Sunday, 27 April 2014

Israel-Palestine: The End of the Affair

So this is how it was all fated to end – not with a bang, but with a whimper.  No triumphant three-party gathering on the White House lawn, no media coverage of an historic handshake between Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, presided over by a beaming US President Obama, as the infinitely long-running dispute between Israel and the Palestinians was finally resolved. Not even a media conference at which US Secretary of State John Kerry presented the world with a carefully constructed “framework agreement”, under which Israel and Palestine agreed to continue talking beyond the original nine-month deadline.
Nothing like that.  Instead a sudden meeting in the Gaza Strip between Fatah and Hamas, the so-far irreconcilable wings of the Palestinian body politic – a meeting with no prior warning, which takes Washington by surprise – and the announcement of an “historic” reconciliation which is to result in a united Palestinian government within five weeks, and presidential and parliamentary elections within six months.

The inevitable result was an immediate cessation of the peace negotiations. President Abbas “can have peace with Israel,” said Netanyahu in a TV interview on the BBC, “or a pact with Hamas he can't have both. As long as I'm prime minister of Israel, I will never negotiate with a Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas terrorists that are calling for our liquidation."

So the peace talks have come to an abrupt end, less than a week before April 29, when the official nine months allotted to them expires.  The current phase of efforts to reconcile Israel and Palestine is at an end. 

In point of fact, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has always had a straight choice – beat Hamas or join them.  Since the moment in 2007, when Hamas reneged on its pledge to form a united government with Fatah, and instead chased them from the Gaza Strip in a bloody fratricidal coup, the two organizations have been at daggers drawn. 

How could it be otherwise?  Even if the final aims of the two entities are precisely the same – a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea”, in other words the whole of British mandated Palestine – while Fatah has decided that embracing the two-state solution is the best tactic to achieve their ultimate objective, Hamas, utterly rejecting Israel’s right to exist, has committed itself to Israel’s destruction.
So Hamas opposed Abbas’s bid at the United Nations for international recognition of a sovereign Palestine, because the logical corollary of recognizing a sovereign Palestine within the pre-1967 borders would be recognition of Israel beyond them.  Moreover, it has subjected Abbas to seven years of unremitting harassment – indeed, until the recent meeting in Gaza, they refused to recognise him as PA president at all, on the grounds that his presidential mandate, granted in 2005, was for a four-year term which has long expired.  Hamas has, moreover, consistently attempted to undermine his PA administration by forming militant cells within the West Bank aimed at launching attacks on Israel.

The terms of the “historic” reconciliation between the two have not been made public, and it is unlikely that they will see the light of day in their entirety.  Statements from leaders of the PA, including Abbas himself, seem to imply that the inclusion of Hamas in a government of national unity will make no difference to the Palestinians’ aim of achieving a sovereign state based on the two-state solution.
“There is no incompatibility,” Abbas is quoted as saying, “between reconciliation and the talks”. But this can scarcely be correct.  Putting the two together is like mixing chalk and cheese.  Hamas’s visceral opposition to the very existence of Israel is a basic tenet of its founding philosophy, and jihad against Jews in general, and Israel in particular, is basic to its existence. 

So it is legitimate to wonder how the three principles for Israel-Palestine peace, outlined by the Middle East Quartet (the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia), would be met by a Palestinian government including Hamas.  These are: recognizing the State of Israel, without prejudging what various grievances or claims are appropriate; abiding by previous diplomatic agreements; and renouncing violence as a means of achieving goals.

“The government reports to me,” says Abbas, “and follows my policies. I recognize Israel and so will the government. I renounce violence and terrorism, and I recognize international legitimacy, and so will the government.”

Hamas would have to turn somersaults to adhere to these requirements.  Is it prepared to do so?  And can the “reconciliation” stick?

Past numerous attempts to paper over the gaping differences between Hamas and Fatah have failed again and again.  Admittedly Hamas has been considerably weakened by recent reverses suffered by the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East, but it seems inconceivable that it would sit round a cabinet table, with Abbas at its head, and agree to discuss how a sovereign Palestine might live side by side with an Israel finally recognized as a permanent presence in the region.

Perhaps Hamas is hoping that, out of the promised elections envisaged for the whole of the Palestinian territories including Gaza, it will emerge much strengthened a not unlikely scenario.  It will then have achieved, by democratic means, the control over the West Bank that it has been seeking since 2007.  Moreover, Abbas is in his 80th year; he cannot go on forever.  With increased political power, Hamas might be able to ensure a new president more to its liking.  The result would be a renewal of terrorist activity, probably much heightened, on the Palestinian side rockets emanating not only from Gaza, but from the West Bank and increased efforts to contain it on the Israeli.  In short, further limitless conflict.

Meanwhile, for the next six months while elections are being prepared, Abbas might be able to maintain control of his new administration.  Despite his declared wish to continue the peace talks, the conditions he is imposing to do so, together with the fact that Hamas will be included in his administration, make the prospect of Israel agreeing virtually non-existent. 

Much more likely is a renewed diplomatic intifada by the PA an attempt to gain recognition for Palestine by the United Nations as a virtual sovereign state, and admittance to a much wider range of United Nations organizations than the fifteen Abbas recently applied to.  Increased efforts to delegitimize and isolate Israel through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are not unlikely, as are moves to indict Israel or Israeli officials through the International Court of Justice.

 It is now apparent that US Secretary of State  John Kerry, Tzipi Livni for Israel and Saeb Erekat for the Palestinians  the prime movers in this latest effort to bring peace to this troubled region have spent the best part of nine months constructing a house of cards which has collapsed around them.  If peace is ever to be achieved, a different, more robust, edifice must be devised an edifice constructed on deep, strong foundations.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 30 April 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 27 April 2014:

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