Nine months of talks between the Palestinians and Israel ended Tuesday night with a whimper. No peace agreement or emotional ceremonies, no explosions or intifadas. The talks simply ended.
On the Palestinian side, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave a special address on Palestinian television, in which he laid out his conditions for a renewal of the talks: the release of the fourth batch of veteran security prisoners; a complete settlement freeze; and negotiations for three months, in which the borders of two states — Israel and Palestine — will be established.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not give a similar talk.
The official end of the negotiations was overshadowed in Israel by reports from the sentencing proceedings for ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert, and a soccer match between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Though on the field the game was one-sided (in Madrid’s favor, for anyone who missed it), Ronaldo and company still looked infinitely more interesting than another report about the fruitless peace effort.
A senior American official, who was asked four months ago why the US chose a nine-month window for the talks, replied only half-jokingly that, like pregnancy, the negotiations might bear a peace agreement.
Taking the analogy forward, then, this pregnancy ended in an abortion.
‘What happens after nine months? What is your Plan B?’
But one still cannot reach conclusions that are too far reaching, at least not at this stage. Both sides share an interest in maintaining the quiet, in continuing to sit down for talks even If they don’t bring about a dramatic resolution, in order to maintain the appearance of contact between the sides.
The same American official was asked during the conversation, “What happens after nine months?” What is your Plan B?
He declined to answer, but it seemed as if he’d been asked the question dozens of times before. It is likely that the US administration has a contingency plan for the day after. But it’s hard to say what that plan is.
Maybe the US will present both sides with the fabled “Obama outlines” and see which side will dare turn down the American president.
Or maybe Washington will let both sides stew in their own juices: Let Israel deal alone with the international criticism and maybe even with an escalation on the ground; and cut aid to the Palestinians.
Abbas, himself, dealt with this question when he met with Israeli journalists 10 days ago. This was before the reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas was announced, and the talks hadn’t yet blown up.
“What will happen the day after April 29?” he was asked. Abbas said that nothing out of the ordinary would occur. He even hinted that talks would go on through unofficial channels. He also emphasized that security cooperation between the sides would continue.
It is possible that this will be all the opening that is needed for secret talks.
If the security coordination is handled through secret and semi-secret channels, if Central Command chief Nitzan Alon and Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Yoav Mordechai can visit Ramallah openly, is it not possible that representatives of the two sides would meet to discuss what needs to be done in order to reach a breakthrough in negotiations?
The candidates for such talks already exist: Yitzhak Molcho, the prime minister’s tireless emissary, and Majid Faraj, head of the Palestinian general intelligence service. The two aren’t inclined to talk much to the press, to say the least, refraining from interviews and declarations and understanding the importance of the political chain of command.
But it doesn’t depend on them. In the end, Netanyahu and Abbas know that there will be a price for a political breakthrough and neither seems eager to pay it. Netanyahu is not keen to break apart his coalition, and Abbas doesn’t believe in Netanyahu.
After Fatah and Hamas signed their unity deal late last month, Abbas attempted to calm jittery Israelis via a speech to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council last Saturday.
“This is a government with me at the head,” said Abbas about the technocratic government that is scheduled to take power within five weeks. “I recognize Israel and it will recognize Israel. I reject violence and terror and so will it, and recognize the signed agreements and their legitimacy, and the government will as well.”
But then he discovered that in Israel in 2014, no one wants to hear or listen to him. A statement went out from Netanyahu’s office after the talk, claiming that “Abbas verified the killing of the peace process.” In the Prime Minister’s Office, it seems, they don’t let facts, or in this case warnings, confuse them.
The next day, the PA president published a statement saying that the Holocaust is the gravest crime in human history. And again Netanyahu responded with a fitting Zionist response — in joining up with Hamas, Abbas had reconciled with Holocaust deniers.
But despite Israeli and American worries, the Palestinian unity agreement represents for Abbas an important victory against Hamas, albeit a temporary one, and he won’t give it up quickly. Hamas basically agreed to accept all of Abbas’s demands, at least on the big issues.
The devil is in the details
“A-sitan bi-tfasil.” This is the saying repeated again and again by Fatah officials recently as they talked about the possibility of completing the reconciliation process.
“The devil is in the details,” it means. The path to creating a unity government made of technocrats is not an easy one, and the path to general elections for parliament and the presidency is even longer and more complicated.
On the former issue, what will happen to the 20,000 members of Hamas’s security forces? They are all armed; some are simple policemen, others are intelligence operatives, and almost 1,000 of them are responsible for preventing rocket fire into Israel. Who will pay their salaries? Will they continue to take orders from Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, or will they listen, from now on, to Abbas’s commands?
On Tuesday, Mahmoud a-Zahar, one of the heads of Hamas in Gaza, said in an interview with the Egyptian newspaper al-Youm a-Saba that no armed man in Gaza will be under Abbas’s command.
‘And if this government is established, we still have the minor issue of elections. How exactly will elections be run in the West Bank?’
A-Zahar no longer enjoys the status he had in the past in Hamas, but his statement could still complicate ties with Fatah. If it’s true that “not one armed man” will listen to Abbas’s instructions, it means the reconciliation deal is worthless.
A-Zahar wasn’t talking about Hamas’s armed wing, as both sides understand it will not give up its weapons to the PA. Instead, he was referring to “every armed man,” meaning even the civilian police.
Another problem is the fate of the clerks in the Hamas government, another 20,000 to 30,000 people who, until now, have received their paycheck from Hamas. Abbas doesn’t have the resources to pay the salaries of another 40,000-50,000 members of the security forces and government clerks, not to mention the 160,000 clerks he already pays.
There will also be tensions over laws the Hamas government in Gaza has passed in recent years, especially those with religious overtones: a law against women moving around alone in places like the beach; a ban on Ronaldo-like haircuts for young men; a law forbidding women from riding on motorcycles; and so on. Will the government under Abbas agree to uphold these rules?
And if this government is established, we still have the minor issue of elections. How exactly will elections be run in the West Bank? Many Hamas leaders are in Israeli jails, and Israeli security forces are limiting the movements of those outside the prison walls.
A more pressing question is where exactly the elections will be held. Abbas and Hamas will demand that they be held in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. But Israel will not allow elections in East Jerusalem in which Hamas takes part.
In a case like this, Abbas and Hamas might well cancel the elections. And this might by the thing that lets Abbas slink away from a vote while still saving face. His demand for elections with only the weak and factional Fatah organization behind him was a complex gamble.
There is precedent for some of this. In late 2005 and early 2006, Israel — initially under Ariel Sharon and after that under Ehud Olmert — almost agreed to cooperate with the PA’s political elections.
But senior Fatah officials feared that the vote would lead to losses against Hamas, and therefore came to understandings with Israel that Jerusalem would announce that it was not ready to hold elections in East Jerusalem.
The ruse failed then, and Hamas went on to give Fatah a resounding defeat at the polls. Should Abbas try again, he may pull it off.
But with a unity government still not a done deal, these speculations are early at best. It isn’t even certain that Hamas and Fatah will succeed in establishing a unity government.