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Friday, April 29, 2011

Israel puts itself in a corner by jumping the gun on Palestinian reconciliation


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas center to choose between Israel and Hamas.(Illustration by Ahmed Estaitia)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas center to choose between Israel and Hamas.(Illustration by Ahmed Estaitia) 

By JAMES M. DORSEY 
SPECIAL TO AL ARABIYA

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick this week to reject Palestinian reconciliation and warn that Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas would have to choose between Israel and Hamas. In doing so, Mr. Netanyahu was banking with good reason on the Obama administration backing his refusal to deal with Hamas, denounced by both the United States and Israel as a terrorist organization. 

At first glance, Mr. Netanyahu’s immediate instinctive response is hardly surprising or unreasonable. Israel has long been able to rely on the support of the United States and Europe in its position toward Hamas. A closer look at the changing world Israel lives in begs however the question whether Mr. Netanyahu would not have served Israel’s interests better by holding his horses and packaging Israel’s refusal in a way that would have put the ball back in the Palestinian court.

Mr. Netanyahu certainly had sufficient time to consider his options. He may have been surprised by the timing of the reconciliation but hardly by its terms that have been on the table throughout the torturous negotiations between the rival factions. 

It took mass anti-government protests that have already changed the political map of the Middle East and North Africa and toppled the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt–a key pillar of Israeli policy–to persuade Palestinian rivals Fatah and Hamas to bury their differences and agree on the formation of an interim national unity government and integration of their separate security forces. 

Neither Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas nor Hamas leaders Khaled Meshal and Ismail Haniyeh were in a position to further ignore public demands to end their debilitating feud. 

Palestinian leaders have so far not been confronted by the kind of protests that toppled the Egyptian and Tunisian Presidents and have turned Syria, Libya and Yemen into battlegrounds in which embattled leaders are fighting for their survival. But recent opinion polls show that the popularity of Mr. Abbas and Mr. Haniyeh competes with those of troubled leaders elsewhere in the region. The Jerusalem Media and Communications Center reports that only 17.9 percent of Palestinian back Mr. Abbas and a mere 11.4 percent Mr. Haniyeh.

The Egyptian-mediated reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas lays out a transition toward Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections in a year from now. A lot can happen in that year that could work in Israel’s favor. Mr. Netanyahu has little to gain by slamming the door shut on day one at a time that whoever he deals with in the Arab world will be more attentive to public opinion than almost ever before and in which growing international criticism of Israeli policies that was beginning to hit home before the anti-government protests erupted in December is certain to rebound.

Moreover, Mr. Netanyahu’s categorical refusal to deal with any entity that incorporates Hamas is hardly likely to sway Palestinian public opinion that has no hope that his government will engage in serious peace negotiations with whoever leads the Palestinians.

The reconciliation agreement raises more questions than it provides answers. For one, it remains unclear who will emerge as Fatah’s presidential candidate. Mr. Abbas has repeatedly said that he will not run for another term, but could change his mind as he has done in the past. 

Hamas for its part has put some of its credibility on the line by agreeing to bury the hatchet. It is under pressure to repeat its electoral success in 2006. A return to armed struggle and positioning itself as a major obstacle to peace is unlikely to earn it brownie points. 

While Hamas will certainly not want Palestinians to return to the negotiating table prior to the elections, it will seek ways to show that it is a more effective Palestinian representative in contacts with Israel. One way for it to do so would be to finally engineer the release of Israeli soldier Gilat Shalit, who it has been holding for the past five years, in exchange for a large number of Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

By holding his horses and leaving his options open, Mr. Netanyahu would have curried favor with his international critics and subtly played to an Arab world where Palestine may be on the backburner in the fight to topple authoritarian leaders but bounces immediately back as evidenced in the cases of Egypt and Tunisia once a new leadership, even if it is only an interim one, comes to office. 

That is all the more likely to be the case if the Egyptian mediation of the Fatah-Hamas agreement constitutes the first step of Arab recognition of a Palestinian state. Latin American nations were last year the first to buy into Mr. Abbas’ strategy of turning up the pressure on Israel by achieving international endorsement of Palestinian independence. Arab recognition would almost certainly be followed by United Nations endorsement against the wishes of the United States and Israel.

A degree of restraint would also have put Israel a position in which it would have benefitted from issues Palestinians are certain to confront as they try to make the reconciliation work. Palestinians concede privately that a series of recent incidents, including the killing of a Jewish family in the Israeli settlement of Itamar, a bomb explosion in Jerusalem and the murder of an Israeli by a Palestinian policeman signal Mr. Abbas’s problems in maintaining control. 

Those problems could be magnified once Fatah and Hamas integrate their security forces.

The potential benefits of restraint and putting a more positive spin on Israeli policy without fundamentally altering it in a bid to at least dampen Arab public hostility towards Israel are further evident for example in the fact that Syrian opposition figures accuse Syrian forces of employing greater brutality in their suppression of protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad than Israel does in its repression of the Palestinians. The imam of the Al-Omari Mosque in Deraa, where the protests first erupted, is reported to have called on protesters to demonstrate their summud–steadfastness, the term Palestinians use to describe their resistance to Israel–when the Syrian military’s Fourth Division commanded by Mr. Al-Assad’s ruthless brother, Maher al-Assad entered the town earlier this week.

All in all, reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas if handled deftly by the two parties will inevitably strengthen Palestinian efforts to achieve statehood. Statehood is a train that has already left the station and is gaining speed on the back of the Arab world’s anti-government protests. 

Mr. Netanyahu would best serve Israel’s interests and complicate Hamas position by getting in front of the train rather than trailing it.

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