Thursday’s cabinet decision to halt negotiations with the Palestinian Authority could well go down in history as one of the Benjamin Netanyahu government’s most counterproductive steps.
No new Palestinian government has been established, and there is considerable doubt that one will be. The new Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement has not yet begun to be implemented. Yet Netanyahu and his senior ministers rushed to castigate PA President Mahmoud Abbas for attempting to close the divide between Hamas and Fatah, between Gaza and the West Bank.
The very Israeli leaders who have relentlessly complained that it is impossible to reach an agreement with Abbas because he does not control Gaza seemed deeply troubled that this problem was about to be addressed. So speedy and bitter was their response, indeed, that one might suspect they wished to evade a continuation of negotiations. Or, to put it another way, that they saw an opportunity to save the Netanyahu coalition from collapse.
It would appear that a major factor here was concern that dramatic progress in the peace negotiations would lead to early elections or to Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party bolting the coalition. But if the decision to suspend the talks and impose sanctions on the PA stemmed from that concern, then the problem is that this move does not serve the interests of the State of Israel.
Continued negotiations, even if they lead nowhere, clearly serve Israel’s interest in maintaining relative calm in the territories. At this particular juncture, where almost every day sees clashes on the Temple Mount and new tensions in the West Bank, Thursday’s cabinet decision will do anything but bring calm.
Hawkish ministers might argue that Abbas, in partnering with the Islamist terrorists of Hamas, left them no choice. Indeed, Abbas is reconciling with a terror organization. But one must be realistic: Israel also sees Hamas as a kind of partner in preserving relative calm in Gaza. However surprising this may sound, it is an argument also made by the heads of Israel’s security establishment. IDF commanders speak openly of the Hamas government as representing an Israeli security interest, in part because it currently demonstrates a desire to preserve calm with Israel, even if there are no guarantees for how long.
Furthermore, all Israelis who say they support a two-state solution, including Netanyahu, understand that such a solution requires an end to the division between Gaza and the West Bank, otherwise no agreement is realistic.
But the gravest aspect of the cabinet’s response is that it ignores the content of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement. It is actually a good agreement — for Abbas, and for the State of Israel. It is an agreement that, if implemented — and again, the chances of implementation are very low — would be bad for Hamas. The significance of the agreement is that Hamas gives up control of Gaza in favor of a government of technocrats, experts, without a single Hamas man among them.
According to Abbas and the Fatah leadership, this government will adopt all the conditions that Israel has pressed for years, the Quartet’s conditions: recognition of Israel, acceptance of previous agreements and the rejection of violence of any kind.
It could finally be happening — the establishment of a single Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza, which recognizes Israel and previous agreements with Israel, seeks democratic elections in the territories, acts against terrorism, and contains no Hamas or Fatah representatives. A less excitable Israeli government, less hasty, might thank Abbas. The Netanyahu government announced the cessation of negotiations with him.