A short report by Palestinian news agency Ma’an was overlooked on Tuesday amid the diplomatic frenzy surrounding an American bid to extend peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians beyond April.
The Palestinian Authority, Ma’an reported, established a “high national committee” tasked with reaching out to Hamas to immediately hold parliamentary and presidential elections. The committee comprises five Palestinians: Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmad; independent businessman Munib Al-Masri; and the leaders of three tiny political factions: Mustafa Barghouti, Bassam Salihi and Jamil Shahada.
If such an agreement with Hamas is reached, the report continued, “the PA will turn to the UN organizations and immediately halt negotiations.”
The inklings of rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas were confirmed by Hamas newspaper Al-Resalah on Wednesday, which reported that the five committee members will visit Gaza on Saturday to discuss the deal. Fatah has not held reconciliation talks with Hamas in months.
On Tuesday, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri could hardly hide his movement’s satisfaction over Abbas’s public bid to join 15 international treaties and organizations.
“The PA’s bid to join the international organizations is a late move. Hamas calls for the adoption of a national strategy to stop negotiations and all attempts to improve negotiating conditions,” Abu Zuhri wrote on his Facebook page.
Abbas’s brazen unilateral overture Tuesday seems to have united Palestinian ranks in a way that eight months of tedious negotiations never have.
Earlier, Abbas had presented two operative demands for extending talks with Israel: the mass release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails (including three leaders) and a complete settlement freeze.
Netanyahu, for his part, had voiced just one demand, an entirely declarative one: Palestinian recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.
Many analysts view Netanyahu’s precondition as a calculated move; part of the blame game that will inevitably erupt when talks fail. “Look,” Netanyahu is already telling both his own public and the international community, “the Palestinians reject the very existence of Israel as we know it.”
But the prime minister’s gambit has fallen flat with many of Israel’s allies. The European Union ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, told journalists in January that Europe cannot comprehend the Israeli demand.
“I don’t think we have any clear position on that because we’re not 100% sure what is meant by this concept of a Jewish state,” Faaborg-Andersen said. If negotiations fail, he continued, “the blame will be put squarely on Israel’s doorstep” for its settlement policy.
Even US Secretary of State John Kerry recently backtracked on the administration’s previous support of the “Jewish Israel” condition. On March 14, he told Congress that the Israeli demand was “a mistake,” and should not be used to impede further talks.
‘The goal of this prime minister is not to cheat,’ said Netanyahu’s recently-retired national security adviser
Domestically, the “Jewish state” demand is no less controversial. President Shimon Peres called it “unnecessary” and Meretz party leader Zahava Gal-On called it “nonsense.” Even Netanyahu’s senior coalition partner, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, told Bloomberg’s Charlie Rose last October that Israel “didn’t need” such recognition.
If Netanyahu believes Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state will win him the public opinion debate, he seems to be in for an unpleasant surprise.
But the Israeli prime minister could have played things differently.
For six years, Fatah and Hamas have unsuccessfully been trying — or, some would say, pretending — to reach political reconciliation following Hamas’s violent takeover over the Gaza Strip in 2007. Israel officially shuns Hamas, which it considers a terror organization, but Palestinian officials admit that any peace agreement with Israel is extremely difficult to envisage without Hamas on board.
If Netanyahu wanted to embarrass Abbas, he could easily ask him to prove Palestinian national commitment to talks with Israel — through elections, referendum or signed agreement — at a time when every indication is that Palestinian consensus strongly favors the talks’ failure.
When confronted with the problem of Hamas’s rejectionism during a meeting with Israeli students in February, Abbas was dismissive. “I received more than one indication from Hamas that they would stand behind me in case of a peace agreement,” he told the students.
But that argument is dubious. Hamas habitually blasts any meeting Abbas holds with Israelis, consistently and unequivocally attacking his willingness to engage Israel in peace talks.
Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s recently-retired national security adviser, told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu did not place Palestinian reconciliation as a precondition for negotiations because he knows it will never happen.
“We could always find excuses not to enter negotiations forever, because it is clear that [reconciliation] will not happen in our generation,” Amidror said. “Israel decided to negotiate over Judea and Samaria knowing that there’s a problem with Gaza.”
Amidror denied that Netanyahu’s vociferous demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state was a cynical ploy to thwart talks.
“The goal of this prime minister is not to cheat. If we wanted to cheat, we would say ‘Guys, bring Hamas to the negotiations and then we’ll talk.’ But that’s not the intention of this prime minister. He wants serious negotiations. Therefore, the conditions he places are meant to enable negotiations, not prevent them,” he said.
It is certainly difficult to imagine Netanyahu trying to sell the Israeli public a peace agreement with a partner whose presidential term lapsed four years ago and who wields no effective control over a third of his population.
One former Israeli negotiator said that while both Palestinian recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and reining in Hamas are crucial for a peace agreement, neither should be presented as preconditions for talks.
“Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is a critical and central issue, and has been so in previous negotiating rounds,” said attorney Gilead Sher, who took part in peace negotiations with Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000, under the premiership of Ehud Barak.
“But in previous rounds it was never a precondition for negotiations. The assumption was that when negotiations reach fruition, reciprocal recognition will take place: Israel will recognize the Palestinian state as the exclusive state of the Palestinian people, and Palestinians will recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people,” he told The Times of Israel.
Sher, who currently heads the Center for Applied Negotiations at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), said that Palestinian negotiators have consistently voiced their willingness to accept Israel as the Jewish state at the end of the process.
“Reciprocity here is very important,” he said. “It will happen prior to the signing of a final status agreement, which is still far off.”
Unlike Amidror, Sher believed that writing off Gaza is a mistake. But an Israeli demand for Palestinian unity as a condition for talks would have a very low chance of succeeding at this time, he said.
“Israel has had very little success in influencing the leadership of our neighbors over our short history,” he told The Times of Israel. “Usually this ended in complete failure.”
It is the Americans who will eventually be expected to incorporate Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the political process. Meanwhile, Sher opined, Israel should “incrementally create a reality of two states for two peoples” through negotiations and even through “limited unilateral steps.”
The PLO is the “formal and exclusive representative” of the Palestinian people, he added. Abbas told Israel that he has a “formally signed agreement” with Hamas to accept any agreement he reaches.
“Gaza is not a different entity, and we shouldn’t consider it as such,” he said. “When we talk to one side of the Palestinian people, it is unacceptable for us to suffer attacks on residential centers in the Negev from the other side. The Americans will have to deal with this issue in the coming months.”