This is good news for Israel, a foreign TV journalist suggested to me on Thursday morning. It has always been a problem that Israel was negotiating with “the moderate” Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas over a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, while Gaza was actually run by the uncompromising Islamists of Hamas. Now, surely, since Wednesday’s “historic” Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal, the reporter posited, Abbas is at the helm of a unified Palestinian hierarchy and the talks can make progress in earnest.
Had the reconciliation deal, reached with such extraordinary speed in Gaza on Wednesday, included clauses specifying a commitment by Hamas to recognize Israel, to renounce terrorism and to respect previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements — thus meeting the Middle East Quartet’s longstanding demands of would-be peace process participants — there might have been some mileage in the “good news for Israel” argument. But the Fatah-Hamas deal specified nothing of the sort. Quite the reverse. When announcing the agreement, Hamas’s Gaza prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, far from expressing an improbable new desire to enter talks with the Zionist enemy, restated his organization’s consistent position that the peace process with Israel does not serve Palestinian strategic interests.
For Hamas to have accepted the international quartet’s conditions, indeed, would have required it to undergo a reversal of its ideology and policy so complete as to render it no longer Hamas. Obviously, that didn’t happen on Wednesday, and nor is it going to happen in the weeks and months ahead. The Palestinian shift we are observing is not one of Hamas undergoing moderation — its interpretation of Islam will never countenance the existence of a Jewish state — but of Abbas’s Fatah willingly submitting itself to the bear hug of the Islamic extremists.
Abbas has proved himself a leader inclined to revel in his weakness. He’s not set out to destroy Israel. He hasn’t sought to foster terrorism against Israel, unlike his unlamented predecessor. But neither has he been prepared to work energetically to create a climate among his people in favor of the compromises necessary for Palestinian statehood alongside, and peace with, Israel. He’s not reined in the toxic anti-Israel orientation of the Palestinian media. He’s not revolutionized the Palestinian education system. He’s hailed evil men and women who have murdered Israelis, extorted their releases from Israel’s jails as his price for consenting to negotiate with Israel, and welcomed them home as heroes. He’s placed the fate of his people in the hands of other regional leaders and organizations such as the Arab League, rather than taking direct responsibility. He’s no Anwar Sadat, no King Hussein.
Six years ago, he chose to pass up prime minister Ehud Olmert’s unprecedented peace offer — Gaza, the West Bank with one-for-one land swaps, a shared Jerusalem. It was everything the Palestinians ostensibly want from Israel, and he spurned it. Today, a very weary 79, he’s facing a far less generous Israeli leader. The prospects of the man who said no to Ehud Olmert reaching terms with Benjamin Netanyahu were always spectacularly slim to nil. As of Wednesday, nil.
Israel could have done more to encourage him. Notably, it could have declaredly halted settlement expansion in areas it does not intend to keep under any conceivable accord. But it’s highly unlikely that this would have made the critical difference. Abbas simply was not willing to tackle the profound anti-Israel sentiment among his people, and was certainly not prepared to risk his own well-being, for the noble, high-risk cause of a negotiated path to statehood.
Wednesday’s superficial unity deal — the new incarnation of an on-off partnership between rival Palestinian factions that thoroughly loathe each other — was Abbas’s latest act of willful weakness. He is escaping the deeply uncomfortable pressure to compromise with Israel and instead embracing a veneer of Palestinian unity. It was also an act that underlined the impotence of the American interlocutors, whose warnings against an alliance with Hamas were blithely ignored.
Terribly, it opens the path to a possible deterioration into more of the violence that blighted all of our lives a decade ago. It likely marks the start of an intensified Palestinian effort to demonize Israel on the world stage, with the international community unlikely to need much persuading that Netanyahu is the architect of all our region’s misfortune.
Good news for Israel? Anything but. Good news for nobody but the extremists.