The announcement that the United States intends to continue working with the new Palestinian unity government may have come as a shock to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet, but Israel might also soon find itself cooperating with the Hamas-backed technocrats who now rule the West Bank and (at least theoretically) Gaza, according to some experts.
Hours after Netanyahu slammed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for saying “yes to terrorism and no to peace” by joining forces with Hamas, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that, “with what we know now, we will work with this government.”
Her statement was surprising given that just a day earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken to Abbas and “expressed concern about Hamas’s role in any such government and the importance that the new government commit to the principles of nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements with it,” according to a different statement from Psaki on Sunday.
Perhaps reassured by Kerry’s words, the Israeli security cabinet on Monday unanimously decided not to engage in negotiations with a government backed by Hamas, authorized Netanyahu to impose additional sanctions on the PA, and said it would “consider ways of action given the new reality that has been created and ahead of diplomatic and security situations that will be created in the future.” The cabinet further said that the PA will be held responsible for rocket attacks from Gaza and that Jerusalem will try to prevent Hamas from running in the next Palestinian elections. (In 2005, Israel vainly tried to ban Hamas from the ballot, but the US insisted the group remain on the lists.)
But, notably, the security cabinet did not announce that Israel was cutting all ties with the new Palestinian government – because it knows that this would be practically impossible.
“Israel will have to talk to this government. Otherwise it would be impossible to work,” said Yossi Beilin, a former leftist Israeli cabinet minister and one of the symbols of the peace camp. “Even if Israel will not officially recognize it, it will practically recognize it. There are so many things we have to do with this government all the time.”
While Israel is the only country threatened by Hamas terrorism, it is also the only country that needs to coordinate with the Palestinian authorities on day-to-day issues such as security cooperation in the West Bank, environmental protection, water, sewage, energy and so on, he said.
“If we’re not recognizing them, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. We need this connection with the government. What’s happening now is that though we don’t recognize Hamas, we do talk to them to coordinate,” Beilin said. In at least two recent cases, the Israeli government did work together with Hamas – when it exchanged 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for captured soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011, and when it negotiated a ceasefire to end Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012.
“It’s better to coordinate with professionals rather than to coordinate with Hamas. It’s so obvious to me; I don’t understand this game” the Netanyahu government is playing, Beilin said.
Benjamin Mollov, who teaches political studies and conflict resolution at Bar-Ilan University, also believes that Israel has an ongoing need to cooperate with the PA, suggesting that “there might well be need for tacit cooperation.”
On the other hand, Mollov said, Israel will be in a predicament if it shows willingness to continue cooperating with the new government, even if it’s done without too much fanfare, since that could undermine the case it has repeatedly made to the international community — that Hamas is a terrorist organization that needs to be totally isolated unless it recognizes the State of Israel, abandons violence and accepts previous agreements with Israel.
“Israel has to engage in a delicate policy of supporting international commitments to oppose the Hamas-Fatah unity government, but at the same time it needs to remain open to the possibility of seeing Fatah pull Hamas in its direction, as opposed to the other way around,” he said.
While many in Israel claim that Abbas’s Fatah faction has essentially become the junior partner of Hamas, Mollov suggested that the opposite is the case: “Hamas might in fact be joining Fatah.”
Looking at the cabinet that was sworn in Monday, it appears that Hamas “definitely plays a minority role” in the new Palestinian government, he said. It is not evident that Hamas will be able to have dominant influence on the government, “although Israel will have to watch carefully [to make sure] that Hamas’s impact on the government’s policies will not become too strong.” Israel will also be able to legitimately demand from Fatah that it assume responsibility for quiet in the Gaza Strip, he said.