political bureau of Hamas, Saleh al-Arouri, insisted the movement was committed to the Istanbul Understandings. "We do not back down from them, and build on them," he said in a statement.

But this statement of commitment is not sufficient for Fatah, Abdullah Abdullah, a member of the movement's revolutionary council, told MEE.

"If Hamas is committed to what we agree to, then why did it not respond to our repeated letters to it, the last of which was about two weeks ago, by sending a written and official approval?"

'Fatah fears that Hamas will compete with the leadership, and now it wants to acknowledge that there is another "pillar" equal to it'

- Khaled Meshaal, former Hamas political chief

Abdullah rejected any attempt to link internal reconciliation with external changes such as Biden's victory, and accused Hamas of "delaying and launching illogical explanations to evade responsibility".

"The truth is that Hamas has retreated from the understandings and added new requirements, most notably the rejection of successive elections and adherence to synchronisation, in addition to its return to old demands for a quota of 30 to 35 percent of the National Council seats."

Abdullah noted that Hamas has not publicly declared its desire to avoid successive elections or secure a quota of National Council seats.

However, former Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal alluded to something of that nature in a Zoom meeting organised by the Palestinian Center for Policy Research (Masarat) on Sunday, by talking about obstacles to reconciliation and partnership.

"Fatah fears that Hamas will compete with the leadership, and now it wants to acknowledge that there is another 'pillar' equal to it and has public weight, on which the political and national partnership must be based, along with other pillars from the rest of the factions," he said.

Biden a 'new obstacle'

Yusef Rizqa, Hamas leader and a former minister, told MEE Hamas has made no such demands for the National Council, but rather called for consensus.

He did, however, ask: "What is the obstacle to the two movements being equal and that one of them does not prejudice the other?"

In light of the changes associated with Biden's victory, Rizqa excludes the possibility of any meaningful talk of reconciliation until "at least a year from now".

"Abbas will not issue the election decree, and his recent approach to Hamas was tactical, due to the political and financial pressures under Trump. Its aim was to send messages to non-Palestinian parties, and not out of conviction of reconciliation and national unity," he said.

'Abbas does not want to go to the White House burdened with Hamas, which is classified by America and Europe as a terrorist organisation'

 - Yusef Rizqa, Hamas ex-minister

"Abbas does not want to go to the White House burdened with Hamas, which is classified by America and Europe as a terrorist organisation."

According to Rizqa, Abbas is aware that the requirements for returning to positive relations with Washington and reversing Trump's damage is to shelve reconciliation with Hamas, "or at least neglect it".

Wajih Abu Zarifa, a writer specialising in American affairs, said that "betting on Biden will be a big mistake," believing the new administration will not deviate from traditional American policies, despite being better than Trump, who tore up the two-state solution and severed funds for UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

"The Biden administration may exert pressure to prevent Hamas from being part of the Palestinian political system," he said.

Overall, Biden's victory is seen by Gaza political analyst Hani Habib as a "new obstacle" to the path of reconciliation, despite his conviction that "there was no real chance to restore national unity" in the first place.

"Even without Biden winning, Palestinians on both sides of the division have no real and sincere will to move forward in achieving national reconciliation, as there are influential parties who benefit from the existing reality," Habib told MEE.