In end to latest PA government, a response to Israel’s talks with Hamas?

Ramallah’s maneuver may be a reaction to the unexpected rapprochement between Israel and Gaza’s rulers

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting with the Revolutionary Council of his ruling Fatah party, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 16, 2015. (AFP/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting with the Revolutionary Council of his ruling Fatah party, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 16, 2015. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

Once more, there are reports that the Palestinian unity government in the West Bank has resigned. Once more, there are reports of talks between Israel and Hamas for a long-term ceasefire agreement in Gaza. And it seems that this time, the two matters may be related.

Let us begin with the reports from the West Bank. Palestinian commentators and politicians have been saying for some time that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is considering putting an end to the national unity government established after a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement slightly over a year ago. A close aide to Abbas said Wednesday afternoon that Abbas had accepted the unity government’s resignation and tasked Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah with forming a new one.

Similar “dramatic events” have taken place in the past. Among them was the resignation of Salam Fayyad’s government, which stayed on as a transitional government for almost two years. It is likely that the current incident will be the same or similar. In other words, Abbas will attempt, via the government’s resignation, to convey a message to Hamas that the new cabinet will not even pretend to be a “reconciliation government.” It will not try to help solve Gaza’s problems, as the current government is doing.

A measure of this kind will have almost no practical impact. That is because Hamas itself does not allow Hamdallah’s government to act in the Gaza Strip. And even if the government has truly resigned, with Hamdallah’s reappointment to the premiership, how will the new government’s policies and actions differ from those of its predecessor?

So why is this happening now? It may be an attempt to stem the rising support for Hamas in the West Bank, but it could also be a gesture of helplessness in the face of the talks taking place under the table between Israel and Hamas.

Indirect talks between Israel and Hamas are indeed in progress, with both sides discussing a proposal for a long-term ceasefire. Also on the table is a Qatari-Turkish proposal for a flaoting seaport off the Gaza shore.

It now appears that Hamas is not hiding its desire for a significant agreement with Israel — one that will change Gaza’s economic situation significantly and boost Hamas’s status immeasurably. Israel, at least at present, shows no signs that it intends to accept the proposal. Still, unofficial Israeli figures representing the government in Jerusalem are holding direct talks with senior Hamas officials on other sensitive issues. PA officials are aware of these talks, and are amazed. Officials in Ramallah fear that such an agreement will be an additional blow to Fatah’s status and lead to the further strengthening of Hamas.

The possibility that Israel would agree to such a proposal seemed far-fetched several months after last summer’s war in Gaza. But the PA assesses that Netanyahu’s fear of ramped up international pressure after an agreement is reached between the superpowers and Iran (slated for the end of this month), coupled with a potentially damning UN report on the war, could push Israel to agree to a long-term ceasefire with Hamas. Many years of calm with the Gaza Strip could result from this agreement, together with the additional benefit of reduced pressure from the international community on Israel to reach a peace agreement with the PA.

The quandary in which the PA finds itself does not end there. Neither the PA, nor the residents of the West Bank, want large-scale violent conflict with Israel. The Palestinians want to stabilize their economic situation and improve matters in the West Bank.

Israel is fine with that. The Palestinian street has certainly welcomed the many significant relief measures that Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai announced Tuesday in honor of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Members of the Palestinian leadership like Mordechai. Ramallah officials describe him as being on the ball. But paradoxically, Mordechai’s relief measures also strengthen the status quo that endangers the Palestinian Authority’s future.

The PA is not the only party amazed by the surprising rapprochement between Israel, Hamas, Qatar and Turkey. Egypt, too, which sees the latter three as enemies because of their leadership roles in the Muslim Brotherhood, is having trouble understanding Israel’s policy.

This may be the reason for Egypt’s unexpected decision to open the Rafah border crossing for a week (after it had been closed for three months) and allow thousands of tons of cement into the Gaza Strip without a security inspection (as Yedioth Ahronoth reported Tuesday). Egypt may have done so because of Saudi pressure on Cairo to keep Hamas in the Sunni camp rather than push it into the arms of Iran. But Egypt may also have intended it as a blunt message to Israel: If you talk with Hamas and with our other enemies, we will not act with full force to prevent the smuggling of some materials into Gaza.

So where is all this headed? It is not all that clear. No diplomatic initiative between the PA and Israel seems to be on the horizon. Abbas is not expected to take any dramatic measures, at least not until the superpowers reach a full agreement with Iran at the end of the month. After that, the sky is the limit for him: he could appeal to the Security Council for statehood, reduce security cooperation with Israel, and so on. It seems that he will try, regardless, to embark on a unilateral diplomatic move against Israel after June is over, perhaps to get Israel and Hamas to reach a tahdiya, or temporary calm agreement, more quickly.

In that way, he will be able to portray himself as taking a combative line with Israel, while Hamas will be the terrorist group that agreed to change drastically and cease its fire against “the Zionist enemy.”

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